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The problem with Wikipedia and bias

By Tim Anderson - posted Thursday, 7 February 2008

The popular online encyclopaedia Wikipedia has come to play an important role in informing and also shaping public debates. Yet as a Florida-based, US creation, it brings its own baggage to those debates.

US corporate media sources (Time, CNN, Fox, and so on) are privileged as reliable and “neutral” sources in Wiki entries, despite the fact that many of these bodies are intimately involved in many of the most contentious public debates, such as privatisation, intervention and war.

The online tool Wikipedia Scanner also demonstrates that Wiki is heavily edited by powerful organisations, such as the CIA, the Vatican, US government funded agencies, news corporations, banks and embassies.


Yet perhaps even more important is the role played by Wiki’s 1,000 administrators, who have “special powers” to edit and summarily remove content, determine what constitutes Wiki’s stated policy of a “neutral point of view”, excluding other points of view, disputed fact and “biased” sources.

Here is one example of the US worldview in Wikipedia when, as a voluntary “editor”, I tried to help explain Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s accusation that former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was a “fascist”.

The Wiki page in question was on the sideshow generated by the King of Spain’s frustrated demand at the November 2007 Ibero-American summit in Chile, that Chavez “shutup”. The page is called: Por qué no te callas? (Why don't you shut up?).

The Wiki page begins by putting the incident in context of an implicit critique of Venezuelan economic policies, using mainly Time magazine sources:

Chávez repeatedly interrupted the speech of the Prime Minister of Spain José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to call [his] predecessor, José María Aznar, a “fascist“ … and accuse Aznar of having supported a failed coup d'état aimed at removing Chávez from power. Zapatero had earlier irritated Chávez by suggesting that Latin America needed to attract more foreign capital to combat its chronic deepening poverty; Chávez's leftist policies shun outside investment.

It goes on to repeat the Time magazine line (“Behind the King’s Rebuke to Chavez”, November 12, 2007) that a dispute over “free markets” and poverty policy may have been behind the “fascist” accusation against Aznar:


What may have motivated Chávez was that Zapatero - who is a socialist - "insisted that Latin America needs to attract more foreign capital if it's going to make a dent in its chronic, deepening poverty". Because Chávez blames capitalism and insists that only socialism can address inequality in Latin America, he went on the tirade against "Aznar and other free-market 'fascists'," resulting in Zapatero's reminding him that Aznar had been democratically elected.

The Time magazine view was a bizarre distortion of the debate at the summit, which had been televised live through channels such as Telesur and Venezolana de Television. The arguments of Chavez against Aznar were very clear and can still be seen in the many excerpts on YouTube and other online video sites. But this presumes you are interested enough, and can understand Spanish.

On the reputations involved, let’s remember that Jose Maria Aznar sits on the Board of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, probably the largest corporate media network on earth. Murdoch was a strong backer of George W.Bush and the Iraq war. News Corporation, like Time Warner, has directors cross linked to banks and industries unhappy with the reversal of privatisation policies under Chavez. Importantly, these groups quite deliberately shape what is regarded “normal” (or “biased”) debate in the US, and in the English speaking world.

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About the Author

Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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