MSW Students Join in Campaign to Make Wikipedia More Inclusive

October 31, 2019 @ 7:10 pm
By Communications Office

Columbia University graduate student Darold Cuba (OHMA’19) presenting at the School of Social Work

Indigenous Peoples’ Day provided the background for the School of Social Work’s participation in the Columbia-wide #DisruptWikipedia edit-a-thon series.

Wikipedia, once a scrappy, crowdsourced alternative to traditional online encyclopedias, has come a long way since its 2001 founding. It is now the world’s fourth most visited website and the world’s most popular source of reference information. Yet activists on campus believe the site’s culture and structure limit participation by marginalized communities and reinforce a narrow and oppressive worldview.

Social Science and Social Work Research Support Librarian Sophie Leveque has collaborated with Columbia student Darold Cuba to found an initiative called #DisruptWikipedia. On October 16, the two took their campaign to the School of Social Work, where they led interested MSW students in an editing session to raise awareness of Wikipedia’s systemic biases. As it was two days after Indigenous Peoples’ Day, students were assigned the task of increasing the visibility of indigenous people on the site. They received instructions in how to create their own Wikipedia accounts and then added links to improve the Wikipedia page dedicated to Native American poet and United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.

The School of Social Work session was one in a monthly series that will continue through the academic year. The series kicked off on September 16 with a panel discussion in Butler Library, featuring Alice Backer and Sherry Antoine of Afrocrowd, a Wikimedia affiliate that addresses the need to close the multicultural and gender gaps in Wikipedia, and Merrilee Proffitt, librarian and author of Leveraging Wikipedia: Connecting Communities of Knowledge. Next month’s session, to take place on Thursday, November 14, at Barnard College, will focus on Wikipedia entries for transgender people, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week.

To what extent are social work students interested in setting themselves up as Wikipedia contributors? If writing for Wikipedia may not be their first inclination, the goals of the campaign dovetail well with the School of Social Work’s mission, according to Karma Lowe, the School’s Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). The DEI Office cosponsored the October event along with Barnard College Library and Columbia College’s Undergraduate Writing Program. Lowe told us, “Inclusion matters not just in the classroom but also in how we conceptualize what are ‘acceptable’ references in academia. Historically marginalized voices have also been traditionally marginalized in so-called public, open-source spaces such as Wikipedia, and I thought it was important for the School’s DEI office to join in efforts to amplify those missing voices.”

Opening the event at the School of Social Work, Darold Cuba shared his own experiences with editing Wikipedia entries. Now completing a master’s in Oral History at Columbia, he has interned at AfroCrowd and currently serves as Columbia University’s Wikipedia Fellow and Wikimedian-in-Residence—roles that make him an official liaison to the site and its parent company. But despite his credentials, he has often received pushback when creating or amending Wikipedia entries to incorporate the findings of his scholarly research, he said. In fact, a group of the site’s editors, by what they called “community consensus,” have deemed his articles about freedom colonies (settlements founded by formerly enslaved people) and his edits citing the slaveholding histories of United States presidents too lacking in “notable sources” to publish.

“You have to constantly prove everything you’re advocating for,” he told edit-a-thon participants, adding that persistence doesn’t always pay off. Although he is always careful to present creditable sources, he has been temporarily blocked numerous times. Even more consequentially, he has been banned indefinitely from writing anything related to race, racism, racial history, slavery, or white supremacy for Wikipedia, and stands accused of having “disrupted” Wikipedia—hence the name of the initiative he began with Leveque, he explained.

On Wikipedia, writers can post only information that has already appeared in “reliable” external sources, such as newspapers of record. Yet both Cuba and Leveque described a chicken-and-egg problem in which those well-known sources may have filtered out information the same way Wikipedia does.

The fortunate thing about being a university student, Leveque told the MSW students, is that, in contrast to members of the general public, whose sources of information tend to be limited to TV news and major media stories as well as Wikipedia, university students have access to so much more.

Being able to consult with the holdings of a world-class university library is a privilege, she went on, urging students to use that privilege to rectify Wikipedia entries that demonstrate bias. “Academia can be the antidote. University librarians can teach information literacy and empower you to strive toward neutral.”

She reminded students, however, that once they leave Columbia they will no longer have access to the Columbia Libraries’ databases and will have to rely on the sources at hand. They may even find themselves turning to Wikipedia from time to time.

All the more reason to act now and play a role in making the world’s encyclopedia as accurate and representative as possible, she said.

[Watch: Sophie Leveque discussing Wikipedia’s inclusivity problem on Social Impact LIVE]