EXCLUSIVE: Wikipedia Founder Takes On Fake News, Can WikiTribune Solve The Media’s Trust Problem?

Jimmy Wales thinks big thoughts. His first big hit was Wikipedia, which has as its goal to put an encyclopedia in the hands of everyone on the planet.

Now Wales is taking on the media’s trust problem and the rise of “fake news” with his latest platform, WikiTribune.

Wales has always believed in communities, the keys being trust, transparency and accountability. Everything that happens on Wikipedia is fairly well in the open. Page edits, histories, and even administrative actions are all tracked and public for everyone to see. This creates accountability for anyone who breaks the rules.

WIKIPEDIA SETS A STANDARD

Wikipedia’s quality standards are socially, not algorithmically, enforced. This brings the community together to support and enforce the site’s most cherished values: neutrality, verifiability, respect and civility. They are outlined in the “five pillars” of Wikipedia, the fifth of which is that “Wikipedia has no firm rules.”

Although many controversial topic pages are frequently edited, and certain celebrities and people in the news are targets for vandalism, the site’s cohesive social contract and volume of volunteer editors makes it quick, efficient, and largely self-correcting. Wikipedia is the world’s most-referenced source for encyclopedia research and facts.

Also, Wikipedia is owned by the Wikimedia Foundation, also Wales’ brainchild. The foundation is a non-profit organization that administers the MediaWiki software and Creative Commons “ShareAlike” license. Wales receives no formal compensation from Wikipedia.

THE MEDIA’S TRUST PROBLEM: SHOW YOUR WORK

The burning question is: can Wikipedia’s success be duplicated in an arena dominated by for-profit news outlets?

Addressing the rise of “fake news,” Wales wrote in a Quora Q&A Wednesday night (N.B.: Quora is another site in which Wales has invested). He divided the issue into two problems. The first is media bias inherent in professional news outlets, leading to abandoning of journalistic principles and ethics. That in itself isn’t “fake news” per se.

Second is the one I’m more interested in. And that’s that various problems with traditional media have given rise to a real loss of trust, and this has given rise to the plausibility and gullibility. In short, when we get biased news, frequent errors, clickbait headlines, an extreme race to publish first (whether a story is confirmed or not) then the public doesn’t know who to trust or what counts as real.

What’s the solution to that? At WikiTribune what I’m really putting forward is a strong ethos that we must show our work. If we have an interview, we should to the maximum degree possible post the audio and the transcript. If we have quotes from a source, we should to the maximum degree possible name the person we are quoting. If we have documents, we should to the maximum degree possible publish the documents.

Not everyone will read all that background material, of course. But it will be there for a community of people who are interested in holding truth as a core value to read and to edit our work to improve it, in case someone has gone beyond what the source said, or written in a biased manner, etc.

Think about how pool reports are handled at the White House, the Pentagon and other places where a large number of reporters can’t cover events. Pool reports are expected to be concise, just-the-facts narratives that any news organization can use to publish an account of what happened. WikiTribune’s goal is to create a universal pool report, staffed by a small number of professional journalists, augmented by a much larger pool of volunteers.

Since the reporters’ notes (with exceptions for protecting some anonymous sources) will be fully published, everyone will be able to fact check them. And by everyone, Wales means, literally, everyone.

Consider the WikiTribune model of journalism to be a blend of professional newsgathering and blogging. The rise of blogs has simultaneously held the paid media accountable for their reporting, and also competed with that media to the point where some blogs are now in all respects professional media. (Think Huffington Post, Vox Media, The Blaze.)

WikiTribune takes that model and constructs it on top of the flexible, social trust foundation used in Wikipedia. If a reporter gets something wrong, a user can correct it. If the correction holds up under the quality standards of “show your work” and verifiability, then the record stands corrected without editors having to decide if they should publish a correction or retraction. If the correction fails the quality test, then it’s stricken.

If more media outlets take this approach, then the public understanding of what “counts” as real news will shift. Just looking like a newspaper masthead won’t be enough – people will expect to see the source documentation just a click away.

Of course, the tin-foil hat crowd can’t be persuaded on their core issues no matter what documentation appears in front of them. Try persuading a flat-earther, or a moon-landing-hoax believer, or a host of others tethered to their beliefs. But that’s not the target audience.

If trust in the news and media can be improved by small increments, for a majority of the population that consumes news, it’s a huge win.

NPR MEETS TIME MAGAZINE

I spoke with Wales on Tuesday about how he plans to make this site work. In short, he has no idea, but he does have a starting point (he denounced what he called “a priori thinking”). I asked how WikiTribune can be designed to handle the cadence and velocity of a flow of news versus the scholarly march of Wikipedia. “I think for the most part, that is an experimental question, that we will have to feel our way through.”

“There are certain principles of quality, certain principles of timeliness, that you have to design for,” Wales said. “But, you know, this is all yet to come.”

Although WikiTribune has code written, it’s all subject to change based on the actual experience of running the site. “Global in scope, covering the news comprehensively,” Wales said. “Obviously we have to start somewhere.” But the details are far from worked out.

One of the start points is how this is all going to be paid for. First of all, there will be no advertising. That removes the incentive for clickbait and “going viral.” If page clicks isn’t the motive, then content and a devotion to factual reporting can be front and center.

These are the core differences of WikiTribune from traditional media.

First, genuine community control.

“Traditional sources, that you mentioned, are very much top down, very old fashioned way to do things, that don’t really incorporate the community at all,” Wales explained. The closest thing to community they have, he added, is the comments at the bottom, “as we all know, don’t work very well in eliciting useful feedback from the public.”

We at The Resurgent have all experienced the terror of comment sections, which are typically unread by the authors (for good reason). It’s one of the reasons Erick decided that this site would not have a comment section at all.

Wales’ goal is to create a community of shared values, not around political viewpoints or religious or philosophical world views, but around a commitment to accuracy, transparency, and quality. Like I wrote above, he thinks big thoughts.

Second, the business model.

The business model is focused on “getting people to give us monthly support versus chasing ad dollars.”

“Instead of creating sharable content…we want satisfying, rich content,” Wales said. “When people get to the bottom of the story, they’re like ‘Wow! That was really, that was something! I’m going to support that!'”

I summed it up as NPR meets Time Magazine. Wales chuckled, “yeah, maybe so.”

To be clear: WikiTribune will have no paywall, at least to start (remember, this is all “experimental”). If you like what you read, you can subscribe. If you like what you read, you can read it without paying anything. If you don’t like what you read, you can still read it for free.

It’s risky, but all new models carry a boatload of risk. If it fails to pay for itself, Wales will be faced with the decision of going to a paywall, scaling back the professional staff, or going for ad revenue. I’m absolutely certain ad revenue is a non-starter, and any kind of paywall is likely against Wales’ principles, but we’ll see where it ends up.

FACEBOOK AND THE ‘DISTRIBUTION’ PROBLEM

I asked Wales if he has spoken to Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s efforts to combat fake news. “I haven’t talked to Mark about this at all, but I do talk to people at Facebook.” In his Quora answer, he refers to Facebook and Twitter as the ‘distribution’ problem. He likened it to the war against spam e-mail.

The bigger problem Wales sees is “how un-factual the political landscape has become.” He wrote “When there was a spat about the size of Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd and Kelly Anne Conway said ‘alternative facts’ I basically blew a gasket.”

In my conversation, I assiduously avoided bringing up politics or Trump. Fake news has been around for a long time, but it’s mostly hidden in the fringes, except for certain viral stories finding their way around social media–the distribution problem. But since now fake news has been politically weaponized, it’s perhaps time to look at a way to rebuild trust in the media and news itself before the foundations are totally destroyed. That’s my personal opinion. I didn’t ask Wales his, although by his response on Quora I think I know what he’d say.

WILL IT WORK?

Will WikiTribune work? Of course nobody can know for sure. But Wales put it this way. “Suppose if Facebook offered an option, hey–a new feature–we’d like to show you something that we think you’ll disagree with, but that vis a vis from various signals of an algorithm, of high quality.”

“I think a lot of people…I’d love to see that,” he said. People would be very interested in challenging their assumptions, but with “high quality.”

Today’s business models around the distribution mechanisms and production mechanisms “are really designed to give people what they want,” Wales said. “They’re more designed to react to people’s whims.”

As for bias, Wales believes that he can tackle that. “The traditional values of traditional journalism are actually pretty good,” he said. “But also you’ve got the community there working very hard to implement precisely [procedures for combatting bias].”

“They’re going to call you out on biased language and so forth.” Of course, Wales admitted, “it’s never perfect, but we’ll give it a good go.”

One of the challenges in attempting to be truly neutral is getting a diversity of views on board. One Quora questioner asked “Why has Jimmy Wales picked only left-leaning figures to head his WikiTribune crowdsourced project? Why are there no Conservative advisors?” Good question.

The people listed there now weren’t chosen for their political leanings. I’m not even aware, for example, of what Guy Kawasaki’s politics are.

All were chosen because I have known them for years and trust them – and they have shown a keen interest in my work in various ways.

More advisors will be added, and I welcome the addition of conservative advisors.

In the end, it all comes down to trust. Wales closed his comment with his own question. “Who do you recommend I ask?” I recommended Erick Erickson, but I’m biased, because he signs my check.

But if you look at Erick’s goals when he started The Resurgent nearly 18 months ago, it’s not far from Jimmy Wales in some ways: no chasing viral shares, no clickbait (that’s one of Erick’s pet peeves), no pop-up ads, and no reporting “fake news.” We’ve had our challenges holding to these goals, and WikiTribune will probably face similar problems.

As Wales said, we have to start somewhere. This is as good a place as any, and much better than Vox or Slate or Salon or any of the other liberal blogs who have tried and ended up as simple mouthpieces for the left.

The truth is, WikiTribune has a long way to go before we’ll know if it can work. There might simply be too great a divide between political poles and world views for this to come together without veering into unbridgeable gaps. But as a concept, I wholeheartedly endorse this and believe it can begin to reverse years of devolution of journalism into a weaponized political game.

Note: In keeping with Wales concept of “show your work,” I’d publish my notes here, but they’re sparse and documented in an app I use called “AudioNote” which ties my written notes to a recording of the interview. Therefore I don’t have a useful way of publishing that material. But if anyone asks for backup, I do have both written and audio. That will surely be one of the challenges in keeping WikiTribune as an honest broker–the tools will need to be top notch and usable.

In the spirit of WikiTribune…if you like what you just read, consider supporting The Resurgent.

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