Wikipedia Founder Aims to Counter Fake News

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Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales and WikiTribune

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has stepped to the forefront in the fight against ‘fake news,’ launching a crowdfunded online publication, WikiTribune.

Its purpose is to cover a broad range of general issues – politics, science, technology – with each fact-checked by an army of proof readers  and ‘beefed up’ when required.

Wales said: “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 told The Drum.

Wales is wooing funders with a promise they’ll have a say about topics to be discussed, and those at the front of the line could be the first journalists hired prior to the June 8th UK general election. The first WikiTribune journalists (meeting the $10/month default amount) will be paid to write global news stories while volunteer contributors will “vet the facts.”

WikiTribune is an independent site, not affiliated with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation, and will offer transcripts, video and audio of all its interviews to augment transparency. “WikiTribune is news by the people and for the people,” Wales said.

In a world roiling from fake news, social media leaders Google and Facebook have come under fire for spreading misinformation.

WikiTribune will be fundamentally different. In addition to lowering the bar on advertiser support, Wales said, “The basic concept here is to have a community driven news platform, so very much like other Wiki communities like Wikipedia. And this will have a business model which is based on monthly supporters rather than advertising, so that it drives our incentive in a different direction.”

Across the digital aisle, Facebook is facing the fallout from the social/news bubble it has created.

Close to 1.2 billion people use the service daily and as the upcoming cover story (posted online early) in The Sunday New York Times magazine details, Facebook “has become the largest and most influential entity in the news business, commanding an audience greater than that of any American or European television news network, any newspaper or magazine in the Western world and any online news outlet.”

WikiTribune logo

It is also “the most powerful mobilizing force in politics, and it is fast replacing television as the most consequential entertainment medium.”

“With its huge reach, Facebook has begun to act as the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truths swirling about the rest of media. It sucks up lies from cable news and Twitter, then precisely targets each lie to the partisan bubble most receptive to it. If it’s an exaggeration to say that News Feed has become the most influential source of information in the history of civilization, it is only slightly so.”

The Times cites “the solipsistic irresistibility of algorithmic news” which threatens democracy; “any situation in which thousands or perhaps millions or even tens of millions of people are mainly listening to louder echoes of their own voices.”

Digital activist and entrepreneur Eli Pariser named the phenomenon, “The Filter Bubble.”

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Journalism School in New York, sums up Facebook’s challenge: “At some point, if they really want to address this, they have to say, ‘This is good information’ and ‘This is bad information.’ They have to say, ‘These are the kinds of information sources that we want to privilege, and these others are not going to be banned from the platform, but they are not going to thrive.’ In other words, they have to create a hierarchy, and they’re going to have to decide how they’re going to transfer wealth into the publishing market.”

Andrew Lih, associate professor at American University and author of The Wikipedia Revolution, believes WikiTribune has a potential advantage because of its layer of professional journalists. As Wales told The Guardian in February, “If there is any kryptonite to false information, it’s transparency.”

A nobel endeavor, but not one without its problems, As The Atlantic points out,

The larger problem with WikiTribune is this: Someone who is paid for doing journalistic work cannot be considered “equals” with someone who is unpaid. And promoting the idea that core journalistic work should be done for free, by volunteers, is harmful to professional journalism. The difference between a professional and a hobbyist isn’t always measurable in skill level, but it is quantifiable in time and other resources necessary to complete a job. This is especially true in journalism, where figuring out the answer to a question often requires stitching together several pieces of information from different sources—not just information sources but people who are willing to be questioned to clarify complicated ideas.

It also posts other burnng questions:

For starters, what are WikiTribune subscribers actually paying for? It’s not yet clear what kinds of stories Wales’s 10-person team will cover other than “global news stories,” he told Nieman Lab. That’s an awfully broad focus for such a small team. (For comparison: The New York Times has about 1,300 newsroom staffers—reporters, editors, fact-checkers, copy editors, photographers, and so on.)

Wales’s interest, for now, seems to be on the mechanics of news production rather than the substance of it. “The news is broken,” he says in a video on the WikiTribune crowdfunding site, “but we figured out how to fix it.”

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