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Wikipedia for diplomats: a tool for information and public diplomacy?

Published on 27 June 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

The webinar on Wikipedia for diplomats held on June 21, was part of a larger initiative by DiploFoundation and the Italian Diplomatic Institute to promote dialogue and cross-fertilization between the Wikipedia community and the diplomatic community. If you are interested to know more about future activities, please visit www.diplomacy.edu/pd or register at edip@diplomacy.edu

Wikipedia for diplomats: a tool for information and public diplomacy?

Wikipedia is one of the main sources of information today. The platform is the sixth most accessed website worldwide: it is only behind search engines, such as Google, and social networks, like Facebook. It has also grown exponentially over the years: the Wikipedia in English alone encompasses more than 4 million articles on a wide range of topics, such as biographies, scientific themes and current events. Thanks to the work of a community of editors distributed worldwide, the level of accuracy of Wikipedia articles has increased. In 2005, the peer-reviewed journal Nature asked scientists to compare Wikipedia’s scientific articles to those in Encyclopedia Britannica. The comparison resulted in a tie, and many other studies conducted on the same topic have reached similar conclusions. 

Given the popularity and relevance that Wikipedia has gained as a resource for information, the webinar that took place on June 21st aimed to discuss if Wikipedia is indeed a reliable source for diplomats and if Wikipedia can be a useful platform for public diplomacy efforts.

Bence Damokos, from the Wikimedia Affiliations Committee, mentioned three basic characteristics of Wikipedia. First of all, Wikipedia is a compilation of information found elsewhere. Good Wikipedia entries are supported by other sources of information, such as books, articles and news, so the reader can consult the primary sources and validate the information found in Wikipedia. Secondly, it is important to take into account that articles can be edited by anyone. On the one hand, if more people work on the article, it is more likely that eventual errors will be corrected; on the other hand, there is no fact-check of each edit. Therefore, Wikipedia is a good resource to start a research or to have access to up to date information, especially about ongoing events, but readers should always use good judgement when they consult an article to decide on its reliability. Finally, the editorial policy of Wikipedia fosters neutral and balanced articles. They must cover all the main aspects of a given topic, and include, if necessary, a criticism section. He concluded that Wikipedia can be a valuable source of information for diplomats if used with discernment and complemented with other sources. Marília Maciel, moderator of the debate, commented that there is always need to fact-check critical information, including if it is published on traditional media. She mentioned that Wikipedia article about the protests that broke out on the streets of Brazil on June 2013 was more accurate, complete and up to date than the news disseminated by national papers and TV channels. 

Richard Boly, director of the Office of eDiplomacy from the US State Department, supported the relevance of Wikipedia as a source of information for diplomats, but he also made interesting reflections about the need to improve balance and representativeness in the Wikipedia community of editors. Wikipedia articles are mostly written by male editors under 30, therefore they may present a skewed way of portraying the topics. There may be a “demographic gap” between the Wikipedia community and the diplomatic community: in the US, for instance, the diplomatic body is balanced in terms of gender representation and the age average is also higher if compared to the community of Wikipedia editors. Bence Damokos agreed that the current efforts to improve gender, age and geographic balance need to be strengthened, and the cooperation with the diplomatic community may be important on that regard.

Stefano Baldi, Director of the Diplomatic Institute of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Jovan Kurbalija, director of DiploFoundation, reflected on the use of Wikipedia to carry out public diplomacy activities. Public diplomacy encompasses communicating, spreading information, convincing others about something and being influential. Due to its pervasiveness and popularity, Wikipedia is an important platform to carry out public diplomacy efforts at low cost. Ministries of Foreign Affairs should reflect on what they can do to improve Wikipedia and make it an even more reliable and relevant source of information about foreign policy. To carry out this activity, they can engage not only young diplomats, but also other people on the national level, such as students of international relations. This would also contribute to efforts of public relations with their nationals as well, enhancing social interest on foreign affairs. Illustrating this point, one of the participants of the webinar mentioned the example of the Estonian and Norwegian embassies, which have organized article-writing contests to improve the quality of the articles about their countries on Wikipedia.

The recording of the webinar can be seen here: 

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