Co-founder Jimmy Wales talks misinformation and the fight for truth at Wikimania 2017
The conference room filled with Wikipedia contributors and enthusiasts eager to hear from the website’s co-founder, Jimmy Wales, on Aug. 11. Alongside Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist specializing in hacker culture and online activism, Wales kicked off the discussion with the topics of information accuracy and misconceptions surrounding Wikipedia.
“In the early days of Wikipedia,” he said, “there was a lot of misunderstanding in the press. (Wikipedia was) never as bad as we were made out to be.” As Wales described it, the press would zero-in on the mistakes in the encyclopedia made by a small number of “bad” contributors.
At the same time, Wales said, the media would not focus on how passionate Wikipedia’s staff and contributors were about fixing these errors and promoting free, fact-based knowledge. There was never a time when Wikipedia was a “write whatever you like” venue, he added.
“We always wanted to get to quality. When people complained about Wikipedia, they were never aware of how much more fake information was available online,” Wales said during the talk held amidst a five-day Wikimania conference hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation in Montreal.
According to Evan Prodromou, a software developer, an open-source advocate and the keynote’s moderator, when Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects first started, there were many questions about liability. Now, however, Wikipedia has become one of the cornerstones of truth and reliability on the internet, he said.
Coleman, who holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University, acknowledged that, five to 10 years ago, teachers such as herself were unhappy if students used Wikipedia for their research.
“It is not that case anymore,” she said. “Many class projects encourage students to edit the Wikipedia page. I think part of that transition is the fact that pages went from basic overviews to very detailed and sometimes esoteric takes.” She said many experts in a wide variety of fields contributed to that shift.
Prodromou later shifted the conversation to how Wikipedia defines truth in a post-truth society. Coleman mentioned that the website takes truth very seriously. In fact, she said, the laborious process of the editing stage demonstrates the quality of truth on Wikipedia.
She added that, because there are people, such as climate change deniers, who deny factual evidence, “both convincing people of the truth and arriving at the truth is a difficult enterprise.”
It’s a reality, Coleman said, not only for Wikipedia but also in the industries of science and journalism. “Now people trust Wikipedia because we can see the process to get to the truth. And that’s a really big deal since you don’t always see that with some trusted newspapers.”
Wales and Coleman both agreed that Wikipedia is a space where information is presented in a more impartial way, with less bias than certain news organizations. “I do believe it is important to sometimes acknowledge when you do have a bias, because that’s a form of neutrality and you are explicit about it,” Coleman said. “Some newspapers do that, and some do not.”
Wales said that, although Wikipedia is different from everyday news, it focuses more on being neutral and acknowledges uncertainty. “We tend to write in a very authoritative style, and we admit when we are unsure,” he said.
Coleman ended the conversation with a sentiment describing Wikipedia’s value beyond its fight for truth. “People gain recognition among peers [through Wikipedia], and that’s very satisfying and a way where the individual can shine,” she said. “But in certain cases, very large and complicated projects can only be achieved collectively. Wikipedia has a huge impact on the world, and more and more people want to be part of that.”
Featured image: From left, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales; Harout Chitilian, the vice-chairman of Montreal’s executive committee; Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation; Christophe Henner of Wikimedia France and Benoit Rochon of Wikimedia Canada pose for the press at this year’s Wikimania conference in Montreal. Photo by Alain Lefort.