White, men: The internet’s ‘hidden crisis’

Wikipedia recognises that it is not an accurate representation of the world and has begun awareness campaigns on gender diversity and content diversity. Picture: iStock
Wikipedia recognises that it is not an accurate representation of the world and has begun awareness campaigns on gender diversity and content diversity. Picture: iStock

The online, public encyclopedia that is Wikipedia is dominated by white, male individuals who mainly hail from North America and Europe.

But the South African chapter of the organisation is on a mission: to decolonise online content.

Wikipedia found that about 20% of people in the world edit 80% of Wikipedia’s global content.

It found that the internet is largely produced by western, white males, who are a minority demographic.

Dumisani Ndubane, a monitoring and evaluation strategist at the Wikimedia Foundation, calls this a “hidden crisis”.

“This introduces systemic bias ... because the minority writes about the majority there is a bias,” said Ndubane.

He said online content definitely didn’t reflect South Africa’s reality.

Ndubane came across Wikipedia in 2008 and started editing Xitsonga pages because he found a lack of content on indigenous languages and topics.

He said there were 560 Xitsonga Wikipedia pages – 400 of which were added by him. This was compared with about five million English pages.

“I really try to gather as much information as I can about my people,” he said.

In the Wikipedia pages he creates and edits, Ndubane covers Xitsonga genealogy and history.

But he said he often faced challenges relating to referencing when attempting to add content about this indigenous knowledge.

He said the referencing requirement made it very difficult because “most of our languages are through word of mouth”.

In 2015 Wikipedia conducted an online survey on South African-based editors. The survey revealed that 85% of those who responded identified as male and 40% spoke English as a first language.

Three years later Wikipedia sits with the same problem of an over-representation of white male editors.

“Reproduction of online knowledge is not representative of inequalities of our world and it can, in many ways, amplify and deepen them,” said Ndubane.

As the fifth most visited website in the world, Wikipedia is not the only one with this problem.

Ndubane recalls the Twitter debate around the “squatter camp South Africa” search.

When the search terms “squatter camp South Africa” were entered into a Google search bar, the results revealed an overwhelming number of white people as opposed to the search for “informal settlement South Africa”, which was more representative of the reality.

He said Wikipedia recognised that it was not an accurate representation of the world and had begun awareness campaigns on gender diversity and content diversity, and had called for public discussion.

Apart from this, Wikipedia South Africa encouraged more people to edit pages as volunteers.

“We are always looking for volunteers to edit [Wikipedia pages],” said Ndubane.

He estimated about 200 people edit Wikipedia pages in South Africa but did not have specific figures.

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