Analysis

Why Jimmy Wales' WikiTribune Won't Save the News

News that Jimmy Wales is extending the Wiki model into digital journalism with Wikitribune ignores his site’s role in creating the same phenomena it now wishes to fight

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, March 2016.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has been shot dead, according to Wikipedia, the online, up-to-the-minute encyclopedia,” a 2005 online news report claimed. The report was obviously false, and knowingly based its allegation on vandalism to the Wikipedia article for Wales. It is an early example of “fake news” and was published to make a point: the online encyclopedia co-founded by Wales, which anyone can edit, could not be trusted.

Over a decade later, it seems the tables have turned. Now Wales has set his sights on battling so-called “fake news” with the expected launch of Wikitribune, an online platform that will extend the logic of Wikipedia to the world of digital journalism.

The project, which is independent from Wikipedia and owned by Wales, will see a community of volunteers fact-check and edit reports by professional journalists, whose salary will be paid for by user donations.

Unlike Wikipedia, the “evidence-based” site will not be anonymous, with reporters publishing under their real names. Like Wikipedia, though, it will be free, constantly updating and based on what Wales calls “the radical idea from the world of wiki that a community of volunteers can and will reliably protect the integrity of information.”

Indeed, in recent months the Wikipedia community has pushed itself to the forefront of the battle against “fake news.” In February, Wikipedia editors decided to discourage usage of British tabloid The Daily Mail as a source, due to what was described as its “generally unreliable” nature. Moreover, it was reportedly the rise of President Donald Trump and adviser Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternative facts” statement that prompted Wales to launch the new site.

Wikipedia names Daily Mail as an "unreliable souce" in February 2017.
Screengrab/The Guardian

“This will be the first time that professional journalists and citizen journalists will work side-by-side as equals writing stories as they happen, editing them live as they develop, and at all times backed by a community checking and rechecking all facts,” Wales said, describing Wikitribune as “news by the people and for the people.”

Similar initiatives in the past have failed, but there is a larger underlying issue with this particular project: That the crowdsourced logic of Wikipedia is complicit in creating the conditions in which fake news first arose.

It is easy to forget that when it launched at the beginning of 2001, the crowdsourced encyclopedia was the primary example of so-called “post-truth,” with critics decrying the idea that masses of anonymous users would decide what is true or false. And though many articles on the English-language version of Wikipedia are considered a generally reliable source today, the history of Wikipedia’s success is a history of how its model of truth gained legitimacy at the expense of classic authoritative sources, from scientists to respected media outlets. Some of the very same outlets that Wikitribune is now out to fix.

Jimbo’s ideology

Before founding Wikipedia, Wales’ first incursion into the online world was the administration of an online forum dedicated to the radical libertarian thought of Ayn Rand. Wales – or Jimbo, as he is known in the Wikipedia community – even describes himself as a libertarian, and has openly linked his political and economic outlook with Wikipedia.

Wales is sometimes called the “benevolent dictator” because of his famous reluctance to intervene in anything content-related on the site. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger even left the project after Wales refused to step in during the so-called “edit wars” and impose restrictions on the creation of content on the site.

Indeed, one can even claim that Wikipedia is an example of a libertarian model of truth, according to which what is true is what the open market of ideas can agree on being true. According to this outlook, the role of the site’s administrators is to let the market run its course.

This model of truth – which places authority in the open marketplace of ideas – is a radical break with the more classic, expert-based model of truth, and has it roots in both Wales’ ideology and Wikipedia’s lesser-known predecessor, Nupedia.

Wales and Sanger initially wanted their encyclopedia to be based on academic experts, and Nupedia’s first iteration was supposed to have academics contribute and peer review content for free. However, the site failed to gain editors and, thus, Wikipedia was born as a free alternative. While Nupedia only managed to publish about 20 articles in its first year, Wikipedia managed 200. Experts, the Wikipedia founders learned, were not the way to go.

So Wikipedia embraced what is called the “procrastination principle,” according to which any content change to the site would go live automatically, even if it was made by an anonymous user, and the Wikipedia community, not the site’s management, would fix false content.

In other words, Wikipedia’s growth is built on allowing errors onto the site, with the hope of attracting others to fix them. This is an example of what the web calls Cunningham’s Law, according to which “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.”

The general lack of restrictions on Wikipedia has allowed the site to grow to millions of articles. But it has also turned Wikipedia into a extremely inclusive – if not promiscuous – encyclopedia, where different, at times contradictory, articles live side by side.

One famous and telling example is the history of the Wikipedia page for Jesus: as tensions and disagreements grew between believers and nonbelievers, the article was broken up into a number of new ones, splitting into one page for Jesus and another for Historical Jesus. Instead of addressing the issue at hand, Wikipedia attempts to sidestep it altogether, allowing both sides to enjoy their version of the truth.

And though Wikipedia is run by a nonprofit, Wales does profit from the diffusion of the Wikipedia model that followed the site’s success, both ideologically and economically. An interesting example of this is Wikia, a for-profit site owned by Wales and allowing anyone to open their own version of Wikipedia for any field or topic, creating a proliferation of Wiki-style sites for everything from fan fiction to political movements – and yes, to news as well.

In a sense, the prevalence of Wiki-type sites is what makes Wikipedia so well suited to being the encyclopedia for the “post-truth” world: an encyclopedia where multiple narratives of truth can exist, as long as the free market of ideas (or “community” in Wikipedia parlance) can agree on them.

All this casts Wales’ idea of objective fact-checking in a somewhat ideological light, because though Wikipedia does not have a business model, it does have an implicit ideological model.

As one online user of the slashdot forum noted: “Oh good. I want Jimmy Wales to be in charge of what I’m told is true and what is false. It is not like people would ever lie about stuff like that for political agendas. I’ll trust Jimmy’s politics over my own common sense.”

Omer Benjakob is an editor at Haaretz and is currently writing an M.A. thesis on Wikipedia and science