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What can fact checkers learn from Wikipedia — How not to do things, perhaps?

By Kingsindian

[First in a two-part series.]

“Fake News” became one of the big issues during and after the 2016 US Presidential election. The concept itself is vigorously contested, with arguments about how new it is and how important it is. After the shocking election result, there were many solemn articles written on how fake news undermines democracy. There has been soul-searching among the media (both “traditional media” and “social media”) about the issue.

One of the voices that have popped up in this discussion is that of Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” In recent months, Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), the non-profit in charge of Wikipedia, has been giving talks and interviews about how Wikipedia works — talks and interviews with titles like “What can fact checkers learn from Wikipedia?“, “Wikipedia to fight fake news” and “Wikipedia aims for consensus and trust as fake news spreads”.

So what can the news media learn from Wikipedia? Let’s find out.

Media Strategy
First, an obvious question: why is Wikipedia popping up in the news on this issue? Let our guide be the dictum: “news doesn’t just happen; it’s made to happen”. Therefore, it’s instructive to look at the communications audit commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation, conducted by Minassian Media. Incidentally, the head of Minassian Media, Craig Minassian, is the Chief Communications Officer of the Clinton Foundation. The audit recommends:

Talk neutrality post-election

Given the record levels of partisanship/polarization and POV/opinion media (embodied perhaps most of all in the U.S. election), we have an opportunity to build on the neutrality message. The post-election space gives us an opportunity to do this, but does anyone think this is likely to change anytime soon?


  • Think about a post-election gag about getting “back to facts now.”
  • Bring Wikipedia’s “Citation needed” to the media (both mainstream and fringe) by pushing out our balanced coverage of the most controversial subjects.
  • Think about introducing a breaking news Twitter feed that pushes out neutral content when controversy breaks.

The same theme pops up in the WMF’s fundraising pitches at the end of the last year. Here is an example from Jimmy Wales:

You may have heard people say that in today’s online media environment, facts have become subjective. At Wikipedia, we reject that idea. When you find yourself in despair about the state of the world, remember: Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites on the planet. And that’s because, at the end of the day, people share a common thirst for high-quality, neutral information. We are proud to offer a place where people of all backgrounds and ideologies can come to think, learn, and find neutral ground together.

Wales has parlayed this sentiment, which undoubtedly strikes a chord with many people, into a new business venture, WikiTribune.

Katherine Maher

Katherine Maher
Image: Wikimedia Commons
License: CC BY-SA 4.0


Wikipedia’s self-image
Maher painted an interesting picture of Wikipedia in her interviews:

Maher says that Wikipedia is “open to everyone to edit”, “participatory”, “transparent” in the edits made to any article, the reasons given for those edits, and the citations used to support the material. She likens the “Talk” page for every Wikipedia article, where Wikipedia contributors can discuss their edits, to a “newsroom” where the discussions are open and transparent. This transparency makes people “accountable” for their edits, and builds trust. Maher says: “Even when you have contested facts or contested information, Wikipedia tries to provide you some sort of consensus amidst all that complexity”.

Maher also acknowledges Wikipedia’s limitations: “Wikipedia is a tertiary source. But it is a great place to get a general understanding, and its citations are a perfect jumping off point for further research.” Maher says that she “encouraged a healthy level of skepticism among the website’s readers.” Maher also acknowledged that Wikipedia contributors are typically from relatively rich countries and predominantly male.

Putting claims under scrutiny
Talk is cheap, but is Wikipedia faithful to the principles it espouses?

Openness to edit: Wikipedia may have once been “the encyclopedia anyone can edit” but those days are long past. Every day, a large number of IP addresses are blocked by the admins on Wikipedia, and one can observe people being blocked and banned at administrator notice boards for one offense or another. Others are banned or blocked for “sockpuppeting”, which is when two or more accounts are controlled by the same person. Since Wikipedia does not ask for any identifying information when creating an account, the “sockpuppet investigations” are often little more than informed guesses, based on behavioral clues and rudimentary technical tools.

Leaving aside direct prohibitions, there are many other factors which militate against a truly open editing platform. For instance, Wikipedia’s dated interface and convoluted markup can often deter users from contributing. The WMF has invested a lot of resources into developing a “Visual Editor“, which turned out to be a boondoggle which barely anyone uses. As Maher says, most of Wikipedia contributors are from relatively rich countries, and most are male. While the WMF has been talking about the “gender gap” for many years now, it has also failed to make any sort of headway on the issue.

Transparency and accountability: Let’s consider a thought experiment, based on Maher’s own analogy. Would anyone accept a “newsroom” where anonymous contributors with undisclosed conflicts of interest argue about things, where expertise is irrelevant, where contributors’ work is not paid, there is no editor or copy-editor, and then nobody takes responsibility for the final product? But this is an exact analogue of the Wikipedia system. Many on Wikipedia try to finesse this objection by saying that “facts are cited to reliable sources”. But citation to a “reliable source” (even according to Wikipedia’s own policy) by itself is not a sufficient reason for inclusion. Here, the following quote, by E. H. Carr from his book “What is History”, is apt:

Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude’s, goes round to a friend at St. Jude’s to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.

To translate to Wikipedia: how does one figure out what’s buzzing in the bonnet of some contributor named CounterStrikeKilla or Randy In Boise (or for that matter, Kingsindian)?

A final point about accountability. According to Wikipedia policy, nobody “owns” any page or group of pages. This is supposed to foster an open environment to edit. It also means nobody is responsible for the content. There exist certain Wikiprojects that perform quality assessments of various articles and they sometimes do a decent job, but there is no accountability or transparency for them either. What does it mean for a certain article to be a “Good Article” or “Featured Article”? Often, not much. The DYKs (Did You Know) on the front page, which often get thousands of views when they are listed, are routinely shot through with errors and misrepresentations.

sausage grinder

Image: Pixabay (CC0)

Neutrality and Consensus: Wikipedia does have norms around maintaining a “neutral point of view“. But what exactly is a neutral point of view? Which sources are cited, how is their content phrased, and in what proportion? In practice, it comes down to “consensus”. However, this consensus is not a consensus among experts or a consensus among “the people” (however defined) — instead, it is a consensus among an unrepresentative sample of the world’s people from which a few anonymous people show up in a discussion on a Wikipedia page. These people are often armed with nothing more than Google and their own biases. They then engage in “wikilawyering” for their positions, citing countless policies and guidelines running to tens of thousands of words, whose interpretations in Wikipedia are often idiosyncratic to Wikipedia and unmoored from the real-world meaning of the terms. From this sausage-making process, neutral content is expected to emerge.

[In the second part, we will look at the actual content which emerges from the process described above.]

Weasel Words Worry Wales

Gregory Kohs examines the frequency of weasel words in Wikipedia, a failing Jimbo Wales recently said is rampant in Journalism at large.

…continue reading Weasel Words Worry Wales


Alexa - Echo "Dot"

Barbara Page, Wikipedia Visiting Scholar, contemplates the creepy, exploitative nature of Alexa, which monetizes the work of Wikipedia editors.

…continue reading Alexa