Can we trust Wikipedia? 1.4 billion people can't be wrong

David Barnett
Speaking in tongues: there is a project called Wikimedia 2030, which is trying to envisage and prepare for the world 12 years hence, and how we interact with the internet: Getty

Here’s what it has to say about itself: “Wikipedia (/ˌwɪkɪˈpiːdiə/ (About this sound listen) WIK-i-PEE-dee-ə or /ˌwɪkiˈpiːdiə/ (About this sound listen) WIK-ee-PEE-dee-ə) is a free online encyclopedia with the mission of allowing anyone to create or edit articles.[3][4] Wikipedia is the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet,[5][6][7] and is ranked the fifth-most popular website.[8] The project is owned by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit which “operates on whatever monies it receives from its annual fund drives”.[9][10][11]”

I’ve left the reference numbers in that because they’re quite important, as we shall see. Wikipedia began life in 2001, set up by early internet entrepreneurs/evangelists Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, with the latter coining the portmanteau name by smashing the traditional encyclopedia up against the name given to collaboratively-modified websites, wiki.

It is, without a doubt, a major player in the internet landscape and its ubiquity is quite astounding. According to the latest official figures, there are Wikipedia sites in 300 different languages, with some 46 million articles accessed by 1.4 billion unique devices every single month, while an army of 200,000 editors and contributors patrol this vast repository of online knowledge 24 hours a day.

And it is all completely voluntary. You’ll have seen the occasional pleas for donations when you open up Wikipedia sites; behind those millions of pages is Wikimedia, a charitable foundation that runs entirely on donations. There are fewer than 300 full-time staff worldwide, nine of them in the UK.

But everything else you see on Wikipedia has been put there voluntarily. That is the collaborative nature of Wikipedia; someone, somewhere, has an interest or expertise in the most obscure of subjects, and they are willing to spend their time putting what they know online just in case you ever want to know, say, a full list of every single member ever of the Justice League of America, the scores in every final of the English Football League Trophy since 1984, or the names of all the volcanoes in Indonesia.

But anyone with an internet access and a free website creator programme, which abound on the internet, can do that. The difference with Wikipedia comes with those little square-bracketed numbers in the entry above, and the occasional note you’ll see on a piece, such as [citation needed]. Because behind those who are putting all this data online purely because they want to is another wave of volunteers who are constantly questioning, demanding verification for and keeping in check this tsunami of information.

Those numbers are links to citations, or primary sources that back up the information, and the more of them that a Wikipedia entry has, the better. At the top of each Wikipedia entry you’ll see a series of tabs. One is marked Edit, and that brings the collaborative nature of the project right home. See something you don’t like on a page? Then you can click on this tab, and quickly and easily change the entire page. But you’d better be sure of your information, and have the sources to back up your information, or it won’t last long.

Wikipedia, perhaps contrary to popular belief, isn’t a source of information at all (Getty)

You can even, if you’re so minded, be mischievous or downright malicious with Wikipedia. Want to send comics fans into a tailspin by editing that Justice League of America page to replace all the DC comics characters with superheroes published by rival company Marvel? Go right ahead.

“It’ll probably last an hour at the most,” says John Lubbock, communications coordinator at Wikimedia UK. “We get this sort of vandalism of pages quite frequently but someone will be along to delete it and put the page back to how it was.”

But it’s this ability for anyone, anywhere, to edit Wikipedia entries that has given rise to the perception that the site is something of an information Wild West; every couple of years there will be mainstream media articles titled “But Can We Trust Wikipedia?”. And the answer is, we can trust Wikipedia just about as much as we can trust anyone who tells us anything. But Wikipedia, perhaps contrary to popular belief, isn’t a source of information at all.

Lubbock says, “Wikipedia entries are basically built upon the architecture of knowledge that we already have.”

In other words, for a new Wikipedia page to be allowed to stay, or for edits to an existing page to stick, there have to be verifiable sources for the information, be they directly linkable primary sources already on the internet, or references to printed information in books or magazines.

There’s also some confusion about who exactly manages Wikipedia pages. Recently, someone emailed the Wikimedia offices in the UK to say that her father had won a major award in his field of expertise and wanted the information adding to his Wikipedia page; she also provided some photographs.

“She got quite angry when we said we couldn’t do that,” says Lubbock. “We had to explain that we, as Wikimedia, don’t put information on Wikipedia pages; that has to be done by one of our users.”

Wikipedia is not a mainstream media organisation with an editorial staff; it is more like a social network than a purveyor of information. The data comes from you, or I, and our entries are policed by other users like you and I. And that’s why the idea of Wikipedia as the Wild West of the internet is wrong; it’s more like a self-governing society, perhaps even sailing close to the political idea of pure anarchy – not the definition that includes disorder and chaos, but the one that talks of the absence of authority and state.

But an anarchy with policemen, perhaps. And how do you get to be one of the 200,000 Wikipedia editors? Well, there’s no application form, no request for your CV, no job interview, no salary. You start off making edits to improve pages; when you’ve done perhaps ten or so useful edits or set up new pages with verifiable information, your privileges are extended to give you more power.

Some mischievous rewriting of history is inevitable, but editors are vigilant when it comes to party political grime artists

But even then nothing is certain. Up on the top tabs of any Wikipedia page you’ll see one marked Talk, and this can be a fascinating look behind the scenes of Wikipedia. Here you’ll find discussion between editors – and you can join in yourself – about recent edits to a page, why new information was allowed, or deleted, calls for clarification or verification, explanations as to why edits were approved or not. This is where the Wikipedia community beavers away in the background, paddling furiously like the legs of a swan while the top-level Wikipedia cruises relatively serenely through the noise of the internet.

Wikipedia might be the largest online information source and the fifth most popular website on the internet (according to that Wikipedia entry up there at the top) but that doesn’t mean it’s standing still. Wikimedia is aware of something that perhaps not all of us, with our interconnected lives, consider much on a daily basis: not everyone is as immersed in the online world as we are.

There is a project called Wikimedia 2030, which is trying to envisage and prepare for the world 12 years hence, and how we interact with the internet. Wikipedia entries might be available in 300 languages, but that doesn’t mean everyone, everywhere is served.

According to the Wikimedia 2030 manifestio: “There is still a long way to go. While our mission is global, Wikimedia does not yet serve the entire world. Billions of people have yet to access Wikipedia – or even the internet.

“Wikimedia traffic and participation skews toward North America and Western Europe, while other parts of the world are underrepresented on the platform. Efforts to spread disinformation and misinformation and enforce censorship online are increasingly sophisticated and prevalent.

“Now more than ever, the world needs shared human understanding, reliable information, inclusive spaces for public discourse, and advocates for free and open knowledge. That’s why, at the beginning of 2017, we asked ourselves: what should the Wikimedia movement do between now and 2030 to get closer to our vision of free knowledge for all?”

Jimmy Wales (above) and Larry Sanger set up Wikipedia 17 years ago (Getty)

What they’re doing is trying to make Wikimedia, and knowledge, more inclusive. Lubbock points to a drive to even out diversity in Wikipedia entries and editing, to encourage more involvement from women and non-white communities. There’s also an increasingly waged on fake news.

Sometimes this can be for political gain – we’re aware of Russian hackers and social media bots sowing the seeds of dissent and disinformation to steer election results – and Wikipedia of course isn’t immune to these attacks. There is also increasing commercial shenanigans, with companies and enterprising public relations people sweeping through Wikipedia to pepper pages with mentions of corporate entities and specific brands, which all provides extra work for the volunteer editors.

But perhaps Wikimedia’s biggest goal is to make us all media literate. Lubbock muses: “It used to be that media studies courses at colleges and universities were frowned upon as soft subjects, but we could really do with a much more media-literate society today, people who understand better what’s going on, what is happening to information, and who have the critical thinking skills to judge for themselves exactly what they’re being told.”

The general message with Wikipedia is that here, on the face of it, is what we know. But it’s up to you to click on those links and citations and decide whether the information comes from sources you ultimately trust and are happy with. Wikipedia shouldn’t be anyone’s final stop when it comes to seeking knowledge, but rather the gateway to us being able to make up our own minds.