The world looks at Twitter and views it as either the greatest show on earth or a nightmare come to life. New owner Elon Musk has reinstated old accounts that allegedly broke his rules and introduced sweeping new features and policies that are fundamentally changing the way we communicate online.
Some say the effort is noble; others have expressed genuine concerns about the future of the Internet discourse.
“I would love to see a world where Twitter or something like that is a global place for thoughtful discourse and also has some fun elements,” Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales told CTech during a visit to Israel last week. “It doesn’t always have to be serious — just without all the toxicity and without the algorithms that promote toxicity.”
In an era of toxicity and misinformation on the internet, Wikipedia lies somewhere. Founded in 2001 by Wales and Larry Sanger, the free online encyclopedia is maintained by “largely a bunch of very geeky people” made up of passionate experts, researchers or neurotic fact-checkers who collaborate through their wiki-based editorial system. Wales estimates that around 60,000 to 80,000 Wikipedians contribute to its system each month.
In its early days, Wikipedia’s open-source nature made some people cautious about their commitment to honest and accurate information. Academics, including this author’s English teacher, banned it as a source in essays to ensure students relied on traditional paper encyclopedias. That would change in two decades. Teenagers lined up to take a selfie as Wales met young talented students at the Innoviz offices today during his trip to Israel for the Atlas Awards. By all accounts, Wikipedia had made Wales something of a celebrity.
“What we always said back then was, look, you can tell the students not to look at Wikipedia, but you can also tell them not to listen to rock ‘n’ roll music, but they will do. And I think teachers should share How to Use Wikipedia instead, which is a great opportunity to teach lessons about the quality of information, the process of gathering knowledge, and what’s trustworthy and what’s not, and what we think about it. Simply because it is a crucial life skill.”
Wikipedia is curated by a team of administrators, but Wales claims it is sourced from accurate news articles, scholarly works and other official documents to ensure its users have access to the truth. Wikipedia is now considered the authoritative voice, but its shifting nature and the human finger on the pulse of its information have drawn criticism — no less from Musk himself, sparking a public spat between the two.
“Wikipedia is losing its objectivity @jimmy_wales”, Musktweeted earlier this year. Wikipedia made headlines when it changed its definition of the word “recession” and then suspended it after disappointing economic numbers came out from the Biden administration. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had used a different meaning of the word to avoid negative headlines, and moments later Wikipedia adjusted its definition to align with the American government, drawing widespread attention. “Reading too much Twitter nonsense makes you stupid,” Wales said replied with a link to more information.
Wales argues that science and history evolve over time in such a way that official records need to be updated and changed to accommodate new discoveries. He shares how in its first year Wikipedia had used a 1911 public domain edition of Britannica to import some of their information as a starting point. There was an error.
“It turns out that a lot has changed because there has been additional archaeological research and a wider range of sources,” Wales explained. “There were enough changes where it was easier to just start over. If you want to talk about germs and viruses, it was different in 1911 than it is today… It’s natural, as a species we’re always learning and coming to different understandings.”
In many ways, Wales and Musk are both in control of two very different beasts. While tweets are individual thoughts of individuals that remain part of the story, Wikipedia intends to remain the authoritative source for the story itself, as it changes over time. The challenge is to appreciate how previous generations will get information from a front page of Wikipedia, but future generations will read about this moment from the same highly edited and restricted page. An example Wales uses of this predicament is President Bush’s claim that weapons of mass destruction ever existed in Iraq.
“We switched to today [the consensus] is that he probably didn’t have those things. How do we get from A to B, and what were the key elements of the time that convinced journalists and the public? How did this change in Wikipedia come about? I find it really fascinating.”
While the online encyclopedia claims to get its facts from reputable news outlets, the ideological leanings of publications like the New York Times or the New York Post and the preferences of the moderation teams could skew the presentation of facts in the present and when looking back to the past.
As an experiment, CTech visited the front pages of the three most recent American presidents and evaluated the language used to describe the men. All the facts are cited by the mainstream news outlets, and while she calls President Trump’s inflammatory language “racist,” she calls President Biden’s bigoted statements about people of color “insensitive.” Wikipedia claims Trump is a “liar” but notes how Biden “exaggerates the truth.”
The front page also featured many of President Trump’s insidious private scandals, and yet it lacks any mention of a negative scandal involving his predecessor, President Obama.
“It’s the kind of thing we chew on a lot,” admits Wales. “It’s very interesting…part of that is because Wikipedia relies on sources and thinks about what sources are saying. There is an extent to which Trump is fundamentally different from Biden – so the notion that the language should be the same because they are somehow fundamentally the same is not true. I think with most politicians you can find examples where they’ve exaggerated the truth, and that’s not great, but it’s rare to find a president who has strayed from reality as consistently as Trump has.”
It’s not the facts that scrutinize Wikipedia, it’s the publishing of those facts that sometimes gets it in trouble and draws the attention of the likes of Elon Musk. Wales advocates well-researched and referenced information that can be tracked and sourced; Musk is taking a laissez-faire approach to content and free speech, which has included firing nearly his entire content moderation team and restoring Trump and Kanye West’s accounts. Both agree that they want to remove toxicity from online discourse – and yet they disagree on how to go about it.
For Wales, the answer may lie in WT.Social. The next generation of Wiki Tribune will take the form of a social media platform dedicated to addressing the issues of information quality and online journalism. The idea is that content will be prioritized “based on the contribution of the community’s most trusted members, as judged by the community’s most trusted members.” He’s also writing a book, to be published in the future, about trust in society and how it broke down. He wants to examine how Wikipedia can trust the online information used as sources and reflect on how the platform has become trustworthy over the years.
“Wikipedia is not a large open platform for free speech like other social media. This makes our community management problem much easier. And while I often criticize how toxic a lot of social media is, I also recognize that they have a difficult problem.” The venture has been accelerated and isn’t quite ready for launch, but Wales tells CTech that WT.Social running on a test page. “I have to get back to work. I’m thinking about tweeting and asking if any twitter programmers need jobs… I could tweet that right now,” he concluded.