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Wed 8 April 2020
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Though writing sensationalised news about Wikipedia is a profitable occupation, John Lubbock argues that we all must make a stand against disinformation.


I have worked as the Communications Coordinator for Wikimedia UK, a ‘chapter’ of the Wikimedia movement which promotes Wikipedia and supports the community who edit it. The charity has just 11 full and part-time staff in the UK to promote one of the biggest websites on the internet. I write this in my capacity as a freelance journalist, not as a member of the charity, which I am leaving this month after almost four years.

It is never easy to get the press to report on the valuable work we do to improve Wikipedia, which is used by around 1.4 billion people a month (21 billion total page views last month) and currently exists in 307 different languages.

For some reason, much of the media is simply not interested in knowing ‘how the sausage is made’, though I feel that sometimes this lack of interest is due to the competition that Wikipedia poses to traditional media as a source of news.

A YouGov survey from 2014 found that British people trust Wikipedia more than any news source to tell them the truth. And they should. Wikipedia editors, by and large, are trying to improve free access to basic, factual information about any subject. They lack the political or financial incentives to manipulate the facts or tell partial, misleading stories. They don’t do their own research, but simply summarise other sources, guided by rules such as the reliable sources guidelines.

However, the task of communicating how Wikipedia works is made somewhat harder by the volume of misinformation and poor reporting about the site.

Some of this reporting is just ignorant. In a recent example, posted by a Greek Wikipedian in the Wikimedia social media hub Facebook group, Greek news reported that the results of Greece’s Next Top Model competition had been ‘announced’ on Wikipedia before the competition had finished.

It is not that hard for anybody to edit Wikipedia and, if someone inserts incorrect information, it is usually changed back pretty quickly. But, because most people don’t understand this editing process, people often take screenshots of the incorrect information before it is deleted and these screenshots can go viral as examples of false information on Wikipedia.

The person who posted the story, Mina Theofilatou, noted that “ignorance about how Wikipedia works makes writing sensationalised news about it a profitable occupation” and asked if other community members had experienced similar issues. Sadly, this was a depressingly familiar story to me.


Gotcha Journalism

I have lost count of the number of sports-related vandalism stories I have seen in the press about Wikipedia. Google News searches for Wikipedia often turn up dozens of tabloid sports reports about how football players had their Wikipedia pages ‘HACKED’ to say something hilarious.

This stuff is pure clickbait and, while it is not that damaging to the public’s understanding of how Wikipedia works (as it reinforces that the site isn’t centrally controlled and is largely open to editing), it does give the impression that Wikipedia is a Wild West of information which is not to be trusted. This, too, is a huge exaggeration, given the amount of effort editors, edit filters and bots put into keeping the site free of vandalism.

I am increasingly concerned that the public’s lack of awareness about how Wikipedia works is leading to a situation in which disingenuous journalists are using it as a tool to discredit their political opponents.

A few days after the 2019 General Election, right-wing newspapers such as the Telegraph, Daily Mail and others reported that the fact that the Labour Party leadership candidate Keir Starmer is a “millionaire” was removed from his Wikipedia page. They failed to report that this unsourced claim was inserted into the lead sentence of his article on the site only half an hour before it was then removed. Leaving out this key information made it appear that someone was trying to hide the fact that Starmer is rich, when the reality is that it was probably inserted maliciously and was removed in accordance with Wikipedia’s strict editing guidelines.

The Daily Mail, in particular, has been on a low-level crusade to discredit Wikipedia since 2017, when editors of the site decided to put the newspaper on the list of unreliable sources which should not be used to reference factual information (but can still be used for other things like quotes). The Guardian exacerbated this situation by sensationally headlining its report with Wikipedia Bans the Daily Mail as ‘Unreliable’ Source, suggesting that this was a top-down decision made by Wikipedia’s leaders. Wikipedia has no leaders and all the content and policies are decided democratically by ordinary editors who decide to participate in the discussions. 

All tabloid sources were already deprecated for use in Wikipedia’s policy on reliable sources and editors merely decided that the Daily Mail was closer to a tabloid than a serious paper of record. 


Countering Political Disinformation

Meanwhile, in parts of the leftist new media which are sympathetic to Assadist and Putin propaganda, or carriers of it, some people have been trying to push the narrative that Wikipedia is controlled by people who push a UK/US state foreign policy line.

These people mistake the fact that Wikipedia’s guidelines don’t consider Russia Today and Press TV to be reliable sources with some kind of conspiracy to silence dissident voices. There are many Wikipedia pages criticising Western foreign policy. Of course, all Wikipedia editors have their biases, but the community is diverse enough that these biases usually cancel each other out. Research from Harvard Business Review shows this to be the case.

I worry that if we do not undertake a serious public education campaign to teach everybody in the country how digital technology works, how to assess and critique the information they receive, and how to check facts, that unscrupulous operators who do not care about facts will continue to exploit the public’s lack of awareness to trick people into being afraid, into hating others, and into discounting anything said by their political opponents.

This is not just about ‘fake news’ – a terribly imprecise term which can refer to all manner of things. This is about honesty, trust and the obligations we all owe to each other in a democratic society.

What gives me hope is that young people and those of us who are more ‘online’ are better at identifying fake news than those who are over 65 and have grown up with institutional authorities who were trusted to tell the truth. Perhaps the scepticism of the young is a good defence mechanism. I personally think that it’s through Wikipedia’s transparency, commercial independence and lack of advertising that it has achieved the level of trust recorded by YouGov.

In 2014, Finland began a major public education project to teach citizens how to identify fake news. Finland’s education system is globally respected for its progressive outlook and initiatives like this put the country way ahead of other Western nations in dealing with the problems created by new technology. If the UK Government is serious about protecting citizens, not just from interference and manipulation by foreign powers but in restoring trust in democracy and a healthier media environment, this is the kind of thing it should do.

Hannah Arendt famously said that “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist”.

I have seen people turn off from participating in politics and the democratic process because they have simply given up on trying to figure out what is true and who is telling the truth. We cannot let this happen to our society. We must all try to educate ourselves and the wider public about how to tell fact from fiction. We must inoculate ourselves against disinformation before it is too late.


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