Truth and plain ol’ facts as we know it, changed in 2016. Donald Trump became the President of the United States. With the Brexit referendum, UK citizens voted to leave the European Union. In both instances, truth and objective facts did not sway public opinion.
Clickbait “news stories” – that appeal to emotions and personal beliefs – are shaping people’s thoughts. Truth itself, (i.e. what can be proven) is now up for debate and outright lies are now simply “alternative facts”.
Cited as the ‘Word of the Year’ in 2016 by the Oxford English Dictionary, post-truth has come to define this era we find ourselves in. So in a post-truth era, where should we go for information that is based on facts? For many of us who went to school before social media, it was the place our university professor forbid us to cite in research papers – Wikipedia.
Building trust on Wikipedia
There was a time when traditional news media like the BBC, CNN and FOX were considered neutral sources for reality and truth. Today’s post-truth climate on social media – where many people now get their news – instead obsesses over online conspiracy theories and promoting conflicts between racial, ethnic and religious groups.
So why then, should we trust an encyclopedia where anyone with an Internet connection can make a post? The answer is Wikipedia is based on a simple but deeply held premise – the wisdom of crowds.
Wikipedia, the brainchild of Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, is built on technology first invented by Ward Cunningham. It allowed anyone to write, edit and publish live webpages. He made a brilliant observation about online culture, now known as Cunningham’s Law:
The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.
Cunningham realized people are quicker to correct a wrong answer than to answer a question. Throughout its existence, Wikipedia is based on this premise.
Wikipedians, the community of writers and editor who volunteer their time and expertise – have created a decentralized, peer-to-peer human knowledge database, built on individual effort done in good faith. If anything, Wikipedia – with its fluid and real-time existence – ought to be considered the prize jewel of humanity online: Knowledge for the people, edited by the people.
Ethics of social media
Clickbait articles, misinformation and conspiracy theories have thrived on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These social media organizations are facing intense pressure to combat the spread of misinformation from citizens and governments around the world.
Therein lies a precarious balance – what is free speech and what is misinformation? Furthermore, lest we forget this responsibility is bestowed upon a for-profit corporate company, whose measure of success is attributed to the amount of time spent on their respective platforms. Can the public trust them? What can/should these companies do? Once again, enter Wikipedia.
To combat the spread of conspiracy theories, YouTube recently announced it was adding information boxes to videos pushing false narratives and adding fact-check links to Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia links will now also show up on topics and events that have inspired significant debate, like the moon landing in the form of information cues that offer additional information.
Wikipedia may also be a threat to nations looking to control the dissemination of information. Recently, China followed Turkey and blocked Wikipedia in all languages. The site has also been intermittently blocked in Venezuela. Wikipedia remains a threat because it remains a decentralized, open source of information where anyone can contribute.
The saviour of truth
Suffice to say, if social media giants like Google are sharing links to Wikipedia to curb misinformation on YouTube, and authoritative governments are blocking access to the site, Wikipedia is powerful. Operated by the Wikimedia Foundation – a non-profit with a mission to bring free educational content to the world – Wikipedia is not controlled by ad revenue, fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders or a single corporate entity.
If there were ever a place on the Internet that offered the closest thing to the truth, it’s the free encyclopedia.