Two decades ago, Wikipedia came to the fore as a fantastic online project aimed at crowdsourcing and documenting all human knowledge and history in real time. The skeptics were concerned that most of the site would contain unreliable information, and repeatedly pointed out errors.
But now, online encyclopedias are often cited as a place to balance and help fight misinformation and misinformation.
Last week, the Wikimedia Foundation, the group that oversees Wikipedia, announced that South African social entrepreneur Maryna Iskander, who has worked for years in nonprofit organizations fighting youth unemployment and women’s rights, would become its chief executive in January.
We talked with them about their vision for the group and how the organization works to prevent false and misleading information around its sites and the web.
Give us an insight into your direction and vision for Wikimedia, especially in such a rich landscape of information and in this polarized world.
There are some key principles of the Wikimedia project, including Wikipedia, which I think are important starting points. It is an online encyclopedia. He is not trying to be anything else. It is definitely not trying to be a traditional social media platform in any way. It has a structure led by volunteer editors. And as you know, there is no editorial control over the foundation. This is a very user-driven community, which we support and enable.
The lessons to be learned from this, not just from what we do but how we keep repeating and improving, start with this idea of radical transparency. Everything is quoted on Wikipedia. It is discussed on our talk pages. So even when people have different perspectives, those discussions are public and transparent, and in some cases allow the right kind of front and back. I think in such a polarized society it is necessary – you have to make room for front and back. But how do you do that which is transparent and ultimately leads to better product and better information?
And the last thing I want to say is, you know, this is a community of very humble and honest people. As we look to the future, how will we build on those features in terms of what this platform can continue to provide to society and provide free access to knowledge? How do we ensure that we are reaching the full diversity of humanity in terms of who has been invited to participate, who has been written about? How do we really make sure that our collective efforts reflect the global South more, reflect more women, and reflect the diversity of human knowledge to become more reflective of reality?
What do you think about how Wikipedia fits into the broader problem of online misinformation?
Many of the key features of this platform are very different from some traditional social media platforms. If you get misinformation about Kovid, the Wikimedia Foundation has entered into a partnership with the World Health Organization. A group of volunteers came together around what is known as WikiProject Medicine, which focuses on medical content and creates articles that are then carefully monitored because these are the types of topics you want to keep in mind about misinformation.
Another example is that the Foundation put together a task force before the U.S. election, again trying to be very active. [The task force supported 56,000 volunteer editors watching and monitoring key election pages.] And the fact that there were only 33 reversals on the main U.S. election page was an example of how to focus too much on key topics where misinformation poses real risks.
Then another example that I think is really nice is a podcast called “The World Afford to Wikipedia”. And in one episode, there’s a volunteer who’s been interviewed, and she’s really made it her job to be one of the leading observers on the Climate Change page.
We have tech that alerts these editors when any page is edited so they can go over what the changes are. If there is a risk that, in fact, misinformation is spreading, there is a chance to temporarily lock the page. No one wants to do that unless absolutely necessary. The example of climate change is useful because there is a lot of discussion on the discussion pages behind it. Our editor says: “Let’s discuss. But this is a page I am looking at carefully and observing. “
One of the major issues currently being discussed on these social media platforms is the issue of information censorship. There are those who claim that biased views take precedence over this platform and that more conservative views are removed. When you are at the head of Wikipedia you think about how to handle these discussions, how do you decide when this is happening in the background?
To me, what inspires me about this organization and these communities is that the main pillars were established on the first day of Wikipedia’s founding. One of them is the idea of presenting information with a neutral point of view, and that neutrality needs to understand all sides and all perspectives.
This is what I used to say before: Set aside discussions on discussion pages, but then come to an informed, documented, verifiable conclusion on articles. I think this is a key principle that, again, could potentially offer something for others to learn.
Coming from a progressive organization fighting for women’s rights, have you thought a lot about those who give false information to use your background as a weapon to influence the calls you make about what is valid on Wikipedia?
I will say two things. I would say that the most relevant aspects of the work I have done in the past are volunteer-led movements, which are probably more difficult than others think, and I have really played an operational role in understanding how to build the system. , Build culture and build processes that I think will be relevant to the organization and the group of communities that are trying to increase their scale and reach.
Another thing I would say is, again, I am on my own learning journey and I invite you to come with me on a learning journey. How I prefer to be in the world is that we communicate with others with the notion of goodwill and we are connected in a respectful and cultured way. That doesn’t mean other people will do it. But I think we have to hold on to it as an aspiration and as a way, you know, the change we want to see in the world as well.
When I was in college, I did a lot of research on Wikipedia, and some of my professors would say, ‘You know, it’s not a legitimate source.’ But I still use it all the time. I wonder if you have any thoughts about it!
I think most professors now admit that they even sneak up on Wikipedia to find things!
You know, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of Wikipedia this year. On the one hand, there was the fact that I think people were joking and saying it wasn’t going anywhere. And it has now become the most legally referenced source in all of human history. I can only tell you from my own conversations with scholars that the story has changed using the resources on Wikipedia and using Wikipedia.