Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales clearly remembers his first reaction to Donald Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway coining the phrase “alternative facts.” He tells me, “I was like, f— this.”
While it’s common for critics of any incoming administration to give a 100-day grace period to allow for a U.S. President to settle into the role of the most powerful person on the planet, Wales didn’t last more than 48 hours. After a provable lie about Trump’s inauguration crowd size, Wales tells me he thought, “I’m over him already. I’m not giving him any benefit of the doubt. And he’s a liar.”
Wales isn’t immune to fake news. The founder of the website favored by late-night essay writers and drunken sports bar fact-checkers alike admits he’s stopped himself, at least once, from sharing a viral article that proved — upon further investigation — to be fake. The man is, after all, only human. And perhaps surprisingly, Wales’ faith in humanity hasn’t wavered in the face of demonstrable political lies dressed-up as facts.
Having faith in humanity
It’s important to note Jimmy Wales didn’t invent the idea of a “Wiki” — a website that could be edited by anyone. His innovation came from the ability to track changes to any given article and unwind a rewrite in the face of factual errors and digital graffiti. But as that virtual spray paint distorts the lenses of television news, tricks your grandparents into believing wild conspiracy theories and divides nations into political tribes, it’s Wikipedia’s community that taught Wales to have hope for the future.
The English version of Wikipedia launched in 2001 with fewer than 20,000 articles. Today it adds that many each month and boasts more than 5.8 million pages. There are about 130,000 Wikipedians writing, fact-checking and editing those pages and it’s those people Wales credits for giving him the confidence that we can overcome the age of alternative facts.
“In the early, early days of Wikipedia, I remember sort of waking up in the middle of the night and going to check the website because I just thought somebody is going to come in and trash the whole thing,” Wales admits. “Over the years, I realized there were actually community members in Australia and they’re looking after things and everybody’s kind of chipping in to help out. And we’ve created a kind of a good culture around being thoughtful and looking after the place.”
Enough with the clickbait
Wales sees that culture as a microcosm of society at large. Much like those who will rebuild a defaced Wikipedia entry halfway around the world while the rest of us sleep, he turns to newspaper subscription growth rates as evidence we’ve grown weary of lies presented as facts.
There’s no disputing Donald Trump has been great for the struggling newspaper business. In the year the reality star-turned-politician presented “alternative facts” about the attendance on inauguration day, The New York Times saw a 47 percent increase in digital subscriptions. For every digital subscription on the day Trump took office, there are six today reading the Newspaper of Record for the world’s second-biggest democracy (Wikipedia reports India is, by population, the biggest).
Wales hopes the subscribers stick around. He’s optimistic the revenue model, broken by the shift in advertising to the Internet and the prevalence of “free” news, can be repaired by consumers who are sick of clickbait articles and are willing to pay for factual information.
Wales believes that companies like Facebook will see that there’s no long-term upside to algorithmic echo chambers amplifying misinformation, hate and lies. And Wales is hopeful that millennials, who are now seven times less likely to share fake news than Boomers, will be more responsible than their parents and grandparents and that the partisan problem will “age out.”
But it doesn’t mean Jimmy Wales isn’t cautious in his positivity. “I always say I’m a pathological optimist.”
And that, he insists, is a fact.