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It's time we look past Women in Red to counter systemic bias: Can Wikipedia mobilize the same energy to fill other gaps in coverage?

Indy beetle has been a Wikipedia contributor since 2016. His main focus is on content related to history, politics, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Imageworld-artphp3.png
Map of the worldwide distribution of geotagged Wikipedia entries, circa 2006. Wikipedia is still lacking in proper coverage of many regions outside of the West.

Anyone who has been staying informed on the Wikipedia community's affairs by now surely heard of it: our problem of systemic bias. Special attention is often given to the gender gap in our content and the diverging proportion of female and male contributors. In fact, it would seem that is all the people hear about – or that the media cares about. Leafing through Google News results, one can find countless articles on our gender bias issues and the many, many edit-a-thons and other methods meant to alleviate them:

Most of these news articles open with the citation of the infamously unimpressive percentage of women contributors on the site or the proportions of women biography or women's issues articles to their counterparts. Recent Wikidata statistics suggest that the gender gap remains a wide gulf to cross. There is still work to be done in this area. Between Women in Red and the Art+Feminism campaign an impressive amount of energy and effort has been directed at the issue, and no doubt it would benefit the encyclopedia for the work to continue full steam ahead.

But what about our geographical biases? They aren't given anywhere near the same attention as the gender gap—and the effect they have on our image can be just as glaring. This leads to us to doing things as embarrassing as inventing a Congolese prime minister and forgetting about it while the falsehood circulates through other language Wikipedias ([1][2][3][4]). Note that there are articles on American municipal officials that are longer than those on 14-year Burkinabé presidents, and pieces on popular Western TV episodes that are more developed than a highly influential political ideology of the 1960s.

Many African WikiProjects have no Featured Articles and at most only a handful of Good Articles to their name:

The same problem exists for some of our Asian areas:

A few countries from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean also suffer:

Many of these WikiProjects are all but abandoned. WikiProject Africa, which is responsible for managing all content related to a continent home to 1.2 billion people, nominally has 179 members. An appeal to discuss the project's direction in February garnered responses from only three users. Its "Open tasks" sections hasn't been updated in four years. This project and its contemporaries may be tagged "Relevant for Countering systemic bias", but – being reduced to little more than organizational tools – they seem mostly irrelevant for seriously combating gaps in coverage. The last major push to improve Africa content was the 2016 Destubathon, which successfully brought expansions to over 2,000 articles. These additions formed the basis for The 10,000 Challenge, "aiming to reach 10,000 article improvements for Africa long term from a series of regional contests and general independent article contribution." Improvements are still listed once or twice a week, but momentum has noticeably slowed and followup contests were never organized.

Covering all topics duly and comprehensively is key to maintaining the encyclopedia's academic integrity. But it is quite clear that a mere commitment to academic integrity will not energize enough people to fill these gaps. While Wikipedia isn't supposed to be the place to right great wrongs, it is undeniable that the popular appeal of Women in Red and the Art+Feminism edit-a-thons is derived from a sense of establishing social justice. Contributors, particularly our newest female members, are galvanized to create content not because of some lofty goal to bring open knowledge together under one umbrella project in an equally weighted manner across subject matter, but because they feel like they are lifting up a marginalized group onto one of the most popular modern platforms. Maybe it's sacrificing principle for expediency, but perhaps by linking our geographical biases to a greater social cause, more users can be encouraged to correct them.

A key component of that method is that most of the users who "advocate" do it for themselves. That is, women like writing about women. Men like writing about men and Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Australians like writing about America, Canada, Britain, and Australia; that's the most common hypothesis for how Wikipedia ended up with systemic bias in the first place. So, if increased recruitment of women editors is addressing the content gender gap, will getting more African, Asian, and Latin American members alleviate geographical bias? Put simply, yes. Wikipedia is already seeing a rise in articles on Indian, Nigerian, and Zambian topics from editors in those countries. It's a functional strategy, but it does mean that the community must – as it should always – be prepared to offer assistance and guidance to new members, including having the patience to negotiate language barriers and cultural divides.

But it is not enough to simply wait and hope that others will come to pick up the slack. There may be no deadline, but the longer the community waits the longer the gap areas will languish. All editors should try and go a little outside their comfort zone. Like politics? Try the history of labor unions in Burkina Faso's public affairs. Interested in music? Perhaps Congolese rumba will pique your interests. Fancy yourself a geographer? Check out the mountains and glaciers of Central Asia. A little broadening might just be enough to get people to put their feet in the door that opens into a great new realm of possibilities. Let's show the world that we are tackling our deficiencies on all fronts.