Finding truth and the collapse of clickbait business models

Jimmy Wales and Michael Hainsworth at speakers corner london

“Hi, I’m Jimmy Wales?”

As we set up lights and cameras in the back stacks of the 178-year-old London Library, I turned to find a man just as unassuming as the question mark at the end of his sentence.

Of course, he was Jimmy Wales.

What student frantically pounding out a late night essay, or sports-bar patron proving a statistic or journalist confirming a claim wouldn’t recognize the face of the man responsible for putting the sum total of humanity’s knowledge into a website?

“How does it feel to not be a billionaire?”
Wikipedia survives on donations.
Wales survives on speaking engagements.

For Wales’ contribution to the modern age, you think he’d carry himself more like a Kardashian than a librarian. Not so. As requested, he brought a selection of outfits for our conversation among shelves of dusty books, all variations of a bibliothecary look. Zero flash. And one of his favorite questions from journalists is, “How does it feel to not be a billionaire?” Wikipedia survives on donations. Wales survives on speaking engagements.

Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales was born on August 7, 1966, to Doris Ann and Jimmy (Source: Wikipedia) on a hotter than average day in Huntsville, Alabama (Source: not Wikipedia). But you wouldn’t know it from the way he speaks. His Southern accent generally only comes out when he’s on the phone with his mother, he told me.

And if it wasn’t for mom, Wales would never have created Wikipedia. Wales grew up with a lot of books in the house, but a doorbell rung during his early childhood changed his life. “My mother made the decision to buy The World Book Encyclopedia from a door-to-door salesman,” Wales recalled as we spoke between rows of books on 18th Century farming techniques, a 1977 compendium on auto repair, and two volumes on British political etiquette and procedures.

Fiction as fact

Michael Hainsworth and Jimmy Wales at London Library
Between the stacks of the London Library with Jimmy Wales.

As you might have guessed, Wales isn’t a fan of lies. In particular, he’s not a fan of lying politicians. “President Trump plays so loose with facts on a regular basis and seems to get away with it. That’s very, very upsetting to me. And in fact, my opposition to Donald Trump has far more to do with that fundamental lack of factualness rather than his particular political policies, some of which I’d agree with, [some of] which I don’t. But the man’s a liar.”

Wales, however, doesn’t blame Trump — or Kellyanne Conway who infamously coined the phrase “alternative facts” — for the state of truth today. They’re a symptom of a bigger problem. And that problem includes the business model of news media.

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” I say to Wales.

“If the story isn’t true, it isn’t a good story. It’s fiction,” he countered, adding that the industry is in an era where, to survive, “newspapers have to go with clickbait headlines and, you know, ultra-fast viral sharing stories and so on, rather than slowing down and trying to get the facts right. It’s a business model that depends on clicks and very short term engagement that is quite damaging to serious journalism.”

We certainly can’t buy the truth… but what you can buy is effectively propaganda.

As we walked through Speaker’s Corner, where people have been speaking their truth since 1872, Wales and I discussed fake news. “Alternative facts” aren’t just political, they’re also social and economic. Wales sees a common theme among all three.

“Human interest,” he says.

A story about economics can be quite boring and certainly isn’t going to be shared virally. But a story about economics that means something to the reader personally is of keen interest to people, “which means that if you write something that’s inflammatory or frightening or optimistic, or confirms people’s biases in some way, they are more likely to share it,” Wales adds.

I shared a viral news article… What happened next will surprise you!

As the Mueller report into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election revealed, you can buy opinions through click farms.

“We certainly can’t buy the truth… but what you can buy is effectively propaganda. It’s deceiving people. It’s putting out huge quantities… of false messaging over and over and over in many, many different venues to mislead people. And that doesn’t mean that you’ve bought the truth. You’ve bought people’s beliefs, and that’s a very different thing.”

Wales thinks propaganda masquerading as fact is a solvable problem, and he cites one of the biggest problems the Internet had in its early days: spam.

Millennials grew up on the Internet. They barely know of life before it. It’s one of the reasons, Wales believes, that generation isn’t spreading fake news the way their parents and grandparents are. And it’s putting the new business model of clickbait headlines at risk, too. With Boomers 4 to 7 times more likely to share fake news than a millennial, Wales thinks propaganda masquerading as fact is a solvable problem, and he cites one of the biggest problems the Internet had in its early days: spam.

“[Spam] used to be the scourge of the Internet,” he pointed out as the ever-looming rain clouds over London opened up above us. “And now it’s just a small side problem as the platform’s figured out how to block those emails.

Michael Hainsworth and Jimmy Wales at Speakers' Corner
Strolling by Speakers’ Corner in London

The collapse of the clickbait business model of modern media isn’t the only thing that will change as our relationship with technology evolves. Wales believes social media titans Facebook and Twitter, with their algorithms designed to keep you on their site and coming back need to progress or die.

If people become more and more convinced that Facebook is undermining and destroying democracy in a way of life that we know and love, that’s a really deep longterm problem.

“They’re just about getting you to click one more thing and stay one more minute,” he pointed out. “And I think people are sensing that, that what they are optimizing for is keeping me addicted… If people become more and more convinced that Facebook is undermining and destroying democracy in a way of life that we know and love, that’s a really deep longterm problem. So if people start shutting off Facebook because [they think]… ‘I’m finding it’s not making me happy in life. It’s actually just a distraction and noise and I can’t stop looking at it. So I’m just going to have to go cold turkey,’ that’s really bad for the business model.”

Wales has met Mark Zuckerberg only a handful of times but he considers Zuckerberg to be genuine in his desire to fix what ails the world’s most visited website. “He really does believe in the mission of Facebook connecting everyone on the planet and that’s fundamentally what he’s all about and therefore he probably can do it.”

But even if Zuckerberg can’t, and mainstream media fails to wean itself off of clickbait headlines shared by Drunk Uncle, will the problem of fake news simply “age out” as the Boomer generation logs off? As the skies clear above our shelter under London’s Marble Arch, and Wales and I bid farewell, he says, “I think time will help. I mean, we’ll always have idiots with us. We’ll always have misinformation. This is, you know, a human thing.”

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