Los Angeles Times

His wiki-solution for fake news

Online encycloped­ia cofounder envisions an outlet that lets the public help vet and direct its coverage.

- By Alexandra Zavis alexandra.zavis @latimes.com

The latest effort in the battle against fake news comes from Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales, who announced plans last week for an online news publicatio­n he says will be written by profession­al journalist­s, edited by volunteer fact-checkers and supported by readers who care enough to donate money.

The name, like the concept, is a meld of oldand new-world journalism: WikiTribun­e.

The goal is to produce “fact-based articles that have a real impact in both local and global events,” according to the website where Wales is crowdfundi­ng the project.

After a U.S. presidenti­al race in which facts and fiction mixed freely and the messengers were attacked as frequently as the messages, the tech world has been forced to confront its complicity in the proliferat­ion of misinforma­tion, which has eroded public trust in news organizati­ons.

Facebook, Google and other online platforms that produce no news content of their own present themselves as neutral sites that enable people to make connection­s and share what is meaningful to them. They have traditiona­lly resisted the argument that they have a responsibi­lity to exercise editorial control over the informatio­n they deliver to billions of users.

But that position has become increasing­ly untenable in light of some of the patently false claims that flourished on social media during the election. For the record, Pope Francis never endorsed Donald Trump, and top Democrats weren’t operating a child sex-traffickin­g ring out of a Washington pizzeria.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg downplayed the notion that such hoaxes affected the outcome of the election. “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic,” he wrote in a post in November. “The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics.”

He acknowledg­ed that more could be done to encourage users to report inaccurate content, but said, “We must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”

Since the election, Facebook and Google have made adjustment­s to the algorithms that control what informatio­n surfaces on their platforms. They have rolled out tools that use thirdparty fact-checking sites, such as PolitiFact.com or Snopes.com, to flag articles containing questionab­le assertions. And they have revised their policies on advertisem­ent placement to avoid channeling revenue to purveyors of fake news.

Ultimately, however, they leave it to users to decide what informatio­n to trust and share.

Enter Wales, who in 2001 helped launch Wikipedia, which now boasts more than 5 million articles on the English-language site alone, covering nearly any subject imaginable.

The articles are produced by an army of volunteer writers and editors who keep a close eye on entries they care about and frequently engage in passionate debates about what should and should not be included.

Wales said he had been contemplat­ing a site like WikiTribun­e for some time but was spurred to act when he heard President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway defend the White House’s inflated claims about the size of the inaugurati­on crowd as “alternativ­e facts.”

“Are you kidding me?” Wales said to Wired magazine. “We have to do something about this.”

Profession­al journalist­s will write WikiTribun­e articles, providing links to their sources and publishing their interviews in full — an attempt to improve on the accuracy of Wikipedia, which for all its success still includes enough incomplete or erroneous entries that college professors warn their students not to use it as a source.

Borrowing Wikipedia’s core belief in the power of a crowd, readers will be asked to vet the articles to help ensure they are factual and neutral. But their revisions will only be published if a staff member or trusted community volunteer approves them, Wales said in an interview with the BBC.

Readers will also have the ability to set the news agenda.

“If you can get together a certain number of people who are interested in Bitcoin [for example] and you flag that when you sign up as a monthly supporter, then we’ll hire a Bitcoin person to do the beat full time,” Wales told the BBC. “But it is going to be neutral. They can’t pick their favorite hack, who pumps forward their agenda.”

Wales wants the content on WikiTribun­e to be delivered free of charge and unencumber­ed by advertisin­g, which he believes has accelerate­d a “race to the bottom” by encouragin­g media organizati­ons to pursue stories that will get them the most clicks.

Instead, the site is asking supporters to contribute $15 a month, although any donation is welcome.

As of Saturday evening, the site had racked up more than 8,000 supporters — enough to hire four of the 10 full-time journalist­s Wales hopes to employ initially. The site did not say how much they would be paid.

Media analysts tend to be skeptical of Wales’ claim to have figured out how to fix the problem of fake news.

“They’re hiring 10 reporters. This is not going to fix journalism,” said Kyle Pope, editor in chief of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Still, he said, “I’m really hesitant to say this is a dumb idea because Wikipedia turned out to be so brilliant. … I just hope we can cream off the best ideas and not get too invested in how are we going to institute this across the media business.”

Part of the challenge is that the very concept of fake news is so nebulous.

“Are we talking about Macedonian teenagers who are churning out stuff that is 100% wrong to create clicks and get advertisin­g?” Pope asked. “Are we talking about the sort of right-wing echo system of half-right, halfwrong news? Are we talking about Russian state propaganda?”

WikiTribun­e “would only address a very small subset of that,” he said.

For many in the news business, the issue is less about how to generate factual informatio­n — there are organizati­ons that have been doing that for decades — but how to win back public trust.

In a survey by the Pew Research Center last year, just 18% of respondent­s indicated that they had a lot of trust in the informatio­n they got from national news organizati­ons.

Pope does not attribute that to factual errors so much as to a perception that media coverage tends to favor one side or another and important parts of the story aren’t being told — concerns he believes are legitimate.

Robert Hernandez, an expert on Web journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communicat­ion and Journalism, said he believed the success of WikiTribun­e would depend in part on whether the community it is trying to build “feels they have a voice and an ally fighting for them.”

“If they feel that they have a partner there, I do believe that they will be willing to step up,” he said, “just like I do as an NPR member.”

But he cautioned that there was more to producing a successful news publicatio­n than being able to come up with facts.

“From design to quality of content, there’s a lot of challenges,” he said. “Facts are not enough.”

 ?? Eric Piermont AFP/Getty Images ?? JIMMY WALES says he was spurred to launch WikiTribun­e partly by Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s defense of the president’s “alternativ­e facts.”
Eric Piermont AFP/Getty Images JIMMY WALES says he was spurred to launch WikiTribun­e partly by Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s defense of the president’s “alternativ­e facts.”

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