How Wikipedia’s Volunteers Became The Web’s Best Weapon Against Misinformation

from Fast Company

For a few minutes near the end of his first presidential debate, Mike Bloomberg was dead. At 9:38 p.m. Eastern time, a Wikipedia user named DQUACK02 added some text to the Wikipedia page for the former Democratic presidential candidate and New York City mayor:

“death_date   = {{Death date and age|2020|02|19|1942|02|14}}; |death_place  = [[Las Vegas, Nevada]], U.S.; |death_cause = [[Getting stabbed by Warren, Biden and Sanders]].”

Within three minutes, another user named Cgmusselman had reverted the page back. By then the inevitable screenshots and joke tweets had already begun to spread. It was an obvious hoax, and a rather cartoonish example of Wikipedia at its worst—the reason why many people still believe it can’t be trusted: Anyone can edit it! But it was also Wikipedia at its best: Anyone can also edit an edit!

“Most of these edits are small improvements to phrasing or content, a few are masterpieces, and some are vandalism,” says Cgmusselman, who is Charley Musselman, a 73-year-old retired physicist from Massachusetts who happened to notice Bloomberg’s demise while double-checking the age of his Senator and his then-preferred candidate, Elizabeth Warren. (“She is three years, two months younger than I am,” he reports.)

Cgmusselman isn’t among the experienced minority of editors who tend to patrol the front lines of Wikipedia’s war on misinformation—his hundreds of edits have mostly involved copy editing. But like those other editors, he has put his faith in the power of the crowd to be fair and honest. “Weight of sincerity, truth, and goodwill will bit by bit bury falsehood and malice,” he told me by email.

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10 Comments

  1. You know, I don’t think that Wikipedia is appreciated enough. It’s nothing short of amazing that I can look up any particular topic that I want, and find an in-depth summary on it within minutes. It can even be something totally obscure that occurred nearly 300 years ago. Regardless, Wikipedia has been slammed in the past by many because of its function where “anyone can edit”. And while it’s somewhat true that “anyone” can edit, it is an extremely well-moderate website that attempts to hold only accurate information.

    The catch of this article is something I’ve witnessed firsthand. I’ve seen people go on some figure’s Wikipedia page, add some whimsical nonsense to it, and take a screenshot for the world to see. Obviously, the page doesn’t stay that way for long, but it does happen. However, if this is the basis that we go by to determine whether a site is legitimate or not, it’s definitely not the best one. For nearly a decade, people have been able to edit web pages (locally, only showing for themselves) and showing them to friends. While this is less extreme than altering that of an internet encyclopedia, it still teaches us something — that we have to be careful with what we read, regardless of how true we think it is. I could easily go onto the Wall Street Journal website, choose an article, and edit the details of said article. I could then show it to a group of people via screenshot, and I would bet that many of them wouldn’t even go to check the source, depending on how severe the edit. What I’m saying is that we need to be mindful of the information we receive at any point. Many people dislike Wikipedia because it’s too simple or easy to cite, but really, if you’re experienced or looking for in-depth, detailed information, you probably aren’t planning to cite Wikipedia in the first place.

  2. Wikipedia is a resource that I have been repeatedly advised against using since I was introduced to the concept of backing up my claims with any degree of research. The platform is, in my opinion, extremely undervalued in its ability to provide a wealth of useful information to anyone that cares to look. The open-source website that allows for a collaborated effort to provide information to the masses is undoubtedly one of the most effective tools against misinformation that we have seen. We see the collapse of algorithmic and privately controlled websites as they become the playground of wild claims and propaganda, Wikipedia stands strong with a tried and true system of having millions of users actively fact-checking content. The availability of the effort is truly open to everyone, with people like 73-year-old physicist Charley Musselman making hundred of edits to verify the authenticity of the information. There are also men like Steven Pruitt, who have made millions of edits and written tens of thousands of articles for free just in an effort to democratize information and share their hobby. Pruitt comments on the efforts stating, “The idea of making it all free fascinates me. My mother grew up in the Soviet Union … So I’m very conscious of what, what it can mean to make knowledge free, to make information free.” We see from statements like this a strong motivation to deliver quality content to people in a much more meaningful and efficient way.
    Wikipedia is deserving of much more credit as a source of reliable and substantial amounts of information. With election scandals and the influential power of online information, it is incredibly important that there are integrity and accountability for the things that people say. The algorithms and automated detection systems just do not put this responsibility on content creators. A more individualized approach is definitely optimal, but there are questions concerning how realistic it is to have that type of thing in place. A democratized system like Wikipedia allows us to hold people accountable and actively make sure we are providing the best information possible. Wikipedia definitely is not immune to the problems of rampant misinformation, with abuse to the open editing software being a problem for the site and the reason that it is banned across national school systems as a reliable source. The fact of the matter is that Wikipedia, while not perfect, gives us a different perspective of how we can present information to people, and it might just be a lot more effective than a majority of the other things we have online right now.

  3. Students are told for practically every important writing assignment that they have to not use Wikipedia as a credible source to cite their information. We have constantly been told throughout our careers as students that anyone can edit this site so you shouldn’t trust everything you read on it. This is something that, up until now, I have completely agreed with. However, this article claims the opposite, stating that because anyone can edit it, that is what makes it a better resource for things that there tend to be a lot of misinformation about. This article argues that Wikipedia has an advantage over social media sites like Facebook that tend to be overrun in opinions that are presented as facts. Wikipedia has even taken the precaution of having editors pay extra close attention to “divisive or news-worthy topic—think East Jerusalem, Bernie Sanders, Russian interference in the 2020 United States elections, the coronavirus”, which is essential. Unsurprisingly, editors have been known to have to pay special attention to articles where the word “Trump” is added because of how much misinformation is being put out because people don’t like him. However, the editors are in place to review the controversial topics, giving it more credibility than what can be found on Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook.
    At this time, avoiding misinformation is crucial. There are major political events happening now and in the near future that people need to be properly informed on and Wikipedia is looking like one of the more reliable resources to turn to. Being informed about COVID-19 is even more important right now as many people are putting out a lot of false information about things like the symptoms, what the correct precautions to take are, and many ridiculous remedies. I have tried to not believe everything that I read on social media, but it becomes difficult when there are so many posts about the virus. After reading this article I have found a new appreciation for Wikipedia. I used to believe that when reading things on this site I couldn’t believe everything I read, and I felt that it was probably less credible than other resources. However, while it is not immune to misinformation, it will probably become a resource I turn to more often.

  4. “The biggest threat…is that we lose sight of what’s actually true.” I, like many others have been told to exclude Wikipedia when conducting research. I have been one to utilize Wikipedia to look up a quick biography or blurb on a subject I am interested in. But I agreed in terms of proper research that Wikipedia should not be included. After reading this article, I am impressed with the background of the Wikipedia editors that double check the words written on each page. Until 2016, most people had never heard of the term “fake news.” It is now a common argument that facts and science can be disputed as political opinions. The fact that Wikipedia is coming to light as “one of the most trusted sites on the internet” is very interesting.

    After reading this article, I was impressed with Wikipedia’s mission of battling misinformation, especially in a world where “fake news” is a continuously heard phrase in America. It makes sense that this would be one of the most trusted sites since it does not sell anything/monetize its information. It is run on pure donations and does not run on algorithms to filter through what the user may want to see. Wikipedia aims to give straight facts – no opinions, no controversy with algorithms and all done with the help of devoted volunteers. It is also impressive that Wikipedia exists in 299 languages.

    The protections that Wikipedia utilizes makes sense. A combination of administrative restrictions, bots and balanced editing /reporting is necessary to keep a check and balance. I did not realize that behind each page was a forum where editors were able to debate whether a topic/entry is correctly being presented. With the political climate, it is no surprise that an uptick of misinformation is constantly being battled. The “war on truth” section of the article is especially interesting. The emphasis on a “neutral point of view” is a good but hard battle, especially when it comes to politics.

  5. Wikipedia is one of the most used pages when looking for information about almost anything, people, definitions, information about historic events, etc. It is true that, in recent years, the reliability of Wikipedia has been questioned due to “trolls”; who manipulate, change or directly make up information about something on Wikipedia in a comical way or to harm. We all know that one of the virtues or flaws of Wikipedia that makes it so famous is that practically any user can add or modify information from Wikipedia. For example, changing people’s dates of birth, biographical data, or adding facts that those people never committed. Although Wikipedia, in general, is quite reliable and contains very good information, my advice would be that whenever you search for something in Wikipedia, double-check with other sources and search a little more not only in Wikipedia since, as I mentioned before, not everything that appears in Wikipedia is true. And to conclude, as we all know, not everything we see or read on the Internet is true, so we must always be very careful and if possible contrast the information with various sources of information.

  6. I actually really enjoyed this article because from the moment you are required to do a research project or if you just want to become more knowledgeable about a topic Wikipedia is always available. Most of the time Wikipedia would be the top link whenever you search for anything, personally I have used Wikipedia countless times even now I still use Wikipedia. I do not like the fact that in high school they would always tell us never to trust Wikipedia for anything because it is to unreliable and when you ask that why is it so unreliable people always say that its because anyone can edit the information that is on Wikipedia all you need is an account and boom just like that you have the power of an editor. But the surprising fact is that even when you go somewhere else to look for some information most of the time the other websites are saying exactly what Wikipedia is saying but now you have just wasted so much time looking for a “reliable” source when the answers have always been right in front of you. I do not think I have ever met a professor or a teacher who has said that you can use Wikipedia as one of your sources, the best I have ever heard was that you can use Wikipedia to get started more like a foundation but after that you should go and find more “reliable” sources. A lot of people do not realize this but at the bottom of the Wikipedia page there is a section called references, so even if you are not going to use Wikipedia directly its still reliable in showing you some of the resources that they used for the specific information. I think that this article was interesting when it spoke about the internal conflicts of the Wikipedia community you never think about anything like that because when you say Wikipedia you just think it’s a website with information that any can edit because that is what we have always been told but Wikipedia has a whole community and veteran editors. There is way more to Wikipedia than what meets the eye. If there was thing that I could wish to happen for Wikipedia is that they start trusting it more as a source in colleges and schools because I can guarantee that everybody uses Wikipedia even the people who claim it is not reliable probably still use Wikipedia.

  7. Just like any other internet platform, Wikipedia has people who like to “troll” the internet. These people provide falsified information which is available for the general public to view at any time. For instance, just because Mike Bloomberg had dropped out of the presidential race, the internet had “pronounced him dead” the second he dropped out of the race. I have also seen this with sporting events, like when a play gets dunked on or a pitcher gives up a walk-off home run. People will say things such as the player is owned by the player who dunked on him or the owned by the team who the pitcher gave up the home run to. The only problem is that there are people who believe this misleading information on the web.
    This can also be why professors do not let students use Wikipedia, as it is not considered a credible source, and it can be seen why. Often times, young people are taught to not believe everything they read on the web. Since almost any one can edit any Wikipedia page, either with an account or even anonymously, there is going to be room for misleading information like that of Mike Bloomberg’s “death”. However, there are always going to be some students that do not follow the professor’s instructions, and they use Wikipedia anyway which can cause their work to be flawed or non-reliable.

  8. Even though it is forbidden to use as an academic resource, Wikipedia is the best source to find basic information. The article, “How Wikipedia’s volunteers became the web’s best weapon against misinformation”, by Alex Pasternack explains how volunteers have turned Wikipedia into a resource people can trust. Pasternack begins by stating how these volunteers do their job, “Despite the trolls and propagandists, the majority of errors, especially on controversial and highly trafficked pages, go away within minutes or hours, thanks to its phalanx of devoted volunteers”. This occurs often when President Trump makes a remark and a troll will decide to edit his wikipedia page at the attention of going “viral”. Pasternack further explains how wikipedia deals with topics related to trump, “Topics related to Trump frequently monopolize editors’ time. On his talk page, exasperated editors took the unusual step of appending a list of rules to the top, based on current consensus by the community”.These volunteers understand the tremendous platform they have in making sure people that visit wikipedia receive accurate information. Pasternack continues by explaining how bots help these volunteers do their job, “vigilant community-built bots can alert Wikipedians to some basic suspicious behavior, and administrators can use restrictions to temporarily lock down the most vulnerable pages, keeping them safe from fly-by editors who are not logged in”. Wikipedia is one of the most used websites on the entire internet, it is smart that they have technology in place to prevent misinformation. This quote also shows how much technology has evolved over the years, where AI bots can now make sure websites are safe.

    Pasternack also explains why Wikipedia chooses to make sure their information is unbiased, “Another core principle, NPOV, or “neutral point of view,” means “representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.” Wikipedia’s choice to have many different viewpoints within its volunteers is a smart decision because in a world that is so polarized, the more viewpoints the better. Having a culture that is not dominated by one side of an opinion is what all websites should strive for if they want to have a larger audience. Overall, this article shows that Wikipedia is underappreciated on the internet for the job it does to make sure people receive accurate information.

  9. I remember when I was in middle school sometimes when me and my friends got to use the computer lab one of my more technologically savvy friends would show us how you can edit Wikipedia pages, at the time I thought this was a funny prank that would just get fixed by someone who works for wikipedia, it was not until I was older and more mature that realize how harmful what we were doing could be. It seems like today most big Wikipedia page edits will get picked up quickly and get changed, In this article from fast company it shows how Wikipedia users can still easily edit its pages, but there is a strong team of Wikipedia volunteers that look out for false edits and quickly will change them, a great example of this was shown when minutes after Mike Bloombergs first presidential debate his Wikipedia page had been edited by a Wikipedia user that made the page say that Bloomberg was stabbed and killed, within minutes Bloombergs page was edited back to normal, but it still raised a large concern that Wikipedia pages can still be easily edited by its users. That why wikipedia has a community of editors that look out for the greater good, one man named Charley Musselman who has done hundreds of edit on Wikipedia feels everyone should have access to the right information, which I completely agree with Wikipedia has become such an important tool as I have used over fifty times just for this class alone. This is really part of a larger issue and that is the spread of false information on the internet as it can really do a lot of harm in the era of fake news, websites like Twitter and Facebook struggle like Wikipedia with false information, the difference one is actually a useful research tool that needs to have the right information, with that said it is important to make sure you know where your information is coming from online. I was also intrigued by the website that the Wikipedia community has built called WikiLoop Battlefield that lets anyone review recent Wikipedia edits for vandalism, this made me wonder how Wikipedia on a corporate level deals with page vandalism and just how much it depends on its volunteer community.

  10. This article was fascinating because I had no idea how extensive the editing community behind Wikipedia is. Wikipedia has a stigma of being unreliable because anyone can edit it; however, this article does a great job of debunking this idea by showing how editors review them, and how many volunteers vigilantly monitor the pages most prone to false edits. I agree with the article’s statement that now more than ever, access to reliable information is essential to all people around the world. The term “fake news” is now common vernacular in America and is as threatening as ever during this election cycle. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are trying to eliminate fake news from their platforms, but their efforts do appear surface-level compared to Wikipedia’s. Still, Wikipedia’s editing system is not perfect.

    The article discusses some of the conflict in the Wikipedia editing community, particularly on controversial political pages. While Wikipedia often asks its users to edit with a neutral point of view, that can be difficult or near impossible for even the most objectively-minded people. Many editors have left the platform because they believe the political pages have a clear lean to the political left. Others, have created subdivisions within the community for editors with another political ideology. Despite issues like this, the community is still making strides to find ways to remain as neutral as possible on all articles. This commitment to unbiased reporting is great, and something all news outlets should strive to emulate, and it provides hope for a future with less misinformation or “fake news”.

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