By Lucy Crompton-Reid, Chief Executive of Wikimedia UK
Wikimedia UK’s vision is of a more informed, democratic and equitable society through open knowledge. There are times when achieving that vision seems light years away, but it still inspires me; and I think that the idea of creating a better and fairer world – even if they may articulate it differently – motivates many of Wikimedia’s volunteer contributors. In my experience and observation Wikimedians are also driven by a fierce commitment to objectivity, neutrality, openness, accessibility and truth. Unfortunately, during times of conflict and other emergencies, these values can be extremely fragile and highly contested. The Covid-19 pandemic was one such emergency, during which our already unhealthy and unbalanced information ecosystem became more vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation. The current situation in Gaza and Israel is another.
Coverage of the war on Wikimedia has received millions of pageviews from around the world. On the English Wikipedia alone, the main article on the crisis has had nearly 1000 contributors (probably more by the time this is published). When writing about such a terrible situation and one that is driven by deep-seated division, Wikipedia’s emphasis on fairness, proportionality, neutrality and verifiability becomes even more vital. However the very fact that in some languages (including English) the conflict is described as the “Israel-Hamas War” while in others it is the “Gaza War” illustrates that – even when contributors to Wikipedia are editing in good faith – knowledge is not an ever-fixed mark but something that is negotiated in real time, while real lives are being lost.
While many of us are watching the unfolding news with mounting horror, Wikimedians in the region are of course directly impacted, as are those who have personal connections through family or cultural ties. Tragically, we have heard of at least one volunteer contributor to Wikimedia who has been killed during airstrikes on Gaza, and an unprecedented number of journalists have died in the conflict. Meanwhile, the information ecosystem is being severely undermined by internet shutdowns, as well as rising disinformation.
The Wikimedia Foundation, which hosts Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects, is working hard to support affected volunteers, with the Human Rights team leading a working group with colleagues from Legal, Disinformation, Global Advocacy, Technology and Communications. They can be contacted for support and advice at email@example.com; or firstname.lastname@example.org (monitored by staff 24/7) regarding an immediate threat of physical harm.
The Wikimedia Foundation is also working in partnership with other organisations – for example through the #KeepItOn coalition, the Freedom Online Coalition and the Global Network Initiative – to support diplomatic and other actions against internet shutdowns in Gaza, and have created and published this comprehensive guide with resources on how community members can stay connected during internet outages. The Foundation’s recent update on Wikimedia’s activities in relation to the crisis in Gaza and Israel details further information about how the Human Rights team and others are supporting staff and volunteers and addressing disinformation.
It is vital that we guard against false or misleading content on our platforms. Currently, pages relating to the crisis in Gaza and Israel – particularly in English, Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi – are being closely monitored by Wikimedia Foundation staff as well as volunteer communities to protect against any coordinated efforts to manipulate content, and staff are collaborating with academic researchers to understand more about potential malicious activities on the Wikimedia projects. In the medium to longer term, however, it is also crucial to improve media and information literacy skills as a way of helping to combat the impact of misinformation and disinformation. To that end, Wikimedia UK – the national charity for the global Wikimedia movement – has a long-held commitment to developing media and information literacy skills, and we work extensively with universities and other formal and informal education settings to support the development of these skills. We see an important link between media and information literacy skills and civic engagement, and published a report earlier this year on how Wikimedia UK increases citizen engagement in democratic processes through our work in information literacy.
More recently, Wikimedia UK co-hosted a two day workshop in partnership with the BBC and the Royal Society on the role of media and information literacy in building resilience to future emergencies, particularly in light of the unique challenges posed by AI-generated disinformation. As we know from conflict situations as well as from the Covid-19 pandemic, emergencies exacerbate inequalities and amplify asymmetries in the information environment. Moreover, Generative AI is creating huge changes in the way that information is created, shared and consumed. The workshop brought together academics, journalists, disinformation experts, policy advisors and senior leaders from civil society, government and community organisations in order to address the critical issues of building resilience against emergencies, and explore what different institutions can do to ensure access to trusted, life-saving information in times of crisis.
The relationship between media and information literacy and people’s behaviour online and offline is very nuanced. After all, the creation and dissemination of disinformation depends on highly sophisticated media literacy skills (of the bad actors involved) in order to appear credible. Also, whilst building trust in institutions is essential for us to navigate existing and future crises, there are some communities that have been excluded or exploited by our institutions, and those communities’ criticality and distrust needs to be understood in that context.
We will share more about our workshop with the BBC and the Royal Society early next year, including a summary of the discussions and emerging policy recommendations. My own key takeaway was a reinforced sense of urgency in improving the overall health of our information ecosystem, including (but not confined to) a more joined up approach to increasing media and information literacy across all levels of society. The work that Wikimedia staff and volunteers are doing to minimise misinformation and disinformation across the Wikimedia projects is also crucial, in times of peace as well as war.
If you are interested in training to become a Wikipedia editor, please keep an eye on Wikimedia UK’s varied event programme. Details are usually listed here.
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