While sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have been plagued with bogus political stories created by Moldovan teenagers and Pizzagate conspiracy theorists, Wikipedia, the web’s de facto encyclopedia, has remained notably fake news free. As co-founder Jimmy Wales put it in recently in an interview with VICE News, “the phenomenon of fake news has had almost no impact on Wikipedia.”
Wales would be first to tell you why: Wikipedia’s thousands of volunteer editors and the site’s high sourcing standards, he says, are remarkably effective at keeping even contested entries clean.
Now Wales, 50, wants to apply what’s worked at Wikipedia to the actual business of news. It’s called Wikitribune, which like Wikipedia will depend on its “community” of readers for funding and real-time fact checking, alongside a paid staff of journalists who report, write and fact check stories. The project’s tagline: “Evidence-based journalism.”
To raise money for the launch, Wales is running a 29-day fundraising campaign that bears more than a passing resemblance to Wales’ infamous annual pleas for Wikipedia’s funding drives. The site will be supported by monthly contributors, rather than ad revenue.
“The number of people who have been willing to pay for subscriptions… has really skyrocketed,” Wales said in a CNN interview on Tuesday, which leads him to believe “the public is really ready to say we want quality journalism.”
Wales has been thinking about this idea for some time now. In an interview in January, he flicked at a couple of ideas that are now a part of the Wikitribune project. Rather than focus on partnerships with sites like what Facebook is doing with Politifact, which Wales characterized as a “top-down” approach, Wikitribune will allow its readers to verify journalists’ sources in real-time.
Wales gives Facebook a lot of credit for attacking the problem of fake news. “It is great that Facebook is turning to outside third parties” like Politifact and Snopes.com,” Wales said in an email, although he’s skeptical of whether Facebook’s approach will ultimately work.
“I don’t think anybody who is trying to think about being a good citizen online is comfortable with saying, ‘well, Facebook should decide what [news] we’re looking at,’” he said.
Traditional journalism has also been top-down, but Wales said that won’t be the approach at Wikitribune. “And I do not agree that hiring journalists to work side by side as equals with community members is ‘top down,’” he said. “That is old-school thinking that journalists are by default ‘above’ the community.”
He also said that advertising was a “factor” in propagating fake news on social media, and that readers can reasonably “wonder if the New York Times [and other news publications] is being influenced inappropriately by advertisers.”
On Wikipedia, “reliable sources” are the standard to which citations are held, meaning that editors can and frequently do yank things that aren’t properly sourced. With some exceptions, academic studies have consistently maintained that Wikipedia, on the whole, is accurate and competitive with non-community sourced rivals like Encyclopedia Britannica.
However, the system is imperfect. A 2011 survey found that only 9 percent of Wikipedia editors identified as female, and a 2012 paper in American Behavioral Scientist, a peer-reviewed academic journal, found that the number of active Wikipedia editors dropped from around 50,000 in 2006 to about 35,000 in 2011, resulting in a substantial decrease in the quality of Wikipedia articles.
Still, Wikitribune is not Wikipedia, and it will not a be news site written by Wikipedia editors. Presumably, Wikitribune articles will be shared on Facebook and other social networks. And Facebook, where 44 percent of Americans get news (at least occasionally), is where a huge part of the problem lies. “Facebook is meant to be a platform where people share photos and things with their friends,” he said.
Though Wikitribune’s citizen-professional collaboration model is untested, it will just be one publication among many whose articles get passed around on Facebook, and Wales knows this. He said over email that because Wikitribune relies in part on the broader community, it will be able to do more to point out fake stories.
“Community participation means scale,” Wales said. “How much time does the New York Times spend debunking fake news? Not a lot.”