Why Wikipedia Is Much More Effective Than Facebook at Fighting Fake News

Wikipedia cracks down on disinformation, and pro-Trump web sites are the first to go

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
In a breach of journalistic protocol, a photographer for Epoch Times handed material to President Trump at a September 2018 White House event.
In a breach of journalistic protocol, a photographer for Epoch Times handed material to President Trump at a September 2018 White House event. Credit: Susan Walsh / AP
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

During the last months of 2019, the English-language Wikipedia community decided to ban a number of media outlets it deemed as unreliable – many of them linked to the pro-Trump right – from being used as sources of its online content. The process of blacklisting media outlets is part of the online encyclopedia’s battle against fake news, and it accelerated rapidly last year, when almost 20 different websites were labeled “deprecated sources” whose reliability is questionable at best.

The move has bolstered claims on the American right that Wikipedia suffers from a liberal bias, and thus highlights the political paradox it finds itself in today: The more it tries to safeguard its content from political bias by relying on verifiable sources, the more it is accused of having a political agenda.

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Among the sources newly named as unreliable for Wikipedia were a number of pro-Trump outlets – for example, One America News, The Daily Caller and The Gateway Pundit – which were banned due to their coverage of American politics and for disseminating “falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and intentionally misleading stories” – including some relating to the president’s dealings with Ukraine.

Like all decisions at Wikipedia, the addition of a news outlet to the list is determined by a community vote. In this case, the publications in question were said to have pushed false conspiracy theories regarding former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and echoing claims that supported the president’s defense of his conduct.

The case of another banned website – the Epoch Times – reveals just how complex the web of political interests behind media organizations supporting the president’s narrative is, and how Wikipedia finds itself playing a game of cat and mouse in attempting to provide the public with reliable facts and quash blatant propaganda.

The Epoch Times is a privately owned Chinese site, linked to the Falun Gong movement, that publishes a print edition in over 60 countries in numerous languages – including Hebrew. The Wikipedia community banned citation of its English and Chinese online versions, with its editors describing the publication “as an advocacy group for the Falun Gong, and... a biased or opinionated source that frequently publishes conspiracy theories.”

In waging its war against Chinese communism, the English-language version of the publication is extremely supportive of Trump and of right-wing, nationalist movements in Europe.

NBC was the first to reveal recently that Facebook deleted up to 600 fake accounts linked to the website that were used to disseminate false stories supportive of the U.S. president. Facebook also recently decided to ban the news site from buying ads on its platform. NBC reporters spoke to former Falun Gong followers linked to the paper who described their almost fanatical support for Trump as an anti-communist messiah.

The Washington Post described Epoch Times’ staff as being “more activists than journalists.” For its part, the Post has also reported that the Epoch Times had published articles containing false claims about Biden that were then cited in Wikipedia articles related to the Trump impeachment scandal.

Wikipedia’s blacklist has existed for a number of years – the first website to be labeled a “deprecated source” was the British tabloid the Daily Mail in 2017. Another British tabloid, The Sun (published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Group), was added this past year, as were similar outlets in Iran and Venezuela. The same goes for the left-wing Facebook group Occupy Democrats, which was delisted as a valid source of information.

The fact that the list has been expanded so substantially underscores the unique and decisive manner in which Wikipedia deals with disinformation, especially that related to Trump, and with the slew of media organizations – some of them well-known and formerly respectable – that parrot narratives supportive of him. In 2019, for example, the Trump mouthpiece Breitbart, which was once run by former Trump chief of staff and right-wing populist Steve Bannon, found itself delisted.

It is interesting to note that since Breitbart was banned, the right-wing outlet has begun focusing extensively on Wikipedia, which it frequently blasts as a bastion of the liberal elite. Its attention to the online encyclopedia only points to Wikipedia’s importance in political discourse today and highlights its role as an institution dedicated to factual reliability online.

Indeed, while Facebook and Twitter still struggle to use technological means to quell the scourge of fake news on their platforms, Wikipedia has in recent years become an island of sanity in a sea of digital disinformation. The secret to its success – which earned it the title of the “good cop” of the internet this year from The Washington Post – stems precisely from its meticulous sourcing policy. Wikipedia not only requires that every claim have a verifiable source supporting it, it also has assembled a hierarchy of sources, which is one of the keys to its relative success in maintaining online accuracy. For example, a blog post is considered less dependable than a newspaper article, which is less credible than a peer-reviewed academic article. On Facebook and Twitter, all links look the same, but on Wikipedia – not all links have the same value.

This hierarchy of sources allows the online encyclopedia to police its content in a way that Facebook never could, because unlike social media platforms, which strive to create interaction and collect data, Wikipedia and its community have a single, shared goal: compiling a free, comprehensive, web-based source of information. Though opinions vary within the community about what that means and how best to achieve it, Wikipedia has created the basic conditions needed for a shared reality, something that is dramatically missing from the echo chambers of Facebook and Twitter. Wikipedia offers greater transparency and a much better model for fighting disinformation than any social media platform has yet to do, simply by building a community of fact-checkers dedicated to keeping the site accurate. While the likes of Facebook remain bogged down in discourse about free speech, the Wikipedia community checks sources carefully and polices itself from the bottom up.

As the backlash from Breitbart demonstrates, Wikipedia has found itself on the front lines of the battle over fake news and in the political crosshairs of authoritarian regimes. Though China has blocked Wikipedia in both English and Chinese, and has a number of local online encyclopedias that toe the official line in its stead, the BBC revealed recently that Beijing still employs editors to post misinformation on Wikipedia in those languages, even though mainlanders don’t have access to it, a testament to Wikipedia’s importance online.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced (for the third time) his intention to render Wikipedia obsolete by creating a digital Russian-language reference source based on the Great Russian Encyclopedia, which was launched in 2004 and has yet to be revised.

Banning a source and labeling it as “deprecated” is a somewhat drastic move for the Wikipedia community, which is proud of the fact that “anyone can edit” an entry. Blacklisting a source can involve using a filter that actually flags attempts to create a link to a banned site, a technical solution that flies in the face of the “anyone can edit” ethos that stands at the heart of the initiative. However, drastic times call for drastic measures and, although it is short, the list of banned sources is growing, and touches the core of Wikipedia’s attempt to remain reliable in the age of disinformation.

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