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OPINION: How to revert cultural bias in the digital space

by Natasha Iles | Wikimedia UK
Thursday, 20 May 2021 12:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A man takes a picture of an artwork by British graffiti artist Banksy at Lower Manhattan in New York, October 15, 2013. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Is it possible to identify cultural bias online, and if there is bias, what can we do to address the content gap?

By Natasha Iles, head of development and communications at Wikimedia UK.

When you care about something, whether a project or an ideal, you want it to be the best version possible. Personally, I care about open knowledge, the opportunity for everyone across the globe to share in a collective, unbiased reflection of their world and the world yet unknown to them. Technology and our digital space, think online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, has shown itself to be the best opportunity we have to engage, collate and access ‘the sum of all human knowledge, but how does it currently fair at reflecting who we are as a global community?

My own feelings relating to the importance of representation are primarily driven by not seeing my gender, women and girls represented at all in some spaces, let alone in an unbiased and factual tone. The oft quoted adage ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, is far more frightening when you realise if you can’t see it in the digital space, no one else can either, and the question this raises is, does it even exist?

Where digital content gaps have previously been recognised and highlighted, work has commenced to address them. The gender bias on Wikipedia is a case in point with work progressing to close the gap through projects such as Women in Red. The speed of recognising where bias exists, challenging and then changing the status quo, is not a fast process but it is a vital one.

If we think there is cultural bias in our digital space, how do we research this and make our conclusion?

Artistic director Waqas Ahmed and ‘Wikimedian’ in residence at The Khalili Collection, Dr. Martin Poulter, are well placed to surmise there might be a bias against non-Western art and artists. Despite thousands of non-Western artefacts uploaded and freely available to view on the internet, they felt the content was underrepresented in comparison to its Western counterparts.

In order to ascertain whether cultural bias existed, Ahmed and Poulter measured the coverage of visual arts and artists across the hundreds of different language versions of Wikipedia. Their research compared online coverage of 100 artists from the Western canon to 100 significant artists from other cultures. Poulter pointed out that "even equal coverage of the Western artists and the artists from all of the rest of the world would still be a pro-Western bias, because Europe is just one sixth of the world." The research found that on average Wikipedia coverage was seven times greater for artists in the Western canon than for their non-Western counterparts.

One striking example highlighted by the research is the disparity between coverage of Leonardo Da Vinci and 11th century Chinese artist Su Shi. In digital terms Leonard Da Vinci is covered in six times more languages than Su Shi and has 15 times more bytes written about him at almost 5 million. With these figures in mind, it seems I would not be alone in knowing extraordinarily little about Su Shi, but why should this be the case? An 11th century artist, polymath, celebrated poet, engineer, litterateur, scientist and political figure, Su Shi’s talents are comparable to Da Vinci in terms of merit.

Is this significant? A very unscientific straw poll at home with my 12-year-old and nine-year-old elicited Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Picasso and Leonardo DaVinci when asked to name artists of note. Admirable, yet at 75% European and male, this list is not widening their knowledge nor appreciation of art on a global scale. Moreover, when talking of the importance of representation the United Nations state “acceptance and recognition of cultural diversity - in particular through innovative use of media and Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) - are conducive to dialogue among civilizations and cultures, respect and mutual understanding.” Simply put, to find common ground we need to have a better understanding of one another.

Tackling online cultural bias is not just correcting the situation we are in now. We have to take time to ensure the ecosystem is in place to sustain unbiased representation, to guard against reverting to a Wikipedia where its “list of sculptors” is 99% Western, “list of painters by nationality” is around 75% European and its “list of contemporary visual artists” is 80% European.

In a digital world where everyone can contribute to the sum of all knowledge, diversity in content and contributors should be our continued aim. To change representation and make a positive contribution, individual wiki contributors can support this by creating, translating, or extending articles. Our digital space may not yet reflect who we are as a global community, but we can all be contributors on the journey towards that goal.