Cyber disputes mirror real world instability
Read a newspaper article about a country’s political and economic state, and you’ll often see numbers-based indicators, such as levels of affluence, business sentiment or numbers of strikes, used to indicate whether a place is doing well or not. The judgement goes that if things are doing well, you’ll see it in the statistics, and from there make some conclusions.
For journalists and commentators looking at political stability, though, it’s often harder to come up with quantitative judgements. Some, for example, equate economic and political stability. Others may uncouple the two, figuring that political instability means that political elites are doing something other than making economic life difficult.
Researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany have come up with something that will help journalists compare relative political stability without having to look at the latest poll on X or Y to divinate the near future. To do so, the researchers transposed insights gained from biology research to the world of social media, internet and international relations.
Disputes over the content of articles in the internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia can serve as an indicator for the political stability of a country. The researchers came up with an index that measures the frequency of pages linked to a country that are disputed by users of the online encyclopaedia. To calculate the index, the scientists used methods similar to those applied to biological networks and applied them to the cross-linked information in Wikipedia. The result gives a ranking of countries similar to much more complex indices relating, for example, to governance or the economy.
'Our investigations show that the analysis of cross-linked information from sources like Wikipedia can be an interesting, useful and innovative way of supplementing indicators in other areas that require a much more elaborate set-up,' says Robert Russell of Heidelberg University’s Cluster of Excellence Cell Networks.
The internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia is made up of cross-linked articles that can be edited by anyone at any time. Articles whose impartiality is disputed are marked accordingly. Disputes among Wikipedia authors allowed Prof. Russell’s research team to see how often a country turns up in connection with a controversial Wikipedia article. Pages in question tend to be debates about present-day or historical events and people, often with content that varies greatly depending on political viewpoints. (Thankfully the researchers did not include disputes on the relative merits of specific boy bands, Eurovision song contest entrants or B-list celebrities.)
'The evaluation of our ranking for the most cross-linked countries suggests that debates in Wikipedia correlate with regional instabilities all over the world,' Prof. Russell explains. 'Our Dispute Index is in very good agreement with indicators that are much more difficult to elaborate and are usually based on a combination of different political and economic metrics.’
The researchers also programmed a website where users can make their own comparisons over the past four years. A look at Tunisia, which saw mass demonstrations earlier this year, shows a fairly high number of disputes over the studied period. Thailand, which has also had demonstrations and some civil unrest in the past couple of years, showed a comparatively lower number of online disputes.
European countries tend to rank as relatively quiet in the study, with Poland having among the least controversial of Wikipedia entries. The study did show an increase in the number of Wikipedia disputes on pages relating to countries that have been in and out of the news following the financial crisis of 2008.
Will the researchers turn their talents to other burning questions that are often hotly disputed on Wikipedia? It could make for some very interesting results if they did.