Future Tense

How Wikipedia Became a Battleground for Racial Justice

Contributors are rethinking what Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality actually means.

A collage of images from the Wikipedia page for George Floyd, with a logo that says "Source Notes"
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Christian Horz/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Wikipedia.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.

In its current form, the Wikipedia article on the killing of George Floyd describes the event as follows: “On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while he was lying down handcuffed on the street.” That’s a more visceral description than you might normally find on a Wikipedia page, but it’s accurate.

Since Floyd’s killing on May 25, Wikipedia editors have documented more than 466 George Floyd protests in both the United States and abroad. Some volunteers have been personally photographing protests, leading to interesting discussions of whether Wikimedians should be eligible for press passes. Wikipedia user groups like AfroCROWD have organized challenges during the two weeks leading up to Juneteenth to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of civil rights topics. And the new WikiProject Black Lives Matter has helped editors collaborate on notable demonstrations, pages for victims of police brutality, and new pages like “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” and the list of Confederate and other monuments removed during George Floyd protests.

All of these updates are the result of Wikipedia’s high-tempo and decentralized editing process, which gives the internet encyclopedia its extraordinary ability to create and revise content following current events. Knowledge production, at least in the Wikipedia sense, is part collaboration and part combat. Editors undo one another’s contributions if they disagree and intensely debate proposed changes on the talk page sitting behind each article. With the recent coverage of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, those debates have often centered on the proper interpretation of neutrality.

Neutral point of view is one of Wikipedia’s core content policies, and it’s often been described as nonnegotiable. To the extent possible, the site’s content is to be written without editorial bias so that it retains encyclopedic character. Last week, the community of editors voted against a proposal to “black out” the site in support of Black Lives Matter in part due to concerns that it could threaten Wikipedia’s reputation for neutrality. Critics of Wikipedia, like co-founder Larry Sanger, argue that Wikipedia has completely ditched neutrality in favor of left-leaning political bias, a story covered in May by Fox News. (Sanger is currently promoting a new initiative called the Encyclosphere, one of several internet encyclopedia projects he’s been involved with since leaving Wikipedia in 2002.)

Editors who are interested in working together on certain goals for Wikipedia are allowed to coordinate with one another using what’s called a project page. For instance, members of WikiProject Curling collaborate on articles for the sport described as “chess on ice.” But recently a user nominated the Black Lives Matter project page for deletion for being “non-neutral advocacy.” Over at Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ user talk page, editors sniped back and forth about whether blacking out Wikipedia would be too much of a political statement.

A supporter wrote: “There is an idea that we are ‘neutral.’ We are not. The simple idea of ‘free knowledge’ is, in and of itself, the most radically progressive idea that has ever existed in the minds of humankind.” To which another editor responded, “Let’s work on becoming more neutral, not less.” Also on Wales’ user talk page, the editor known as FloridaArmy listed several black people who were denied Wikipedia entries, including Thomas Cardozo, who served as state superintendent of education in Mississippi during the Reconstruction era. Cardozo’s Wikipedia entry was declined on May 2 on the basis that he lacked notability, even though he’s the only black person to have thus far held the post. (The original rejection decision has since been overruled, meaning you can now read about Cardozo’s tumultuous political career on his Wikipedia entry.)

Neutrality also becomes a flashpoint in debates about language, and specifically the names of articles themselves. Editors voted by consensus to change the article “Death of George Floyd” to “Killing of George Floyd” on June 2. A few editors suggested that “death” was the more neutral-sounding term. But more editors reasoned that “killing” was the more factually accurate term, and that the most accurate description was neutral by definition. That same day, there was a proposal to rename the “Killing of George Floyd” page to “Murder of George Floyd,” but it was closed by Wikipedia administrator El_C on procedural grounds because the page had already gone through multiple name changes; there is now a 30-day moratorium on future name changes. (Another Wikipedia administrator told me on condition of anonymity that the “Murder” nomenclature decision was incorrectly decided by El_C and could be revisited later.)

Over on the biographical Wikipedia entry for George Floyd, editors are debating whether it should mention his prior criminal charges. Those in favor of mentioning Floyd’s prior arrests argue that Wikipedia is not censored; those opposed argue that highlighting this past on the page would afford that information undue weight since his criminal history had no relevance to his killing on May 25. In the meantime, visitors to the George Floyd biographical page can see the suggestion to merge this entry into the “Killing of George Floyd” article via a clear notice at the top of the page.

There have also been nomenclature disputes over whether to use the word riots in the article named “George Floyd Protests.” Editors who rejected these calls reasoned that most reliable news sources did not refer to the protests as riots. Although riots is not part of the title, the current version of the page for “George Floyd Protests” states that “demonstrations in some cities have descended into riots and widespread looting.”

Some Wikipedians take issue with the word neutrality itself. That group includes Jackie Koerner, a social scientist who specializes in online communities and the free-knowledge movement. Koerner explained that she preferred the word balance to neutrality and that one of Wikipedia’s goals should be knowledge equity—the just representation of knowledge and people. When dedicated user groups like Black Lives Matter contribute content about racial justice, they are helping Wikipedia identify historical blind spots and moving the project closer to achieving balance.

On the other hand, some Wikipedians have characterized neutrality not so much as an end result, but as a process. For example, the decision to rename the page “Death of George Floyd” to “Killing of George Floyd” was decided by the process of editorial consensus. Following that decision, Wikipedia editors engaged in the same process to discuss and eventually rename the article “Death of Eric Garner” to “Killing of Eric Garner” for consistency. Arguably, each of these changes are neutral because they were made in accordance with established Wikipedia rules.

Then again, this rules-based view of neutrality may not be as neutral as it seems. “Wikipedia contributors have begun operationalizing a definition of neutrality in order to silence perspectives outside the community accepted point-of-view,” Koerner said in an email. Take the case of Black Birders Week, a series of online events to celebrate black naturalists and birders. This initiative was conceived in response to last month’s racially charged incident in Central Park. In connection with Black Birders Week, Wikipedia editors created new articles about black bird-watching leaders like Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, the Ghanaian-born American activist who co-founded the movement.* After Opoku-Agyeman’s Wikipedia page went up, so-called deletionist editors moved to have it removed. The deletionist editors argued that even though Opoku-Agyeman had been written up in places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, she was only given passing mention by those sources and therefore was not sufficiently “notable” to merit her own Wikipedia page. At the end of the day, more editors voted to keep the article for Opoku-Agyeman, whose page remains online. But the incident itself shows how the notion of neutrality can be weaponized by some factions to keep certain knowledge off of the encyclopedia.

If there is one reason to be optimistic about Wikipedia’s coverage of racial justice, it’s this: The project is by nature open-ended and, well, editable. The spike in volunteer Wikipedia contributions stemming from the George Floyd protests is certainly not neutral, at least to the extent that word means being passive in this moment. Still, Koerner cautioned that any long-term change of focus to knowledge equity was unlikely to be easy for the Wikipedia editing community. “I hope that instead of struggling against it they instead lean into their discomfort,” she said. “When we’re uncomfortable, change happens.”

Correction, June 9, 2020: This post originally misspelled Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman’s middle name.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.