The 10 Most Controversial Topics on Wikipedia; Jesus was a natural but George W. Bush and circumcision?

September 4, 2012

By James Burchill.

 BURLINGTON, ON. Ever wonder what the most controversial topics on Wikipedia are? The crowd-sourced and edited online encyclopedia is home to a lot of contention. Entries on the site can change in seconds, especially in the more controversial subjects, while others may be horribly written and stay that way for months because it’s not a topic of interest to most editors on the site. 

So what are the subjects most likely to be controversial and see the most changes by the most editors? What are the topics that suffer the most revision as points of view clash?

Controversial? Worth getting more information on?

Well, I wasn’t the only one to wonder that. Some students and faculty at the University of Oxford (yes, that Oxford) wondered too. Lead by Taha Yasseri, the team decided to analyze Wikipedia to find out which topics were most controversial based on the intensity of their “editing wars.”

Not as easy as it sounds, though. Wikipedia is home to about 22 million articles in 285 languages with about 77,000 contributors working on it on any given day. Not happy with just the four million English version articles, though, Yasseri and his team decided to break down the controversies by language as well, looking at all 22 million articles to do it.

First, they had to define “controversial” as it applies to Wikipedia. Going by edits alone wouldn’t indicate contention as it could also mean that it’s a “live” subject that is rapidly changing or evolving, such as a current news event (e.g. a current television series or a current legal trial). So they focused on “reverts” instead, which are edits which are made by one person and then undone or removed by another. These are relatively common, though, but “mutual reverts” where an editor restores an earlier edition and then another editor (often the one who made the new changes that got reverted) changes it back to the new version again. These “edit wars” can go on for days in a back-and-forth struggle as editors duke it out over how things on the site are worded.

That definition works well for what the Oxford team wanted to measure. Using that, they were able to analyze Wikipedia and, after separating articles by language, create a “Top 10” list for them. The ten most controversial topics in English are:

1. George W. Bush

2. Anarchism

3. Muhammad

4. List of World Wrestling Entertainment

5. Global Warming

6. Circumcision

7. United States

8. Jesus

9. Race and intelligence

10. Christianity

At least people are asking questions: still far too many people saying it’s bunk.

Some of those are not surprising, of course, but others come out of nowhere. The top entry is a real surprise, since Bush has been out of office for over five years and is now relatively ignored by the news media. The second is a contentious but not often considered political philosophy that most of us might not even know exists. The third makes sense, as does the fifth, but who would have known that the WWE was so controversial?

Go figure on this one: wrestlers?

Indeed, this is a very interesting list. The team says that in every language, topics of religion are nearly always represented in the top five, as are topics like Israel, Adolf Hitler, and God. For the most part, though, these commonalities are overshadowed by the vast differences in what’s controversial in one language versus another. This often involves controversial war topics or native cultural topics, but can also be celebrity topics specific to the region the language is most commonly associated with.

You can read Yasseri et al’s work on Wikipedia measurements here.

James Burchill creates communities and helps businesses convert conversations into cash.  He’s also an author, speaker, trainer and creator of the Social Fusion Network™ an evolutionary free b2b networking group with chapters across southern Ontario.  He blogs at and can be found at the or behind the wheel of his recently acquired SMART car.

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