This article based on the text of Wikimedia UK’s submission to the government’s inquiry into fake news, which was launched in January.
A changing media landscape
The media landscape has changed beyond all recognition over the past 25 years. Before the internet, there were just a handful of media providers with large, guaranteed audiences and plenty of funding to compete with each other on the quality of their journalistic output.
In this bygone era, people generally had more trust in mainstream sources of information and knowledge. You knew where this media was coming from, and the media landscape was predictable. But now none of this certainty exists. The media landscape is diverse, with hundreds of subsidiary websites controlled by opaque political groups or corporate bodies. Faith in the old canonical media sources has eroded and social groups insulate themselves in bubbles that keep out conflicting ideas.
As economic inequality has risen, fragmented social groups have retreated into ideological positions. The erosion of trust in traditional media institutions further contributes to the ability of people to ignore facts that don’t fit their confirmation biases. This trend has become so bad that some commentators have declared that facts don’t matter.
Where does Wikipedia fit in?
Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia, not a news service (though its sister site WikiNews is a news service), and our mission is not political in the way many media organisations are – our goal is accurate, neutral information, not to make money or support any political ideology. Our volunteers are diverse in their politics, but they subscribe to the same process and mission to make the best, most neutral source of information which can be trusted by people no matter what their political views are. A recent study by Harvard Business School showed that Wikipedia articles usually become more politically neutral as more contributors get involved in editing them. This allows us to win the trust of our readers and hopefully provides an example to the media of how to regain the confidence of the general public.
As the charity which supports and promotes Wikipedia and its sister projects in the UK, we believe that facts do matter, but the way in which they are produced matters too. Wikipedia generates trust in itself through transparency and verifiability. You can check the sources of the facts written on every page in the list of citations. You can see the history of how each article was written and the accounts or IP addresses of the editors who wrote it. If you disagree with the content, you can discuss it on the talk page of the article to reach consensus with other editors about whether the information should be included.
Part of the problem is that our education system is still too often set up to inculcate facts, rather than analytical ways of thinking. Our pedagogic processes haven’t evolved from a media landscape in which you could be reasonably sure that what the BBC said was true, to one in which children are bombarded with messages from different political points of view, advertisers and ideologies. Our minds have always been a battleground for various social forces, but the sheer number of agents and institutions vying for control of our thoughts and feelings today is so large that it is confusing and destabilising for many.
In such a confusing landscape, people will often choose simple, clear messages which cut through this white noise. Facile slogans with little substance like ‘Take our country back’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ can gain momentum and huge support, while more complex facts and realities are drowned out.
Teach critical ways of thinking, not just facts
We believe that instead of trying to control the conversation and narrative, the best thing that governments can do is to arm their citizens with the educational tools to analyse this confusing landscape and protect themselves from indoctrination by simplistic political messaging. We believe that learning how to use Wikipedia, engaging in the creation of knowledge through debate and consensus, is one way that people can be armed with the analytic tools to form their own opinions and to distinguish good information from bad information.
On Facebook, people often share stories that conform to their previously held beliefs without checking the source of the information first. One very common internet meme from the middle of 2016 involved a made up quote by Donald Trump about how he would run as a Republican candidate for President because they are the ‘dumbest group of voters’. Just a minute of effort searching for the source of this information would reveal that it had been made up, but people wanted to believe it. This kind of fabrication is impossible to get away with for long on Wikipedia.
When you create a new article or add information to an existing article on Wikipedia, other editors who are watching the page will review your work, deciding if the information is correct and the source is reliable. Some of the highest traffic articles on Wikipedia are peer-reviewed by thousands of different people. Here are the page view statistics for the International Women’s Day article, which has been viewed over 1 million times already in 2017 on the English Wikipedia.
Wikipedia also creates trust and reliability by being the only non-commercial website in the top 100 most popular sites (by traffic) on the internet. It is run by a non-profit charity, the Wikimedia Foundation, and has no advertising. We believe that the absence of commercial advertising is integral to maintaining trust in the site, and this shows in the public’s response. Wikipedia gets around half a billion unique visits a month, and a recent poll by YouGov shows that people trust Wikipedia more than journalists from any media group.
Ensuring the best information is more visible
One aspect of Wikipedia’s importance is its search engine ranking. Unreliable sources can game the way search algorithms work to place high on Google rankings. However, Wikipedia articles will also appear near the top of searches, providing a reliable, neutral place to find a summary of other good sources. Here is an example:
Unfortunately, many educators have had a propensity to warn students away from Wikipedia, in the belief that if it can be edited by anybody, its reliability cannot be as good as the BBC or other traditional media. We believe this is clearly not true for most articles, but the point of Wikipedia is not to encourage people to take the information at face value. The sources will be transparently listed at the bottom of each article so you can see where the information comes from.
Social trust is an important bedrock to creating political consensus. Countries that exhibit low levels of interpersonal trust are generally ones beset by social and political issues. Economic inequality creates the conditions for a loss of trust, and makes it more likely that people will be willing to believe biased information. Wikipedia cannot fix the underlying problems of economic inequality, but it can teach people how to understand and analyse information in context.
Our community creates trust by developing rules by which we can judge the veracity and value of the content that people add to Wikimedia projects. Editors have for a long time deprecated the use of unreliable media sources, with one policy (WP:PUS) stating that:
The more extreme tabloids such as the National Enquirer should never be used, as most stories in them are intentional hoaxes.
These policies guide and inform discussions and disputes about the content of articles, and editors engage with each other on the Talk pages of articles to discuss and decide by consensus whether a source is reliable and whether particular information is relevant. This whole process is transparent, and you can look back at the history of any article to see its previous versions and what has been changed.
Active knowledge construction as part of good citizenship
What we try to do as a charity is to encourage people not simply to be passive consumers of information, but active agents and participants in the collective construction of knowledge about our world. We don’t believe that the narrative of history is best controlled by any one powerful interest, and we would like everybody to understand the process by which knowledge is produced on Wikipedia, so that we can all be sure the final output is transparent and verifiable.
It is this process which is lacking in traditional media. You never get to see the process by which the sausage is made, and that allows people with low levels of trust in traditional institutions to believe that the information is inherently biased. It is harder to believe this about Wikipedia because you can see for yourself how it was produced.
The world has changed, and yet we are still right at the dawn of the internet age, experiencing the changes that this new technology has wrought on culture, politics and society. We need to get to grips with these changes and develop systems which allow a more equitable balance of power between individuals, corporations and states so that people cannot be exploited for others’ gain. Wikipedia is one way to do that.