Biases in Online Attention; Whose life matters more

This has become a common knowledge that certain lives matter more, when it comes to media coverage and public attention to natural or manmade¬†disasters. Among many papers and articles that report on such biases, my favourite is this one by William C. Adams, titled “Whose Lives Count?”, and dated back to¬†1986. In this paper, it’s been reported, that for example, an Italian life matters to the American TV’s as much as some 200 Indonesians lives.


The Mh17 crash site in eastern Ukraine. Analysis of Wikipedia found that its article about the crash was the most read across all the aircraft incidents reported in Wikipedia. Photo by Robert Ghement/EPA.

We also studied such biases in online attention and in relation to aircraft crashes. Our paper, recently published in the Royal Society Open Science, reports that for example, a North American life matters almost 50 times more than an African life to the pool of Wikipedia readers.

The paper has received great media attention, and made it to Science and the Guardian.

The abstract of the paper reads

The Internet not only has changed the dynamics of our collective attention but also through the transactional log of online activities, provides us with the opportunity to study attention dynamics at scale. In this paper, we particularly study attention to aircraft incidents and accidents using Wikipedia transactional data in two different language editions, English and Spanish. We study both the editorial activities on and the viewership of the articles about airline crashes. We analyse how the level of attention is influenced by different parameters such as number of deaths, airline region, and event locale and date. We find evidence that the attention given by Wikipedia editors to pre-Wikipedia aircraft incidents and accidents depends on the region of the airline for both English and Spanish editions. North American airline companies receive more prompt coverage in English Wikipedia. We also observe that the attention given by Wikipedia visitors is influenced by the airline region but only for events with a high number of deaths. Finally we show that the rate and time span of the decay of attention is independent of the number of deaths and a fast decay within about a week seems to be universal. We discuss the implications of these findings in the context of attention bias.

and the full paper is available here.