Could Wikipedia help us rebuild trust in journalism?

19 Jul 2018

Raju Narisetti at Inspirefest 2018 discussing Wikipedia. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The global news cycle is fraught with misinformation and many members of the public feel wary of media outlets. Raju Narisetti thinks Wikipedia could be a solution to the problem, and he told the Inspirefest 2018 audience why.

We are living in an age with unprecedented options thanks to the internet. Booking hotels, buying furniture or getting an insurance quote online gives the average person a wealth of organisations and deals to choose from.

The same can be said for media, Columbia University professor of professional practice and journalism veteran Raju Narisetti told the Inspirefest crowd. “We have never had more choice when it comes to media.”

While this may be true, the breadth of choice is counterbalanced by anxiety around the reliability of what we consume. Narisetti acknowledged the growing sense of doubt, telling audiences about the millions of Google search results he found demonstrating public worry about online misinformation and finding truthful news: “On most days, we are upset about things we are reading.”

How can Wikipedia help?

There is something that can help, though, and it’s something many of us use every day – Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia run by the Wikimedia Foundation. Founded in 2001, Narisetti said there are some 40m articles in 300 languages on the site, and it is the fifth-most-visited website in the world. This level of verification power is something that sets Wikipedia apart. On any given day there are 200,000 editors active on Wikipedia, which translates to around “350 changes a minute”.

Narisetti describes Wikipedia as a “phenomenal resource”, one that the majority of the world still hasn’t quite tapped. While Wikipedia could be used as a valuable trust indicator, there is still an elephant in the room: representation. There just aren’t enough entries about women compared to men on Wikipedia, so it is “clearly not representative of humanity”. Narisetti rightly asked: “Why should we trust something so disproportionally male?”

Why is this such a big problem? Online harassment is a major obstacle for women in general and Wikipedia editors, too. Describing the level of harassment as “a profound problem”, Narisetti noted that the Wikimedia Foundation, of which he is a board member, is working on solutions both to curb the onslaught of digital threats and create programmes to rebuild Wikipedia “for inclusivity”.

Next steps

More editors are sorely needed to make this representation dream a tangible reality, but the wheels are turning on this. The Women in Red project aims to turn red links on Wikipedia pages about women blue by populating their pages with content and giving them a place in the digital canon. Wikimedia is also creating ways to protect contributors and prioritise safety, from its dedicated anti-harassment team to using AI to weed out threats.

A mass-edit of Wikipedia happened on International Women’s Day this year, where people gathered to create and improve thousands of articles about women. London mayor Sadiq Khan attended an event to populate Wikipedia with articles about important women in the city’s rich history.

If Wikipedia continues down this path of representational improvement, coupled with its impressive cohort of fact-checkers and verifying volunteers, it could become a way to rebuild trust in the fragile media landscape. Think of volunteering as helping those who could need the site in years to come, Narisetti said. “It behoves us to do it for future generations.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects