Wikipedia is the 6th most trafficked website on the Internet, with hundreds of millions of visitors per month. Many individual articles receive tens of thousands of visits per month. (For example, the article on global warming receives 500,000+ views per month, the one on the military budget of the United States gets 58,000+ hits/month, and the article on surveillance gets 40,000+ views per month.) This is larger than the circulation of many newspapers and magazines. Wikipedia articles are often at the top of search engine results, meaning that they will often be the first site that people look at when they are seeking to learn about a new subject. Because of the high traffic and visibility, and the fact that anyone with a computer and internet access can edit it, Wikipedia can be considered a form of participatory mass media.
Like other forms of mass media, content on Wikipedia can have a significant social impact by shaping people’s beliefs about the world. A strategically placed photo, chart, quote, or paragraph can expose thousands of people a day to critical information that they would never hear about in high-school textbooks or the nightly corporate news. Given the amount of effort that is expended to try to gain a TV spot that might be seen by a few thousand people for one night, it’s disappointing that more activists are not working to gain a foothold in Wikipedia, where they can reach thousands of people per day, perpetually.
For example, take a look at the article “Paramilitarism in Colombia“, which covers the history of right-wing death squads in Colombia, and examines how they have been backed by the U.S. government and multinational corporations. Because of the content that Wikipedia editors have added here, people visiting the article will learn about the role of U.S. counterinsurgency experts in creating the paramilitary groups, see photos of massacres committed by paramilitaries, and learn about their role in cocaine trafficking — things which are almost never mentioned in the media dialogue surrounding the civil war in Colombia. This article receives 2500-3000 visitors per month, which could (especially when coupled with work on related articles such as Plan Colombia, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, etc.) have a significant impact on the work of human rights activists who are working to end the violence in Colombia, by informing thousands of people about what is happening there and what the real roots of the problem are.
Anyone who is interested in educating people and shaping public opinion should seriously consider learning how to edit Wikipedia, and begin working on topics related to their own activist work. There are literally hundreds of thousands of articles out there that need to be edited and improved. For instance, social justice activists could target articles on poverty or prisons. Privacy groups could target articles on surveillance technologies. These changes will augment the efforts of people doing activist work “on the ground”, by exposing tens of thousands of people per month to accurate information regarding the issues they are working on. Wikipedia is a powerful tool for raising public awareness … and it’s free and open for you to edit it. Take advantage of this!
People who are interested in learning more about Wikipedia can feel free to contact me with any questions about how to get started. In the near future, I plan to write more about how to edit Wikipedia, where to find good references for articles, and some of the challenges that Wikipedia editors might face when trying to edit Wikipedia articles (such as organized censorship/propaganda teams and systemic bias).