Why Wikipedia skews white on SA

17 January 2016 - 02:02 By Rebecca Davis
French ref Romain Poite, talking to Bok captain Jean de Villiers, received threats from a Wikipedia vandal after decisions apparently favouring the All Blacks.
French ref Romain Poite, talking to Bok captain Jean de Villiers, received threats from a Wikipedia vandal after decisions apparently favouring the All Blacks.
Image: GETTY IMAGES

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia created entirely by the ordinary people who use it. The internet’s largest reference work, it is made up of more than 37 million entries — and anyone can improve these entries, simply by clicking on an ‘edit’ button at the top of the page. The problem is very few people do so . . .

Ever tried using the world's largest free encyclopedia to search for South African concepts, people or places? If you have, you'll know that it's a bit of a lucky dip.

Full Wikipedia entries in English exist for lobola, apartheid's Tricameral Parliament, veteran broadcaster Riaan Cruywagen, and recent cricketing sensation Temba Bavuma, to name a few. You can type "takkies" into Wikipedia's search function and get helpfully redirected to "sneakers".

President Jacob Zuma's entry has already been updated to cover the dismissal of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and its ensuing controversy.

And yet there are curious omissions, too. There's no entry for popular singer Patricia Lewis, although rapper Cassper Nyovest has his own page, and so does PJ Powers. Idols judge Somizi Mhlongo is page-less, and so is his former colleague Gareth Cliff. Bona magazine has no entry on Wikipedia, but other weeklies, such as You and Huisgenoot, do. You can look up TV shows 7de Laan and Isidingo, but not Selimathunzi.

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The reason for these gaps is simple. Wikipedia in South Africa relies on an extraordinarily small number of users who volunteer to create new entries and edit old ones. Douglas Scott, the president of Wikimedia South Africa, says there are an average of 105 people in South Africa editing Wikipedia every month.

This wouldn't be so much of a problem if those 105 people were drawn from every potential race, class, age and location. In reality, they tend to adhere to a very particular demographic. The average South African Wikipedia editor is, to quote Scott, a "geeky, white, middle-class male with a university education who is employed". These editors are overwhelmingly based in the Western Cape or Gauteng, and mostly editing in English or Afrikaans.

Wikipedia editors the world over tend to fit a similar profile - and it shows. It's been pointed out before that Wikipedia's entries for female porn stars are more comprehensive than its pages on female novelists, for instance. Not all Wikipedia editors are porn fans, of course, but it's natural that volunteers will edit on topics that interest them.

Scott says South African Wikipedia contributors love writing about sport, military history and technology. "We have some fantastic stuff about the build and design of trains in South Africa," he says. Great for trainspotters; less useful for the rest of us.

Now, on the site's 15th birthday, Wikimedia SA has put out a renewed call for further volunteers to help edit, and its hope is to attract a more diverse bunch of people to the task.

"If there's only one group of people tending to edit, no matter how well-intentioned they are, there will always be some level of unintentional bias towards or against particular subjects," Scott says. "Incomplete structural knowledge is the result."

There are plenty of current Wikipedia pages that may raise South African eyebrows.

Julius Malema's entry describes his "political ideology" as being one of "emerging fascism", quoting several commentators. There is no counterpoint to this view. A non-South African seeking to learn more about Malema, then, is likely to come away with a pretty one-sided perspective.

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Entries constantly change, however, because they're being (usually politely) tussled over by different editors. South African Wikipedia editors are also not immune to the temptation of occasional vandalism. After French rugby referee Romain Poite made a number of dubious decisions during a match between the Springboks and the All Blacks, Poite's Wikipedia entry was edited to conclude: "Rumours are doing the rounds that he will be bliksemed [roughed up] if he ever sets foot on South African soil."

Referees seem to be a popular target; after another Springbok loss, Kiwi referee Bryce Lawrence's entry was also briefly amended in a distinctively South African way, using words unsuitable for quotation in a family newspaper.

Wikimedia SA says Wikipedia is also in dire need of South Africans to contribute to the versions of Wikipedia in local languages other than English or Afrikaans. One of the problems of having fewer editors on the African-language Wikis is that questionable information can go untouched for longer.

In September last year, a South African user of website Reddit pointed out that the Zulu Wikipedia entry for the town of Nkandla ended with: "Nazo izintandane ziningi lengculazi. Iyidolobha impofu. [Here the orphans have HIV. Town of the poor.]"

Scott is evangelical about the need to beef up South Africa's presence on Wikipedia, saying it will create a better understanding of the country in the world's eyes. And it is a way for South Africans to record events for posterity.

But what's in it for the volunteer? "Some have a sense of civic responsibility," Scott says. And then adds: "Others do it because they are slightly compulsive."

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