Wikipedia founder creates ‘factual’ news site
Entrepreneur Jimmy Wales has launched Wikitribune, a collaboration between journalists and citizens that will put facts first. But in the age of fake news, can facts really change our minds?
Jimmy Wales wanted to give the Trump administration a chance. But two days in, when Kellyanne Conway spoke of “alternative facts”, he lost patience.
As the co-founder of Wikipedia, Wales is familiar with the challenge of trying to establish facts. Like many, he argues that the task has been made even harder by the spread of fake news and politicians’ growing disregard for evidence. When Conway coined her now-infamous phrase, he thought: “We have to do something about this.”
Enter Wikitribune, an online news service that Wales launched yesterday. The website will pay journalists to investigate stories on subjects ranging from Theresa May to “dog breeding”. Unlike other media outlets, however, subscribers will have a big say in what sorts of stories get written.
Wikitribune borrows ideas from Wikipedia. For transparency’s sake, the journalists will source their facts, publish interviews in full and so on. The subscribers will also contribute to fact checking.
The website will aim to combine the best of professional and citizen journalism. Its core principle, according to Wales, is “Facts matter.”
Wales is not the only one who is arguing this. Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it plans to start paying fact checkers. It is also rolling out a tool designed to help users spot fake news.
Meanwhile, a former Microsoft chief executive has just launched a facts-oriented website of his own. Steve Ballmer spent three years and $10m building USAFacts, which uses clear graphs to explain how the United States government spends money.
Although Balmer insists that the project is apolitical, its emphasis on official, reliable data is an implicit rebuke to those who make claims without backing them up.
In recent times, much has been said about technology’s role in spreading hoaxes and lies. Wales and Ballmer are among those using technology to fight back with facts. Their projects are admirable — but can they really defeat fake news?
After the facts
Absolutely, say some. The internet is still in its Wild West stage: chaos reigns, and it is hard to know who to trust. As Wales says, “People have a thirst for quality information” — but they may not always know where to find it. The only way to restore faith in online information is with high-profile, well-funded projects like these, which fly the flag for truth.
That is naive, reply others. The problem of fake news does not stem from the sources of information, but from the readers. We are hardwired to ignore facts that clash with our beliefs. We have always been irrational — the internet has just exposed that on a whole new scale. Sites like Wikitribune may make a small difference. But fake news is here to stay.
- When you want to know the facts of a subject, where do you look first? How reliable is that source?
- Is there such a thing as objective truth?
- Without looking them up, write definitions for the words “fact” and “truth”. Then compare them with those of your classmates. Finally, look up the definitions on Wikipedia (which were created by ordinary citizens). Do you agree with them?
- Choose a recent event in your community that interested you, and write about it in the style of a news report. Make sure to source every fact. Then get a partner to read over it and make suggestions about how to improve it.
Some People Say...
“People have had enough of experts.”— Michael Gove
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Wikitribune will be entirely crowdfunded. It is currently asking for donations, and will start operating (with a planned team of ten journalists) as soon as it has received enough.
- What do we not know?
- Whether it will work. Wikipedia is hugely popular — but it got a head start over most websites, and now occupies a unique position on the web. Wikitribune enters a crowded market of news outlets, many of which are struggling to make money.
- What do people think?
- Some believe Wikitribune will succeed, through brand recognition and by managing to set its model of journalism apart. Others point out the risks of community-driven media. Wikipedia is still full of errors and biases, and comment sections on news websites can get messy. Creating “factual” news is a tall order.
- Alternative facts
- Trump’s aide used this phrase to explain why the White House’s estimate of the crowd size at the inauguration was different to the media’s.
- Disregard for evidence
- Take Donald Trump, who often makes sensational claims (eg, “Obama wiretapped me”) without evidence. But this is also a feature of British politics: last year, Brexit campaigner Michael Gove asserted that people “have had enough of experts”.
- Big say
- Wales gives an example: bitcoin fans can subscribe, then lobby for a reporter who focuses on bitcoin-related stories.
- Citizen journalism
- News written (or based on reports by) the general public — including amateur videos. It has proliferated thanks to smartphones and the internet.
- Spends money
- All of USAFacts’ data is publicly available, but no database has tried to present the information so clearly or concisely before.
- Ignore facts
- Some scientists argue that evolution has taught us to cooperate with others and establish our place in a group, even if this requires us to illogically accept the opinions of others. See The New Yorker’s article in Become An Expert.