Wikitribune: a big step in the right direction

26 Apr 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Wikitribune: a big step in the right direction

As the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launches a platform to combat fake news, Raymond Snoddy wonders if he can pull it off

Beating online fake news entirely is clearly impossible. Both the capacity to provide it at the speed of light and the public’s willingness to lap it up and believe it appear, at least for now, limitless.

But increasingly the battle is at least being engaged. No media conference since the inauguration of Donald Trump 100 days ago is complete without its fake news session - although the problem is more easily identified than solved.

And under political pressure the social media are at last starting to take action, something they swore until recently was quite impossible - when they were not ignoring the problem entirely.

New online heroes are also emerging to confront, if not actually slay, the giant that is threatening to undermine rational public discourse in modern democracies.

Some argue - correctly - that there has always been fake news; exaggerated and sensational news stories in the press, expertly crafted propaganda and PR puffs.

Indeed, but full frontal fake news in its current and most toxic iteration is really only a little more than 12 months old and hails from the era of Brexit and Trump.

The new most recent strain of the bacillus split in two as the Trump campaign reached it crescendo. There was the dangerous political strain where President-elect Trump was happy to say things - many things - which could be shown to be untrue. Trump either didn’t know or didn’t care. And he carried on repeating them.

The more poisonous of the species involved a new mini-industry manufacturing deliberately made up stories to attract attention and online hits, and therefore advertising revenue from the social media.

Former President Obama’s alleged plan to stage a coup in 2016 was probably one of those as was the Pope’s endorsement of Trump.

For Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales the moment of epiphany came when Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway first coined the phrase “alternative facts” in an attempt to dispute the numbers attending the Presidential inauguration.

“It was just like ‘fuck it, I can’t deal with this. Are you kidding me. We have to do something about this,'” is how Wales describes his decision to launch Wikitribune, a community-driven online news service designed to tackle fake news - or news that is deliberately misleading.

Wales told Wired magazine that he had been prepared to give Trump the benefit of the doubt for his first 100 days out of respect for the office, but he ran out of patience within 48 hours, thanks to Kellyanne.

And so it was that Wales was heard to utter on Radio 4’s Today programme the wonderful words “We will be hiring professional journalists.”

That puts the Wikitribune founder way ahead of the social media and more virtuous than many traditional media groups who are more likely to be heard saying these days we will be firing some more professional journalists.

The crowd-funded Wikitribune can scarcely transform the battle against fake news on its own, but at least Wales promises to bring the “fact-checking mentality we know from Wikipedia to news.”

It will have the same community-based approach as Wikipedia which is the world’s fifth most visited website, but the Wikitribune will have editors as well as professional journalists working alongside a wide range of other contributors.

Intriguingly when enough additional finance is raised, another journalist can be hired.

If the crowd wants more attention paid to a particular area and they are prepared to put up the money in monthly subscriptions they will get a relevant specialist.

As a not-for profit project the Wikitribune has moved firmly towards subscription and turned its back on the advertising model which he sees as increasingly challenged by the social media.

Jimmy Wales promises “original reporting and investigative journalism” as well as debunking fake news.

Will it work? It has the benefit of the Wiki brand to build on and, at the very least, will be another other weapon in the battle against fake news in all its forms.

As the Wikitribune broke cover, news of action at last from Google to do something about tracking down and degrading blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or “downright false information.”

In its first significant move against fake news the new Google plan will have two prongs, according to Ben Gomes, vice-president of engineering at Google Search.

There will be the same old social media approach of creating new tools to make it easier for users to complain about misleading and inaccurate information. In this case the device used will be its autocomplete function suggesting searches after the first characters are typed.

Great, but once again a multi-billion dollar social media organisation is, in effect, relying on its users to police the system rather than doing it itself.

At the same time Google says it is improving its search engine to “surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content.”

The promise is that content such as the work of Holocaust deniers or those who believe that climate change is a hoax will find it more difficult to achieve prominence on Google in future and will gradually be demoted.

It amounts to a small step in the right direction but sounds too little and too late when compared with the scale of the universal threat posed by deliberately misleading information and those who believe it.

One of the best ways of tackling fake news is by defending the finances of the traditional media, which still employs the lion’s share of professional journalists - despite everything.

And in one of his final blogs for the Guardian Roy Greenslade manages to relay a further morsel of potentially optimistic information from one of his City University colleagues Dr Neil Thurman.

A study by the City academic has confirmed that newspapers are read for an average of 40 minutes a day while online visitors to the websites and apps of the same newspapers spend an average of 30 seconds a day.

And guess what, the dwell data mirrors the split in print/digital revenues - 88 per cent to 12 per cent in favour of newspapers.

Another reason why newspapers have to do more to protect their print presence - not least so they can continue to play their part with professional journalists in the battle against fake news, alongside the welcome Wikitribune.



Image credits: Wikitribune

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