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Scrutinising the myth of social media ‘neutrality’

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Scrutinising the myth of social media ‘neutrality’

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Published by University of Leicester Press Office for University of Leicester in Education

A University of Leicester academic has encouraged people to look carefully at how articles are constructed on websites such as Wikipedia – and to understand that the information contained within is rarely as ‘neutral’ as it might seem. 

Dr Ruth Page from the University of Leicester’s School of English has published a paper in the academic journal Language and Literature entitled ‘Counter narratives and controversial crimes: The Wikipedia article for the ‘Murder of Meredith Kercher’, which seeks to shed light on how articles on sites such as Wikipedia reflect the specific cultural contexts and biases by which they are written.

Since the murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher on 1 November 2007 in Perugia, Italy, there has been conflicting evidence regarding how she died and who is responsible.

At the time, the press was quick to accuse Amanda Knox, one of Kercher’s flatmates, as a ‘femme fatale’ involved in the killing, which gave the case its notoriety and world-wide media coverage.

In her paper, Dr Page compares coverage in the form of English and Italian Wikipedia articles surrounding the Meredith Kercher case, and has identified important differences between how the two depict the event. 

She said: “In the case of the Kercher article, there is a difference in the ways the events selected for inclusion on the Wikipedia page have changed over time, and which differ according to cultural context.  

“The versions of the article in the English Wikipedia that were current at the time of the first convictions drew on British news media and cited other documents which represented Knox in a negative light. However, in 2013, the English Wikipedia article presented a much more balanced picture of Amanda Knox.

“The Italian Wikipedia article for the Murder of Meredith Kercher, on the other hand, is very different and much more negative in the way the selected events and quoted material represent Amanda Knox.

“Interestingly, the Wikipedia articles continue to change - the English article has now been edited over 8000 times by over 1000 people. In this process of editing the 'facts' that are cited can come from different sources, and those 'facts' can be put together in ways that depict very different versions of events.”

Dr Page’s study involved accessing the page histories which are publicly available on the Wikipedia website for the English and the Italian articles, as well as French, German and Persian Wikipedia articles on the topic.

She analysed how the citations used in different versions of the article changed over time in terms of the nationality of the cited press reports and whether the cited material seemed to imply the guilt or innocence of the three main suspects in the case.

Dr Page’s findings reveal how certain versions of events come to be more prominently published than others. The stance taken by the press in some cases influenced the stance that the Wikipedia article seemed to take towards the people involved in the case.  

She added: “Wikipedia makes the process of how information is constructed very transparent and easy to access: looking at the archives of page histories and talk pages is like opening the bonnet of a car. It helps you understand how the car works properly.

“In the case of the Murder of Meredith Kercher, the pattern of citations pointed to a clear relationship between news media and the Wikipedia article, with one influencing the other.

“My study showed that social media sites use different resources to promote particular versions of events. In the case of Wikipedia, citations are crucial resources which can be used as material to determine whether an event can be included in the article or not and can shape the overall representation given in the article.

“Other social media sites use other kinds of resources to promote particular events: think about the value of retweets and hashtags in Twitter, or invitations to 'like' a page or post in Facebook.

“In a nutshell, social media sites are not neutral, and can be used or disrupted for all kinds of purposes and agendas.”

Dr Page’s article was published by SAGE Publications in the academic journal Language and Literature on 6 February. The journal can be found here: http://lal.sagepub.com/

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