Wikipedia founder to combat fake news with new website

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has launched a new website to help combat fake news.

The crowd-funded Wikitribune aims to be a “new kind of news platform” that will take the fight to the producers and facilitators of fake news by “bringing journalists and a community of volunteers together”.

Ten journalists will be hired to produce “professional, standards-based journalism that incorporates the radical idea from the world of Wiki – that a community of volunteers can, and will, reliably protect and improve articles”.

Instead of the community ‘hanging around the bottom of articles’ in the comment section as they might on the websites of traditional news providers, on Wikitribune the community will the central element. Professional journalists will create stories, fact-check, and verify alongside this non-professional team.

The crowd-funded model means the site will carry no advertising and it will aim to produce “politically neutral” stories through a collaborative approach to both originating its own news and, in effect, checking the veracity of news produced by other sources.

“We want to make sure that you read fact-based articles that have a real impact in both local and global events,” says the Wikitribune launch message. “And that stories can be easily verified and improved.”

One of the overriding criticisms of social sites like Facebook and Twitter is that they have made an insufficient attempt to combat the free flow of false information across their networks.

Facebook is at pains not to be seen having editorial oversight for content on its networks. Only yesterday Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, told BBC Newsnight (news of which comes to us via The Telegraph) the site does not see itself as an “arbiter of the truth”, despite taking its responsibility over fake news “very seriously”.

Some people find it hard to reconcile those two statements. When individuals and organisations can post content to the site or pay for misleading adverts, Facebook’s desire to remain as a platform where everything is controlled through an algorithm rather than a publisher, which might involve the accountability of individuals and oversight, looks increasingly thin.

And that’s the difference between the Facebook view and that of Jimmy Wales. Wikipedia built up its reputation by being overseen by dedicated and thoughtful core communities who edit appropriately – while Facebook wants to provide users with tools to help them make their own decisions.

For example, one of the tools Facebook will use is a pop up, so when a user tries to share a piece of news where the facts are disputed, it will warn them of such. It is also offering users tips on spotting fake news.

It’s interesting that Google also announced today it’s first steps against fake news. Its plans include the deployment of tools allowing users to report misleading or offensive content – it will also let people complain about misleading, inaccurate or hateful content that pops up in its autocomplete search function. In addition, it plans to refine its search to give greater priority to authoritative pages and push down low-quality content.

The new Wikitribune community will work in much the same way as that of Wikipedia. It might not have a single editor – in the top-down traditional newsroom sense – but it will have editorial oversight provided by a community that will give feedback and provide guidance on stories and on topics it wants to see pursued.

This system, however, does raise a question about those communities being infiltrated by individuals with less wholesome aims than the non-partisan provision of news. So, what about community members pushing a certain agenda or being hijacked in the way other news providers comment threads have been?

In fact, this very question was raised this morning with Jimmy Wales on the Today programme. He said his definition of a community was not anyone who rocks up, but those who are there to share in the mission.

“At Wikipedia, of course, people occasionally come on who are, let’s say, anti-Semitic, and they’re banned almost immediately. The community is very strong in having a sense of itself and a sense of its purpose. Everyone is welcome, until they misbehave.”

There are, however, a couple of further points to mention. Wikitribune is making every effort for its endeavours to be as transparent as possible, presumably to avoid any accusations of bias, fakery, anything else that could be seen to devalue its project. In fact, it says this: “Facts can be presented with bias, taken out of context and most recently a lot of facts are just plain…made-up. Supporting Wikitribune means ensuring that that journalists only write articles based on facts that they can verify. Oh, and that you can see their sources. That way you can make up your own mind.”

That’s all well and good, but when senior politicians (like Donald Trump) are prepared to call-out established and trusted news organisations as purveyors of ‘fake news’ there seems little hope that Wikitribune’s transparency efforts will really be sufficient to cut through all the rhetoric. If people are willing to believe the alt-right (and alt-left for that matter) over the more ‘legitimate’ areas of the media, is there any real hope that this new way of ‘doing’ news will stand apart from the noise?

There’s also the small matter of how the traditional media goes about earning its corn. Established, commercial newspapers in the UK has always complained about the digital activities of the BBC eating into their potential revenues (and by consequence, their ability to ‘do’ independent journalism). How will they feel about another ad-free player starting to challenge them for the valuable eyeball time of their readers?

My guess is that while you might be able to apply this argument to the Wikitribune launch, the reality might not stack up. It’s resources will be minimal compared to the BBC (and even the smallest national newspapers, for that matter) and its likely that the dent it could make in business plans will be similarly-sized.

Still, if established newspapers did start to worry and complain about it, surely that would be a sign it’s performing well. And that would really be something, wouldn’t it?