From editing articles to civic power – Wikimedia and Democracy

  • May 12, 2023

By Daria Cybulska, Director of Programmes and Evaluation at Wikimedia UK

Democracies rely on informed citizens to function effectively. Over recent years, new digital technologies have fundamentally altered the creation and consumption of media content, and introduced new challenges to democratic participation. The increased volume of news, the politicisation of social media, misinformation, disinformation, and the distracting of the public through fake news, along with the rise of polarised and radicalised groups whose own ideology is reinforced by ‘filter bubbles’, all combine to create untrustworthiness, bias and misrepresentation. These issues undermine democracy and its reliance on well-informed citizens. 

Information literacy has the power to counter this. At its heart, information literacy empowers citizens to access, create, consume and critically evaluate information. It builds understanding of the ethical and political issues associated with the use of information, including privacy, data protection, freedom of information, open access/open data and intellectual property. 

In my role as the Director of Programmes at Wikimedia UK, I’ve long believed that our workshops and training sessions make a difference in empowering people – by building their information literacy skills, providing an opportunity to collaborate, and capturing their heritage. In 2021, together with Agnes Bruszik, a research colleague, we delivered a project to critically investigate how engaging with Wikimedia projects contributes to the strengthening of civil society and democratic processes in the UK.

Our main inquiry was to understand how improving information literacy skills contributes to Wikimedia UK’s vision of a more tolerant, informed and democratic society. Does our work increase participants’ information literacy, and does this in turn lead to a more engaged civil society? We reviewed the current understanding and frameworks in the intersection of literacies, civic engagement and democratic participation, to see how information literacy has been found to support civic engagement. We then explored how Wikimedia UK’s work contributes to civic disposition skills. 

Our research concludes that Wikimedia’s activities can increase citizen engagement in democratic processes through our work in information literacy by 1) Providing open and free access to accurate information, 2) Improving information literacy skills of individuals, 3) Encouraging volunteering, and 4) Providing accessible collaborative infrastructure. 

“Information literacy is one of the most important skills of the future. Without understanding how, by who and in which ways knowledge and information is created and distributed, one cannot potentially evaluate the value and credibility of that information. The formulation of opinions, values, principles, or academic and historical referencing must be based upon reliable sources and credible interpretation and presentation of facts and data. Without citizens’ awareness of information manipulation, democratic participation is thus flawed. The Wikimedia movement is in a unique position to educate and encourage individuals to become more information literate, while also promoting democratic practices such as participatory decision-making, provisioning open access to platforms and information for even the most marginalised minority groups. These practices, in turn, create the know-how for more civic engagement in general.” – Agnes Bruszik

Crucially, freedom of expression and access to reliable information through Wikimedia projects increase intercultural dialogue and decrease the social isolation of minority groups. Wikipedia serves as a platform that can assist displaced or minoritised communities to express and maintain cultural identity. Our experience shows that groups organised around a shared interest, value or cause, and equipped with digital, information and collaboration skills, are more likely to engage in civic participation in public matters relevant for them. Moreover, learning about the culture of democratic participation and processes of engagement empowers individuals, equipping them with transferable skills.

“The rise of populism has been linked to a decline in interest in public affairs and we thought that, being less politically and socially active, people may be less capable of interpreting political phenomena and understanding the complexity of the management of public affairs.” – Science Direct

We are faced with a global trend towards a shrinking civil society space. There are fewer spaces where citizens can develop and practise key civic skills such as collaboration, self-representation, and working within a context of diversity and difference of opinion. This is much needed in any context, including the UK. Civic skills are broad in character and can be developed in a variety of contexts – including opportunities online. Wikipedia has the benefit of being a well known online space, meaning it has the recognition within a big audience that could then be engaged in civic activities. We can engage with people where they already are rather than needing to bring them to a new, unknown space. 

Many participants of Wikimedia UK activities (e.g. editing events) started out as individual editors, who then decided to bring wiki projects into their communities. In a recent survey of our community leaders, we asked if individuals’ participation in Wikimedia UK activities, such as running wiki events, encouraged them to take part in other non-wiki activities e.g. community organising, campaigning, other kinds of volunteering, etc. One volunteer reports:

“Yes. In speaking to a volunteer for our charity, I became aware of the [community heritage project centring on a particular 19th century industrial action]. I created the Wikipedia page for […], a leading figure in the strike whose mentions elsewhere assured her notability, and through this spoke to the originators of [community heritage project]. I am now actively involved with the group, including as part of their education and community engagement sub-group. It’s likely that Wikipedia work will feature in this at some stage, as they were overjoyed with the […] page and very much convinced of the usefulness of more (and more accurate) Wikipedia representation.” – Community Leader response in a 2021-22 Wikimedia UK volunteer survey.

Working on Wikimedia UK projects can facilitate this spirit of working towards a common good, aka free knowledge for all. It also enables cooperation with others and activism, which in the long run encourages an empowered civil society. This we believe can go a long way towards realising Wikimedia UK’s vision of a more informed, democratic and equitable society.

Explore the report

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