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The Politics of Editing Wikipedia

The final speaker in this session at ECPR 2011 is Thomas Roessing, who focusses on Wikipedia. His interest is in the politics of Wikipedia’s community of participants, which engages both at a meta level (on Wikipedia as such) and the discussion level (discussing the content of individual articles). Those two levels also interact, of course, and also influence the level of the articles themselves. Researchers can examine these processes by studying the records of online discussion for each article, which Wikipedia also keeps.

Wikipedia has its internal politics, of course, which are sometimes hotly debated (at the meta level); the personal politics of its members are also reflected during editing disputes (at both meta and discussion levels); and at the article level Wikipedia also covers politics and politicians, of course.

Strong points of political contention in the German Wikipedia exist around politics (especially at its extreme ends), sexuality and religion, homoeopathy, and climate change. Thomas has examined these debates through studying instrumental and non-instrumental edits of specific articles – where instrumental editing means biased edits favouring one or the other side of a debate. There is much work to be done here, given the significant amount of articles even on fairly specialist topics. This is also interesting from a more systemic perspective, given the use of Wikipedia by journalists and other influential public figures.

Discussion processes on Wikipedia can be examined especially using the ‘spiral of silence’ approach: does strong support for a specific point of contention effectively silence those who would argue against it, thereby further strengthening that support and contributing to the silence of opponents?