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April 24, 2017, 7:01 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launches Wikitribune, a large-scale attempt to combat fake news

The crowd-funded news platform aims to combat fake news by combining professional journalism with volunteer fact checking: “news by the people and for the people.”

Good things can happen when a crowd goes to work on trying to figure out a problem in journalism. At the same time, completely crowdsourced news investigations can go bad without oversight — as when, for example, a group of Redditors falsely accused someone of being the Boston Marathon bomber. An entirely crowdsourced investigation with nobody to oversee it or pay for it will probably go nowhere. At the same time, trust in the media is low and fact-checking efforts have become entwined with partisan politics.

So what would happen if you combined professional journalism with fact checking by the people? On Monday evening, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched Wikitribune, an independent site (not affiliated with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation) “that brings journalists and a community 
of volunteers together” in a combination that Wales hopes will combat fake news online — initially in English, then in other languages.

The site is launching with a crowdfunding campaign to fund the first Wikitribune journalists (the default amount is $10 a month, but users can donate any amount they wish) “with the first issue of Wikitribune following shortly.” The Wikitribune page said that the goal is to hire 10 journalists.

The idea is that the professional journalists will be paid to write “global news stories,” while volunteer contributors will “vet the facts, helps make sure the language is factual and neutral, and will to the maximum extent possible be transparent about the source of news posting full transcripts, video, and audio of interviews. In this way Wikitribune aims to combat the increasing proliferation of online fake news.”

Wales had hinted at his thinking behind the project in a February editorial in The Guardian. “If there is any kryptonite to false information, it’s transparency,” he wrote:

Technology platforms can choose to expose more information about the content people are seeing, and why they’re seeing it. We need this visibility because it sheds light on the process and origins of information and creates a structure for accountability. We need online spaces for open dialogue across a variety of viewpoints. These spaces must be inclusive by design — toxic behavior, including harassment, is unfortunately a fact of the internet. We need ground rules, commitment to verification, civil dialogue and active participation. And we need to apply these principles to all our online activity. The rise of the internet may have created our current predicament, but the people who populate the internet can help us get out of it.

Crowdsourced news investigations aren’t new, but they’ve mostly been done on a by-story basis. The Guardian did it with an investigation into Parliament’s expenses. Medium’s Ghost Boat was another attempt. And there is also Wikinews, the Wikimedia Foundation’s 13-year-old attempt at crowdsourced current news. That site has not achieved its stated mission of becoming an AP-like, “high quality feed of news free of charge“; on Monday, its top article was a short, three-day-old one about UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a June general election.

But Andrew Lih, an associate professor at American University and the author of The Wikipedia Revolution, thinks that Wikitribune has a lot more potential, precisely because of its layer of professional journalists.

“A [true] wiki method is really only applicable or successful in a narrow domain. Wikipedia is successful in this very narrow space of crowdsourcing because it has such firm rules, and does not want or try to be original,” he said. On Wikipedia, deadlines don’t really matter, and it’s a lot easier for a group to write an article with a formulaic and consistent structure than one with a more narrative structure. “WikiNews, being all volunteer, just could not provide the focus and the number of eyeballs.”

An combined approach like Wikitribune’s can be more successful than WikiNews has been, he said, because it’s a hybrid of the paid and volunteer models. “You have an operational command structure that’s based on full-time staff. The pro journalists and editors provide the supervision on how the story moves forward. The crowd does the heavy lifting on a lot of the combing, sifting, searching, checking. You let the crowd do what the crowd is good at.”

“Wikitribune is news by the people and for the people,” Wales said in a statement. “This will be the first time that professional journalists and citizen journalists will work side by side as equals, writing stories as they happen, editing them live as they develop, and at all times backed by a community checking and re-checking facts.”

POSTED     April 24, 2017, 7:01 p.m.
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