Sunday, April 23, 2006

Liberal Bias at Wikipedia?

Does Wikipedia, the online community encyclopedia that anyone can edit, have a liberal political bias? Over at PBS's MediaShift blog, Mark Glaser hosts a fascinating debate on the subject between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Olbermann Watch blogger Robert Cox.

The discussion revolves around Cox's attempts to edit Wikipedia's entry on MSNBC host Keith Olbermann to make it more politically neutral (a stated goal of the site) and to include facts that were left out. Cox contends that his changes were continually discarded by fans of Olbermann who monitor the article, seeking to ensure that it reflects their liberal views, something he believes has happened to Wikipedia articles about partial-birth abortion, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

After going back and forth in an editing war, Cox was ultimately banned from changing the Olberman entry for 24 hours. Wales claims Cox was not treated unfairly and pointed out that he once again has the ability to edit the page. He next goes on to explain some of the safeguards that Wikipedia places on articles on controversial subjects. Cox, in turn, wonders about how practical the community encyclopedia can be as a reference, especially since Wales and others freely admit that Wikipedia's English membership is "slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average" given that many people in countries politically further to the left of this one also speak English.

Unresolved in the debate: Can objectivity or neutrality even be possible in a world where political differences can be enormous? Is there more than one standard for objectivity? Can articles that any person is able to edit be reliable?

Unasked questions: If political neutrality is impossible, wouldn't it be better for aggrieved people (for any reason) to start up their own community encyclopedias? How can Wikipedia stop a group of determined individuals who monitor an article with the intent of skewing it to fit their opinions?