Wikipedia coverage of American politics

Coverage of American politics in Wikipedia is a subject that has received substantial attention from the media. Since its founding in 2001, Wikipedia has provided coverage of five United States presidential elections, and an equal number of mid-term elections at the federal level, as well as numerous "off-year" state elections and special elections.

Wikipedia has received both praise and criticism for elements of its political coverage, with some sources asserting that Wikipedia exhibits political neutrality and others asserting the presence of ideological bias on Wikipedia. A nonideological criticism leveled at Wikipedia is that the project's internal standards for notability tend to favor incumbents of either party over challengers, and tend to favor people in male-dominated professions over women. This results in incumbent candidates in prominent elections receiving large amounts of traffic, while challengers who are not already notable through some other achievement, such as being a professional athlete, have no article or are redirected to a generic article on the election. Substantial debates have occurred within the project over the appropriate point at which to create an article for a challenger, particularly where a challenger is the nominee of one of the two major parties that dominate American politics, where the office contested is particularly visible, and where sources consider the challenger to have a chance to win the election.

The capacity for Wikipedia to be edited by anyone has, conversely, led to circumstances where political figures, or those who work for them, have directly tried to change the content of their own articles, as well as of articles on their opponents. This has resulted in scrutiny of United States Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia.


During the 2020 United States presidential election, Vox wrote: "In yet another election cycle defined by copious amounts of misinformation from a variety of sources, Wikipedia wants — and is set up — to be a carefully curated resource of impartial facts".[1] During the same period, Wired noted: "Owing in part to its reputation for evenhandedness, and the way it conveniently bundles sources for readers, Wikipedia has played a growing role in American politics, too. It is not unusual for Senate candidates—including many of the high-profile candidates running right now—to see several thousand visits to their page on any given day".[2] Wired further states that in the area of politics, "Wikipedia developed a special standard, which in theory is applied equally to all: No challenger running for office automatically enjoys notability, no matter the race—even for US Senate. All candidates are inherently 'non-notable' unless they have held previous elected office or have achieved notability in their private life".[2] Wired found that this practice provided an advantage to incumbents and a disadvantage to challengers, further stating that "Wikipedia's notability litmus test doesn't just advantage political incumbents; it advantages the kind of people—insiders, celebrities, men—who already enjoy notable status in a social and economic hierarchy that others in politics may wish to democratize".[2]

Assertions of bias

Shane Greenstein and Feng Zhu, professor and associate professor respectively at the Harvard Business School, have authored several studies examining Wikipedia articles related to U.S. politics and the editors that work on them to identify aspects of ideological bias within its collective intelligence.

In Is Wikipedia Biased? (2012), the authors examined a sample of 28,382 articles related to U.S. politics as of January 2011, measuring their degree of bias on a "slant index" based on a method developed by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro in 2010, to measure bias in newspaper media.[3] This slant index purports to measure an ideological lean toward either Democratic or Republican based on key phrases within the text such as "war in Iraq", "civil rights", "trade deficit", "economic growth", "illegal immigration" and "border security". Each phrase is assigned a slant index based on how often it is used by Democratic vs. Republican members of U.S. Congress and this lean rating is assigned to a Wikipedia contribution that includes the same key phrase. The authors concluded that older articles from the early years of Wikipedia leaned Democratic, whereas those created more recently held more balance. They suggest that articles did not change their bias significantly due to revision, but rather that over time newer articles containing opposite points of view were responsible for centering the average overall.[4][5][6]:4–5

In a more extensive American follow-up study, Do Experts or Collective Intelligence Write with More Bias? Evidence from Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia (2018), Greenstein and Zhu directly compare about 4,000 articles related to U.S. politics between Wikipedia (written by an online community) and the matching articles from Encyclopædia Britannica (written by experts) using similar methods as their 2010 study to measure "slant" (Democratic vs. Republican) and to quantify the degree of "bias". The authors found that "Wikipedia articles are more slanted towards Democratic views than are Britannica articles, as well as more biased", particularly those focusing on civil rights, corporations, and government. Entries about immigration trended toward Republican. They further found that "(t)he difference in bias between a pair of articles decreases with more revisions" and, when articles were substantially revised, the difference in bias compared to Britannica was statistically negligible. The implication, per the authors, is that "many contributions are needed to reduce considerable bias and slant to something close to neutral".[7][8][9][10][11]

Editing by political operatives

Some Wikipedia edits by staff of the United States Congress have created controversy, notably in early to mid-2006. Several such instances, such as those involving Marty Meehan, Norm Coleman, Conrad Burns,[12] Joe Biden, Tom Harkin, and Tom Coburn received significant media attention.[13] Others, such as those involving Gil Gutknecht,[14] David Davis,[15] and Mike Pence,[16] were reported but received less widespread coverage.

Biographical information on various politicians was edited by their own staff to remove undesirable information (including pejorative statements quoted, or broken campaign promises), add favorable information or "glowing" tributes, add negative information to opponents' biographies, or replace the article in part or whole by staff-authored biographies.[13]

On January 27, 2006, The Sun of Lowell, Massachusetts, published an article entitled "Rewriting history under the dome", which revealed the editing by Congressional staff members of Representative Marty Meehan's Wikipedia entry.[13][17] Further investigation by Wikipedia editors discovered over a thousand edits by IP addresses allocated to either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Wikipedia editors found that most of the edits were considered to be in good faith, but a minority of edits were considered improper. At least one of the addresses involved was prohibited from further editing.[18]

Ed Summers created a Twitter feed to notify the world of any changes made from IP addresses associated with the U.S. Congress: @congressedits was an automated Twitter account initiated in 2014 that tweeted anonymous changes to Wikipedia articles that originated from IP addresses belonging to the United States Congress. The changes were presumed to have been made by the staffs of US elected representatives and senators. In September 2018, an anonymous editor from Congress posted the personal information of several Republican senators into their articles,[19] leading to CongressEdits being banned from Twitter.

In August 2014, the Cato Institute suggested that Congressional staffers should spend spare time editing Wikipedia. A panel hosted by the institute endorsed the idea so that congressional staffers could use their time to write neutral and informative articles about proposed legislation to better educate the public. Experts on the panel considered the two main obstacles to doing this as being skepticism towards Wikipedia and the history of biased editing from Congressional staffers. The Cato Institute suggested one way to overcome these issues would be for the staffers to create user accounts and user profile pages disclosing their connections with Congress.[20]

On September 27, the disambiguation page for "Devil's Triangle" was edited from a House of Representatives IP address to describe it as a drinking game, matching the testimony of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh regarding his use of the term in his high school yearbook.[21][22]

2016 United States presidential election

In the early stages of the 2016 United States presidential election, The New York Observer reported that Wikipedia's article on Donald Trump was the busiest of the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates.[23] The New York Times noted that the article usually attracted more views than his Republican rivals.[24] In September 2016, Business Insider reported that the article subject was one of the 29 most controversial people on Wikipedia,[25] and the following month The New York Observer reported that the article entry was bulkier than either the articles on George W. Bush and Barack Obama,[26] while The Washington Post reported that the article had more than three times the number of edits than Hillary Clinton since January 2015.[27] The article was the second most edited English Wikipedia article of 2016. It was reported by Billboard,[28] PCMag,[29] The Verge,[30] and others.

Following Trump's election, his article was the second most viewed English Wikipedia article of 2017, at 29.6 million views, and was covered in reporting by Mashable,[31] Newshub,[32] VentureBeat,[33] and others. In 2018, the article was covered for image vandalism.[34]


  1. ^ Morrison, Sara (November 2, 2020). "How Wikipedia is preparing for Election Day". Vox.
  2. ^ a b c "The Senate Race That Could be Pivotal for America—and Wikipedia". Wired.
  3. ^ Gentzkow, M; Shapiro, J. M. (January 2010). "What Drives Media Slant? Evidence From U.S. Daily Newspapers" (PDF). Econometrica. The Econometric Society. 78 (1): 35–71. doi:10.3982/ECTA7195. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2019-03-14. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  4. ^ Greenstein, Shane; Zhu, Feng (May 2012). "Is Wikipedia Biased?". American Economic Review. American Economic Association. 102 (3): 343–348. doi:10.1257/aer.102.3.343.
  5. ^ Khimm, Suzy (June 18, 2012). "Study: Wikipedia perpetuates political bias". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on May 23, 2018. Retrieved May 22, 2018.
  6. ^ Shi, Feng; Teplitskiy, Misha; Duede, Eamon; Evans, James A. (2019). "The wisdom of polarized crowds". Nature Human Behaviour. 3 (4): 329–336. arXiv:1712.06414. doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0541-6. PMID 30971793. S2CID 8947252.
  7. ^ Fitts, Alexis Sobel (June 21, 2017). "Welcome to the Wikipedia of the Alt-Right". Backchannel. Wired. Archived from the original on January 17, 2018. Retrieved June 1, 2018.
  8. ^ Greenstein, Shane; Zhu, Feng (September 2018). "Do Experts or Collective Intelligence Write with More Bias? Evidence from Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia". MIS Quarterly. 42 (3): 945–959. doi:10.25300/MISQ/2018/14084.
  9. ^ "Is Collective Intelligence Less Biased?". BizEd. AACSB. May 1, 2015. Archived from the original on May 22, 2018. Retrieved May 17, 2018.
  10. ^ Bhattacharya, Ananya (November 6, 2016). "Wikipedia's not as biased as you might think". Quartz. Retrieved June 4, 2018.
  11. ^ Guo, Jeff (October 25, 2016). "Wikipedia is fixing one of the Internet's biggest flaws". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on May 23, 2018. Retrieved May 17, 2018.
  12. ^ Williams, Walt (2007-01-01). "Burns' office may have tampered with Wikipedia entry". Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-02-13.
  13. ^ a b c Anderson, Nate (January 30, 2006). "Congressional staffers edit boss's bio on Wikipedia". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2008-04-28. The activities documented included:
    • rewriting Norm Coleman's article to make more favorable, said to be "correcting errors";
    • removing from Conrad Burns' article quoted pejorative statements he had made, and replacing them with "glowing tributes" such as "the voice of the farmer"; and
    • removal of unfavorable information from Joe Biden's article.
  14. ^ Diaz, Kevin (August 16, 2006). "Gutknecht joins Wikipedia tweakers". Star Tribune. Archived from the original on August 21, 2006.
  15. ^ Knoxnews article Entries on Wikipedia edited by Davis aide published August 11, 2007.
  16. ^ Carter, Zach (August 18, 2011). "Did Mike Pence's Office Edit His Wikipedia Page To Make It More Flattering?". Huffington Post.
  17. ^ Lehmann, Evan (January 27, 2006). "Rewriting history under the dome". The Lowell Sun.
  18. ^ Wikipedia editors made a fairly extensive survey of edits from Congressional IP ranges: "Wikipedia:Congressional Staffer Edits". Wikipedia. Retrieved June 22, 2006.
  19. ^ Papenfuss, Mary. "Judiciary Committee Members Doxxed During Kavanaugh Testimony". The Huffington Post. Oath. Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  20. ^ Schwab, Nikki (August 18, 2014). "Cato Institute Experts Call on Staffers to Edit Wikipedia". US News & World Report. Retrieved August 18, 2014.
  21. ^ Wolf, Zach Byron (September 27, 2018). "Wikipedia entry for 'Devil's Triangle' changed to match Kavanaugh's answer". CNN. Perhaps sensing that it needed an online presence, someone on Capitol Hill, operating from a congressional IP address, decided to update Wikipedia to include an entry for "* "Devil's Triangle", a popular drinking game enjoyed by friends of Judge Brett Kavanaugh."
  22. ^ @congressedits (September 27, 2018). "Devil's Triangle (disambiguation) Wikipedia article edited anonymously from US House of Representatives …" (Tweet). Archived from the original on September 27, 2018 – via Twitter.
  23. ^ Dale, Brady (January 22, 2016). "Donald Trump's Wikipedia Page Is the Busiest of the Cadidates". Observer.
  24. ^ Merrill, Jeremy B. (February 1, 2016). "On Wikipedia, Donald Trump Reigns and Facts Are Open to Debate". The New York Times.
  25. ^ McAlone, Nathan (September 25, 2016). "The 29 most controversial people on Wikipedia — including Donald Trump, Michael Jackson, and Albert Einstein". Business Insider.
  26. ^ Dale, Brady (October 12, 2016). "Donald Trump Has a Bulkier Wikipedia Entry Than Either Presidents Bush or Obama". Observer.
  27. ^ Alcantara, Chris (October 27, 2016). "Wikipedia editors are essentially writing the election guide millions of voters will read". The Washington Post.
  28. ^ Schneider, Marc (December 23, 2016). "Death, Donald Trump and Kanye West Had Year's Most Edited Wikipedia Articles". Billboard.
  29. ^ Moscaritolo, Angela (December 22, 2016). "Death and Donald Trump: Wikipedia's Most-Edited Pages of 2016". PC Magazine.
  30. ^ Vincent, James (December 23, 2016). "Death and Donald Trump were the most edited Wikipedia pages of 2016". The Verge.
  31. ^ Gilmer, Marcus (January 4, 2018). "Death and Donald Trump lead Wikipedia's top searches of 2017". Mashable.
  32. ^ Satherley, Dan (January 5, 2018). "Wikipedia's most-read articles of 2017: Death, Trump and Game of Thrones". Newshub.
  33. ^ O'Brien, Chris (January 3, 2018). "Deaths, Donald, and Bitcoin: The 50 most popular Wikipedia articles of 2017". VentureBeat.
  34. ^ Brandon, Russell (November 24, 2018). "Wikipedia's Trump penis vandals have struck again". The Verge.

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