How an Army of Bots is Fueling a Digital Divide on Wikipedia

A combination of bots and geographic limitations may be hampering the crowdsourced editing system often considered Wikipedia's strength.


Wikipedia is the go-to website for settling arguments about the speed of a cheetah or the capital of Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, a combination of bots and certain geographic limitations may be hampering the crowdsourced editing system often considered Wikipedia’s strength.

According to an Oxford University paper, many nations around the world, particularly those in Africa and the Middle East, suffer under representation on Wikipedia largely due to a poor Internet infrastructure.

The paper makes note that the location of the site’s users and editors is tied to more wealthy, Western countries, which can lead to the histories and cultures of nations being written by outsiders. “[I]t remains that the encyclopedia is characterized by uneven and clustered geographies,” the paper says.

Broadband access isn’t the only problem. According to the paper, other factors such as “Social, economic, political, regulatory and infrastructure” drove down engagement in North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America. The worry is that this digital divide could turn Wikipedia into a Western-led knowledge source, despite its multitude of language translations.

The paper also indicates that Wikipedia’s bot army could bear some of the blame. A great deal of the grunt work on the site is done by bots — they create basic pages about towns, they format links correctly and they check sources. Since the bots don’t show up in the change log, Thomas Steiner, a customer solutions engineer at Google Germany, created a solution for monitoring these bots.

To wit, Wikidata now has a live-updating stream of sliders that show how many bots vs. users are editing at any one time. And the data shows a lot of interesting trends. At the time of this writing, English Wikipedia pages showed six bots and 329 humans — a two percent bot editing rate — while Vietnamese Wikipedia had 53 bots and zero humans.

If Wikipedia hopes to maintain its position as a highly referenced, trusted and democratic platform, it may have to tackle these issues. It’s difficult to invest time and energy into a free service without access, and it’s even harder when bots are piecing together your national history before you get a chance.

Image credit: dullhunk