Epic fact: We are living at the dawn of the Information Age. Less-epic fact: Our historical moment is engendering doubt. The more bits of information we have out there, and the more sources we have providing them, the more wary we need to be of their accuracy. So we’ve created a host of media platforms dedicated to fact-checking: We have PolitiFact over here, FactCheck over there, Meet the Facts over there, @TBDFactsMachine over there, Voice of San Diego’s Fact Check blog over there, NewsTrust‘s crowdsourced Truthsquad over there (and, even farther afield, source verifiers like Sunlight‘s new Poligraft platform)…each with a different scope of interest, and each with different methods and metrics of verification. (Compare, for example, PolitiFact’s Truth-o-Meter to FactCheck.org’s narrative assessments of veracity.) The efforts are admirable — awesome, even; they’re also, however, atomized.
“The problem, if you look at what’s being done right now, is often a lack of completeness,” says Andrew Lih, an associate professor of new media at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism. The disparate outlets have to be selective about the scope of their fact-checking; they simply don’t have the manpower to be comprehensive about verifying all the claims — political, economic, medical, sociological — pinging like pinballs around the Internet.
But what if the current fact-checking operations could be greater than the sum of their parts? What if there were a centralized spot where consumers of news could obtain — and offer — verification?
Enter WikiFactCheck, the new project that aims to do exactly what its name suggests: bring the sensibility — and the scope — of the wiki to the systemic challenges of fact-checking. The idea’s been in the works for about two years now, says Lih (who, in addition to creating the wiki, is a veteran Wikipedian and the author of The Wikipedia Revolution). He dreamed it up while working on WikiNews; though that project never reached the scope of its sister site — largely because its premise of discrete news narratives isn’t ideal for the wiki platform — a news-focused wiki that could succeed, Lih thought, was one that focused on the core unit of news: facts themselves. When Jay Rosen added attention to the need for systematic fact-checking of news content — most notably, through his campaign to fact-check the infamously info-miscuous Sunday shows — it became even more clear, Lih told me: This could be a job for a wiki.
WikiFactCheck wants not only to crowdsource, but also to centralize, the fact-checking enterprise, aggregating other efforts and creating a framework so extensive that it can also attempt to be comprehensive. There’s a niche, Lih believes, for a fact-checking site that’s determinedly non-niche. Wikipedia, he points out, is ultimately “a great aggregator”; and much of WikiFactCheck’s value could similarly be, he says, to catalog the results of other fact-checking outfits “and just be a meta-site.” Think Rotten Tomatoes — simple, summative, unapologetically derivative — for truth-claims.
If the grandeur implicit in that proposition sounds familiar, it’s because the idea for WikiFactCheck is pretty much identical to the one that guided the development of Wikipedia: to become a centralized repository of information shaped by, and limited only by the commitment of, the crowd. A place where the veracity of information is arbitrated discursively — among people who are motivated by the desire for veracity itself.
Which is idealistic, yes — unicornslollipopsrainbows idealistic, even — but, then again, so is Wikipedia. “In 2000, before Wikipedia started, the idea that you would have an online encyclopedia that was updated within seconds of something happening was preposterous,” Lih points out. Today, though, not only do we take Wikipedia for granted; we become indignant in those rare cases when entries fail to offer us up-to-the-minute updates on our topics of interest. Thus, the premise of WikiFactCheck: What’s to say that Wikipedia contributors’ famous commitment — of time, of enthusiasm, of Shirkian surplus — can’t be applied to verifying information as well as aggregating it?
What such a platform would look like, once populated, remains to be seen; the beauty of a wiki being its flexibility, users will make of the site what they will, with the crowd determining which claims/episodes/topics deserve to be checked in the first place. Ideally, “an experienced community of folks who are used to cataloging and tracking these kinds of things” — seasoned Wikipedians — will guide that process, Lih says. As he imagines it, though, the ideal structure of the site would filter truth-claims by episode, or “module” — one episode of “Meet the Press,” say, or one political campaign ad. “I think that’s pretty much what you’d want: one page per media item,” Lih says. “Whether that item is one show or one ad, we’ll have to figure out.”
Another thing to figure out will be how a wiki that will likely rely on publishing comprehensive documents — transcripts, articles, etc. — to verify their contents will dance around copyright issues. But “if there ever were a slam-dunk case for meeting all the attributes of the Fair Use Doctrine,” Lih says, “this is it.” Fact-checking is criticism and comment; it has an educational component (particularly if it operates under the auspices of USC Annenberg); and it doesn’t detract from content’s commercial value. In fact: “I can’t imagine another project that could be so strong in meeting the standards for fair use,” Lih says.
And what about the most common concern when it comes to informational wikis — that people with less-than-noble agendas will try to game the system and codify baseless versions of the truth? “In the Wikipedia universe, what has shaken out is that a lot of those folks who are not interested in the truth wind up going somewhere else,” Lih points out. (See: Conservapedia.) “They find that the community that is concerned with neutrality and with getting verifiable information into Wikipedia is going to dominate.” Majority rules — in a good way.
At the same time, though, “I welcome die-hard Fox viewers,” Lih says. “I welcome people who think Accuracy in Media is the last word. Because if you can cite from a reliable source — from a congressional record, from the Census Bureau, from the Geological Survey, from CIA Factbook, from something — then by all means, I don’t really care what your political stripes are. Because the facts should win out in the end.”
Ironic-or-maybe-appropriate update: I swear I didn’t plant this to prove a point, but the initial version of this post — which named Lih as a visiting professor at USC Annenberg — got its info from an out-of-date Annenberg bio. Lih is now a full-time associate professor at the school. I’ve changed the post to reflect that. –Megan