Wikitribune: New Initiative to Fight Fake News


Image credit: Wikitribune (CC BY 2.0)

There is a new contender on the block for helping to fight the impact of fake news. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has decides to create a new initiative called Wikitribune. The goal is to provide a highly credible source of news that is not driven by advertisements or clickbait and thus avoid low quality and misleading content. The core idea is to combine professional journalists with a community of volunteers to ensure that the information is authored, updated and fact-checked and verified in such a way as to provide credible information.

On the Internet, anyone can publish almost anything without regards for what is factual and what is just nonsense. This has brought some great benefits, from anyone being able to post their opinions or find any information they are looking for online. However, there are also some limitations. People can isolate themselves into ideological filter bubbles where they only see and read information that has been skewed and misrepresented in a specific direction in order to provoke intense emotions, including fear and anger. This has recently been weaponized in order to influence world events, from general elections in the United States to pitting different groups against each other. By making stuff up about the news that provoke people (called fake news) and sharing low quality clickbait on social media, these fake news providers are able to make millions of dollars in ad revenue. Even political advisers have deliberately pushed false information as if it was factual by labelling those falsehoods as “alternative facts”.

Debunking Denialism has written extensively on these issues, including how to spot fake news, how social media filter bubbles skew your experience, how alternative facts are just misinformation, how some political advisers make up stuff out of think air to fit their narrative, how clickbait media contributed to the misinformation wars, the rise of fake fact-checkers and current battle fields.

What is Wikitribune?

The basic idea behind Wikitribune is to undermine the spread and influence of fake news and other kinds of deceptive information about current events by creating a platform that combines traditional journalism of credible news organizations with the community participation made famous from Wikipedia. There is a ton of low quality content out there primarily driven by ad revenue. By setting up a system that does not rely on advertisement for income, but on driven community members that pay monthly subscription fees, the hope is to counteract the prevalence and spread of clickbait content and write content that really matters to people and getting them involved. Jimmy Wales tells the Guardian that he is aiming to be a third way between traditional false balance journalism and the tabloid tactic of “ramming things down our throats”. The aim is for Wikitribune to be up and running before the British general election, but what really made Wales understand that things needs to change was the U. S. general election. He has gotten tired of the fake news surge and their impact on the U. S. election and new political climate. The crucial moment came, he tells the Guardian, when Kellyanne Conway started pushing her “alternative facts” method. That was his breaking point.

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How will Wikitribune work?

Wikitribune will be crowdfunded by members who pay a monthly subscription fee. All the content will be freely available without any paywalls so anyone can read it. Anyone can also flag problems, fix them and submit them for review. It will use verifiable sources, so anyone can look up any claims being made and verify for themselves that they are supported by credible sources.

It is essentially the best of professional journalism and community participation. The Wikitribune organization will also have financial transparency, so anyone can find out how money is being spent. The money that Wikitribune will get will be spent on paying professional journalists. Instead of the community only being active in toxic comment sections or having no influence at all, they will have the ability to influence the reporting by submitting updates that will then be reviewed by hired journalists. There is a brief video on the website that provides more details. Currently, they have hired one out of a total of ten journalists and gotten a little over 3300 supporters (and climbing).

What will Wikitribune mean for scientific skepticism efforts?

Wales uses a lot of impressive-sounding phrases and soundbites. He labels his efforts “evidence-based journalism” and that “It’s a movement that we believe will eventually obliterate low-rent, unreliable news for good.” Those are some ambitious goals, but how will this initiative function in the larger context of the misinformation wars?

One concern mirrors a common concern over Wikipedia. If anyone can contribute, how can accuracy and reliability be guaranteed? The standard reply is to point out that scientific studies have found Wikipedia to be reasonably accurate when compared with, for instance, Encyclopedia Britannica and pharmacology textbooks. However, there might not be powerful groups with vested interests on topics such as some random town in Bulgaria, 1970s albums from Al Hurricane or Soviet serial killer Anatoly Slivko, but can we really say the same about issues such as immigration, feminism, the economy, religion and scientific research into pseudoscientific topics? Can anti-science activists or bigots manipulate or skew the system to gain influence over the nature and content of materials posted to Wikitribune? Wales says that Wikipedia is not a perfect system and has limitations, but the fake news surge appears to have had very little impact on Wikipedia thanks to the efforts of community participation.

Another concern might be that Wikitribune will just be another source that will be primarily read by people who really understand the benefits with fact-checking and who are not stuck in technological filter bubbles. Those that produce, spread and believe fake news might not be affected that much by the Wikitribune efforts. This might be countered by pointing out that the goal might be to reach those who are undecided regarding a certain event and are trying to find different types of reporting on it. They may not have as strong bias as the fake news true believers, and thus be more open to correction.

Some might say that Wikitribune will run into the same hostility problems as Wikipedia. Those who think that Wikipedia has a persistent and chronic liberal bias will likely conclude that the same is true for Wikitribune. They might also do everything that they can to undermine the credibility of Wikitribune, perhaps even using fake news and “alternative facts” to accomplish it. If Wikitribune is successful, or even partially successful, it might spur rapid evolution among the misinformation producers, perhaps leading to the rise of fake fact-checkers, who superficially appear to be just as credible as Snopes or Politifact, but having none of the intellectual substance or rigor. Imagine if some well-funded group such as Breitbart or Natural News where to deploy fake fact-checking services! If one thinks that it is hard for many people to separate real news from fake news, it will be at least as difficult for people to separate real fact-checking from its fake counterpart. But perhaps real fact-checking is easier to fact-check because sources is transparent, whereas fake fact-checkers would have a problem living up to the transparency and openness used by their real counterparts. However, this might only work for those with a vested interest in accuracy and factual information. Those that are not might be just as easily manipulated by fake fact-checkers as they are by fake news. In the end, it might not at all be reasonable to restrict fact-checking initiatives out of fear that it will be weaponized by opponents of credible and factual information.

Keeping these potential limitations in mind, it might just be more important to boost the signal of credible fact-checking to crowd out the noise of fake news and other forms of misleading information. So no matter if Wikitribune becomes just another fact-checking contender with similar impact as Snopes or Politifact or a new revolutionary approach to doing news, its very existence and production of material might be a beneficial addition. It can also serve as an important proof of principle that news organizations can survive on membership subscriptions and thereby lessen the impact of advertisement revenue encouraging clickbait and emotionally manipulative fakery for clicks.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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