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.

Wikipedia sockpuppetry: linking accounts to real people is pure speculation

Will the real Grant Shapps please stand up? ViciousCritic/Totally Socks, (CC BY-NC-SA)

You must have heard about the recent accusation of Grant Shapps by the Guardian. Basically, the Guardian claims that Shapps has been editing his own Wikipedia page and “Wikipedia has blocked a user account on suspicions that it is being used by the Conservative party chairman, Grant Shapps, or someone acting on his behalf”.

In a short piece that I wrote for The Conversation I try to explain how these things work in Wikipedia, what they mean,  and basically how unreliable these accusations are.

There are two issues here:

First, conflict of interest, for which Wikipedia guidelines suggest that “You should not create or edit articles about yourself, your family, or friends.” But basically it’s more a moral advice, because it’s technically impossible to know the real identity of editors. Unless the editors disclose their personal information deliberately.

The second point is that the account under discussion is banned by a Wikipedia admin not because of conflict of interest (which is anyway not a reason to ban a user), but Sockpuppetry: “The use of multiple Wikipedia user accounts for an improper purpose is called sock puppetry”. BUT, Sockpuppetry is not generally a good cause for banning a user either. It’s prohibited, only when used to mislead the editorial community or violate any other regulation.

Sock puppets are detected by certain type of editors who have very limited access to confidential data of users such as their IP-addresses, their computed and operating systems settings and their browser. This type of editor is called a CheckUser, and I used to serve as a CheckUser on Wikipedia for several years.

In this case the accounts that are “detected” as sock puppets have not been active simultaneously — there is a gap of about 3 years between their active periods. And this not only makes it very hard to claim that any rule or regulation is violated, but also, for this very long time gap, it is technically impossible for the CheckUser to observe any relation between the accounts under discussion.

Actually, the admin who has done the banning admits that his action has been mostly because of behavioural similarity (similarity between the edits performed by the two users and their shared political interests).

Altogether, I believe the banning has no reliable grounds and it’s based on pure speculation, and also the Guardian accusations are way beyond what you can logically infer from the facts and evidence.