Arguments on Wikipedia can have good results

REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Social networks have developed a reputation as bitterly polarised places, populated with churlish arguments over clashing politics. Yet an analysis of millions of Wikipedia articles suggests that ideologically diverse groups can not only cooperate effectively, but also produce better work than homogenous groups. How did Wikipedia succeed where much of the online world failed?

To see how ideological opponents can find common ground, Misha Teplitskiy at Harvard University and his colleagues looked at the editors of Wikipedia articles on politics, science and social issues.

They scored the editors’ political leanings as -1 for the most liberal and +1 for the most conservative, based on whether they were predominantly editing articles on liberal or conservative subjects.


The most active editors were clustered around the ideological extremes and the more editors an article attracted, the more likely it was to attract them from both sides of the political spectrum. For example, the 11,813 editors who pored over Margaret Thatcher’s Wikipedia entry had an average score of 0.068.

By examining Wikipedia’s Talk pages, where editors discuss their thoughts about an article, the team found that the intense disagreement that happens between ideologically polarised editors often led to a more focused debate, with editors on both sides admitting the process had improved the final article.

Overall, larger groups had more civil discussions and articles with an unbalanced editorial bias showed more offensive language in the Talk page, which curtailed further discussion.

Rules for engagement

Part of Wikipedia’s successful bipartisanship is down to design. “On Twitter, if you don’t like the climate change debate, you can go off to your own echo chamber,” says Teplitskiy. “On Wikipedia, if you want to talk about climate change, there is only one place to do it.”

But healing the divide between ideological opponents isn’t as simple as putting them in the same room. You need people to work together towards a common goal, says Javier Sajuria at Queen Mary University of London. “When you have that, like the editing of a Wikipedia article, then you have a more constructive process,” he says.

The findings suggest that even ideologically opposed people can cooperate when working towards a meaningful goal, and that to make this happen both parties need to agree to a common set of rules, and have a clear arbitration process in place for when disagreements do flare up.

On social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, attempts to moderate 1 billion plus users have proven tricky, and lack Wikipedia’s clear processes for conflict resolution.

The freedom to use these sites unhindered and with little oversight is both the selling point and the problem. “My own view is you can’t engage with everybody,” says Teplitskiy. “If people are not willing to play by the rules of society there is not much you can do except exclude them.”

Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0541-6

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