Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has often been treated by news organizations like the black sheep of the information business. For years, the site has drawn criticism for its crowdsourced content, with pages being written and edited by anyone in the world.
But as trust in the media wanes and news organizations struggle to engage with readers, Wikipedia has emerged as a leader in transparency and user growth — and it can offer some important lessons to journalists and fact-checkers.
Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation — the nonprofit organization that hosts Wikipedia — gave the keynote speech at Global Fact 4 today. Maher addressed more than 200 attendees at the fact-checking conference in Madrid and explained how they can use the power of transparency and user engagement to get readers back in their corner.
Ahead of Maher's address, we spoke with her about the ways transparency, trust and engagement apply to fact-checking.
Consumers are increasingly skeptical of news organizations and nonpartisan fact-checkers. Seeing as Wikipedia has been an exercise in gaining readers’ trust, how do you suggest journalists and fact-checkers begin to repair that relationship with consumers?
Wikipedia started from the position that we had to earn the trust of our readers rather than assume we had transitive trust from being part of a broader institution, such as the institution of the free press. Today, Wikipedia editors still believe that we have to work to earn the trust of the public every day. Wikipedians start from the position that the information on Wikipedia should be as accurate as possible, as high-quality as possible, and as verifiable as possible — and then they encourage everyone to check the citations anyway.
Wikipedians are also very comfortable with the idea that Wikipedia — and its individual articles — is always a work in progress. Knowledge is constantly evolving, and our understanding of the world, from science to history to current events, is always in flux. Wikipedians know this on an intrinsic level, and as an extension, know there is no way to ever be truly authoritative.
What they strive for instead is an approximation of the truth — what humanity knows at any given time. Trust in this context has to be situational: comprehensive, reliable and consistent enough that people can feel comfortable using it for a general overview, but with the knowledge that for more serious research or critical topics, they should follow up and dig deeper. I think of it as "minimum viable trust."
So, humility, transparency, and a sense that we’re here for the process, rather than the finished product. It’s an approach that acknowledges imperfection by challenging us to be better. It’s an approach that is open with readers that they may know better than us, at any given moment. And it is an approach that embraces the ability for pieces of the structure to wobble without undermining the integrity of the whole.
The topic of transparency comes up often in the fact-checking community with regard to showing readers how and why certain claims are fact-checked. What can fact-checkers learn from the transparency you offer to your readers?
Wikipedia, in addition to being open to the world to edit, strives to be fully transparent. But this isn’t just at the superficial level of an explainer: It is at the operational, procedural and production level. Everything from our software stack to our data sets to our content policies are out there in the open to poke and prod. Readers can review nearly every edit ever made, every version of an article, every citation, every link. They can see when changes were made, and often who made them and why.
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While this transparency is most often a tool for Wikipedia editors to keep an eye on efforts to influence content or introduce bias, it also serves as a powerful accountability mechanism. Even if only a tiny fraction of our readers are peering behind the curtain, we know that anyone is welcome to, at any time. It is also an explicit commitment to our users that they don’t have to just passively consume. They can be participants in the process of creating and confirming knowledge — checking citations, questioning sources and coming to their own conclusions about reliability and trust.
Since its inception, Wikipedia has experienced tremendous growth — you’ve expanded to a number of different languages, you’re adding new pages of research and so on. How can fact-checking have similar growth in the years ahead? What do fact-checkers need to be most cognizant of as they try to expand their reach and relevance?
Wikipedia grew where it filled an unfilled need. In some places, it was more convenient and comprehensive than a traditional encyclopedia. For others, it was the reduced cost and barrier to access, and for yet others, it was the first time that a comprehensive encyclopedia-like reference was available.
I’d be looking for how fact-checking can situate itself not as an end, but a means. What is the value that it brings to people’s lives, in practicable ways? How does it help solve their problems and empower them to make decisions? So, finding places where the need is strong, but there are gaps — that’s the first thing I’d look for.
Wikipedia also grew because of the simplicity and applicability of the idea. It was an easy model, clear and replicable, in which anyone could participate. Its policies of verifiability and neutrality are viable in almost any language and cultural context. How does the pursuit of unbiased information and verification propagate through participatory, replicable models? How do you lower the barrier of entry to participation and use, while ensuring the experience is largely consistent? That’s the second thing.
Wikipedians seem to be taking a more activist position on sources, with English editors banning the use of the Daily Mail as a reliable source. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, meanwhile, has launched WikiTribune, a project that, while not associated with Wikipedia, seems to suggest the online encyclopedia alone cannot serve as a repository of accurate information about the world we live in. How is Wikimedia thinking about sourcing and trust in the platform going forward?
One example of a banned source doesn’t make a trend piece! In fact, that debate had been going on for years, with compelling arguments on both sides of the discussion. Wikipedia very rarely bans sources outright, instead choosing to focus on the overall characteristics of a source or author.
Sorting fact from fiction has been a significant function for Wikipedia editors since Wikipedia was first created, and the approach of the editors has been very stable over time. The policies around neutrality, verifiability and reliability have been with us for many years now and have served the encyclopedia well even in this time of concern over the prevalence of misinformation.
I expect editors will continue to keep a close eye on sourcing as we move forward. I also expect that we’ll see a continued commitment to our definition of neutrality, whereby all "major and minor" viewpoints are represented, but represented according to the preponderance of evidence. Our editors are deeply vested in ensuring Wikipedia can be a reliable resource for all, on even the most contentious or complex topics. I have confidence they’ll continue to hold themselves to their already high standards.
What can you tell us about the levels of accuracy on Wikipedia itself? Why do you think, especially in schools, there has been a prohibition on using Wikipedia and to what extent was that misguided? Additionally, Wikipedia has been accused of not being very representative in terms of gender and ethnic diversity. This too, inevitably, makes for a less "truthful" result. What are you doing to change this?
Several studies have shown that Wikipedia is as reliable if not more reliable than more traditional encyclopedias. A 2012 study commissioned by Oxford University and the Wikimedia Foundation, for example, showed that when compared with other encyclopedic entries, Wikipedia articles scored higher overall with respect to accuracy, references and overall judgment when compared with articles from more traditional encyclopedias. Wikipedia articles were also generally seen as being more up-to-date, better-referenced and at least as comprehensive and neutral. This study followed a similar 2005 study from Nature that found Wikipedia articles on science as reliable as their counterparts from Encyclopedia Britannica.
Of course, we still encourage all our readers to check the citations!
We believe that Wikipedia doesn’t belong in your bibliography — but that it does belong in education. When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to use an encyclopedia as a source in my school papers. They helped provide context about a subject, but then you were expected to hit the books. At the Wikimedia Foundation, we agree: 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.
And we do believe that Wikipedia can be a great teaching tool, not just a great reference! We all know that students are using it anyway. As a teacher, why not use that as an opportunity to engage students through discussions on digital literacy, media literacy, reliable sources and critical thinking? Some educators have gone even further, assigning writing or improving a Wikipedia article as homework. It’s a great way to engage students directly in these issues, and their efforts live on for hundreds of millions of readers around the world. Last year, more than 14,000 students edited Wikipedia as part of a school assignment.
At the Wikimedia Foundation, we know Wikipedia has issues with diversity, bias, and representation. After all, our vision is for every single person to share in the sum of all knowledge, but we’re still predominantly written by people in the Global North. And even there, we have challenges: Of English Wikipedia’s 1.3 million biographies, only about 16 percent of those biographies are about women. That’s a significant challenge. We can't serve every single human on the planet unless we truly represent the diversity of the human experience.
Of course, the challenge isn’t just Wikipedia. Because we’re based on secondary source material, Wikipedia is often simply a mirror held up to the world’s biases. We know that throughout history, the majority of humanity has not been deemed worthy of encyclopedic notability, including women, people of color and almost anyone from outside of Europe and North America. They also have been systematically underrepresented in media, academic literature, awards and professional recognition. We all have a lot of work to do.
The good news is that Wikipedians love nothing more than solving problems. Our volunteer communities around the world are thinking critically about these issues and have launched some incredible projects aimed at increasing the diversity of our content and editing community. From AfroCROWD which aims to improve coverage of Black and African diaspora heritage, to Wikiproject Women in Red and WikiMujeres, which aim to improve participation and representation of women on Wikipedia, they’re raising awareness and making steady progress.