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:
- Providing open and free access to accurate information – Wikimedia UK facilitates the recording and provision of factual and accurate historical and cultural memory (redressing the imbalance of representation for marginalised groups), thereby challenging media manipulation.
- Improving information literacy skills – Wikimedia UK’s programmes promote information literacy by providing access to open knowledge, and facilitating its consumption and creation. As part of the content creation process, it fosters in-depth learning on reliable information sources, referencing, the different types of data and information, intellectual property, and on the open culture of information. Its content development programmes help fight mis- and disinformation, misrepresentation, systemic bias and inequality, thus building more tolerance and cultural understanding.
- Encouraging volunteering – Working with Wikimedia UK provides opportunities for marginalised groups to self-organise, self-represent, learn useful skills and become active members of a democratic society.
- Providing accessible collaborative infrastructure – Wikimedia UK’s programmes are delivered within the Wikimedia projects ecosystem, using its collaborative tools and drawing on its consensus-based community decision-making processes. Programme participants thereby gain direct experience of navigating community decision processes, self-representation and participation, achieving skills for civic engagement in public life outside of Wikimedia.
Costanza Sciubba Caniglia, the Anti Disinformation Strategy Lead at WMF said: This is a compelling report that explains the crucial relationship between an informed public and a healthy democracy. The initiatives that are documented in the report demonstrate how improving information literacy skills, building a diverse group of Wikimedia contributors, and providing infrastructure for Wikimedians to collaborate all help the Wikimedia movement provide access to open and accurate information. Wikimedia UK contributes to building a more informed and democratic society by supporting everyone’s right to be accurately informed and giving readers and volunteers the tools and expertise to improve their knowledge.
“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
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.” (source)
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? (eg. 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 (free knowledge for all), cooperation with others, 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.
Join our online session, Wednesday, 14th June 1pm BST Strengthening Civil Society: Wikimedia and Democracy – with an overview of the research and a curated Q&A into how engagement online can strengthen civic engagement offline.
Explore the report here:
- Full report
- Summary of the report
- Diagram – Mapping the role of Wikimedia in Civic Part
- Wikimania 2022 presentation of the findings
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