Saturday 17 August 2019

'When Kellyanne Conway spoke of alternative facts, my head exploded' - Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales created the biggest repository of information the world has ever seen. Now he wants to take on fake news. He tells Adrian Weckler why

Counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway
Counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

As Facebook faces renewed attacks over facilitating fake news, the founder of another internet giant is about to join the battle. Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales is launching an online news service called WikiTribune after losing patience with the Trump era's ecosystem of "alternative facts".

As well as hiring professional journalists, Wales is hoping to leverage a Wikipedia-style user community to develop and edit stories as they're published.

Jimmy Wales says WikiTribune is ready to go. Photo: Getty Images
Jimmy Wales says WikiTribune is ready to go. Photo: Getty Images

He is betting that the energy which helped to turn Wikipedia, with its 40 million fact-checked articles and 500 million monthly visitors, into the default information repository on Earth will serve a new kind of online publication.

On a recent visit to Dublin, Wales sat down with technology editor Adrian Weckler to talk about fake news, objectivity and missing out on internet billions.

Adrian Weckler [AW]: Other senior tech figures who have achieved less than Wikipedia are now bazillionaires. You've pursued a not-for-profit strategy throughout. Do you feel any sense of regret that you didn't commercialise Wikipedia at any point?

Jimmy Wales [JW]: No. I'm very proud of Wikipedia. In 500 years people will look back on this era and they'll say it was a troubled time but that Wikipedia was really something interesting.

People came together to give this amazing gift to the world and they did it because of the love of knowledge. To be a part of that and have my name associated with it is unbelievable. Also, I do perfectly well financially. I charge people piles of money to give speeches at conferences.

AW: You say you're launching a new online news publication called WikiTribune. Why now? And is this related to the rise of so-called fake news?

JW: It is related, yes. WikiTribune is something I've been noodling about for many years. With the election of Trump, with Brexit, with the rise of low-quality media and fake news, I was moved to say that I really should try and do something in this area.

Around the same time, Kellyanne Conway [aide to Donald Trump] talked about 'alternative facts' and that just made my head explode. So then I knew I should do it. The time feels right. There's a lot of public interest in thinking about new ways and new approaches to journalism.

Donald Trump aide Kellyanne Conway. Photo: AP
Donald Trump aide Kellyanne Conway. Photo: AP

AW: What is it that you think that WikiTribune can bring to the world that isn't being served up now?

JW: The biggest thing is my radical belief that the community can be trusted. So anyone can edit anything. It sounds completely insane but there's a lot going on behind the scenes with our [Wikipedia] community institutions. The powers within the [Wikipedia] community are there to block people who cause trouble.

AW: How will you achieve a sense of objectivity? Doesn't every media organ start off with certain assumptions and certain editorial lines? For example, you're publicly not a fan of Donald Trump. That being the case, how do you set out with a new media entity that strives for a line down the middle?

JW: In terms of achieving objectivity, you can get quite philosophical about what that means exactly. There's a spectrum from having no concern for objectivity at all to trying your best and failing where you don't see your own bias.

But if it's a healthy community, you can build up an ethos where you really want to be neutral and want to listen to all voices.

It's true that I don't like Donald Trump, I wouldn't vote for him and I think he's likely to get impeached. And I'll be having a party that night.

However, I recently read a story in the 'Washington Post' which was just a rant. Even though I agreed with the rant, I could see that it was kind of unfair to Trump in that it took a comment he made out of context.

AW: So how can you weave a path through that? You're hiring professional journalists and will have to consider story selections, too. There will surely be some implicit bias in that, right?

JW: Because we allow community members to start stories on WikiTribune, there is a bit more openness than in any traditional setup. We're starting it in London. But we can't be too UK-centric, so we'll really need to make a special effort to break out of that London-centric bubble.

A big part of it will be hiring some journalists from places like Alabama who will have a different view of the world, possibly even pro-Trump.

But one thing we see at Wikipedia is that with the best Wikipedians it's hard to discern what their politics are.

Because they're liable to come into any story and talk about improving the neutrality of it, noticing that we use an adjective which is not really justified by the source.

That kind of obsessive attention to detail, which is the hallmark of Wikipedians, can be a hallmark of this [WikiTribune] community as well.

AW: What do you attribute the rise of fake news or low-quality news to?

JW: It's driven by the advertising-only business model. This has been super problematic and destructive to journalism. I find that there are lots of high-quality news outlets that are really trying to maintain traditional standards but are under enormous pressure for a number of reasons.

Take programmatic advertising. Everywhere I go on the internet, I see the same ads. That means that a high-quality news outlet is competing with the lowest quality clickbait in a head-to-head way for the first time.

In the past, advertisers cared a lot more about their brand image and the brand image of where they were. They'd choose not to advertise in certain environments. But that has eroded to a significant extent.

AW: To what extent do you think Facebook has been an agent for the rise of fake news?

JW: Well I think they have, but inadvertently. And I think that they didn't realise the scale of the problem early on. It's a tricky issue for them.

In a slightly different set of historical circumstances, we would all be freaking out if Facebook said 'oh we're going to decide what's real or fake on the internet and control what you share accordingly'. Let's admit that sounds like a dystopian nightmare.

In some ways, fake news is almost uniquely a Facebook problem. Twitter is different. If you share fake stories or fake news there, people will yell at you because it is a public kind of forum.

But with Facebook, if you share something, it's your friends. What happens is it reaches huge communities of people who are not news junkies - and people shouldn't have to be news junkies. So it just gets shared and reshared through naïve communities because it has just enough of the signifiers of being real.

You might see a fake news story posted by entity called something like the 'Denver Guardian'.

To many, that might sound plausible. Denver is a city somewhere and Guardian sounds like a newspaper. So because this is a real human problem, Facebook has become a vector for it and it's a really tough one.

AW: Is it possible that citizens themselves should face more responsibility for what they share and what they allow themselves to believe online? Couldn't they Google the 'Denver Guardian' before sharing it?

JW: Yes and no. I would prefer it if everybody was an expert on current affairs. We would all be better citizens but that's not going to happen.

It doesn't actually need to happen. In an open society, you shouldn't have to become an expert on the news in order to deserve to receive quality information.

So when it's a week before the election and you pull your head out of the sports pages, you should be able to get concise, clear explanation and make up your mind based on that. That is the role of the traditional media. But now when you stick your head up and say what's going on here, you're likely to be bombarded by messages that are not good quality.

AW: You say you're fully funded at this point. How close are you to an actual launch?

JW: We're really, really trying hard not to have an actual launch. I wish we could just start and grow and no one would notice until we were getting bigger. That's the way Wikipedia started. Then you don't have all the pressure of 'oh ha - they screwed this up', right?

We can't do it that way because everybody is watching it. But soon we're going to let people start seeing more and we're going to accept more people into the beta community.

AW: Your middle name is Donal. Are you Irish?

JW: No. My uncle's name is Donald and my father is Jimmy Don Wales. My parents wanted to name me after my father but they didn't want me to be called Junior which, in the South where I grew up, is a redneck risk - you might be called Junior your whole life.

But if they named me Jimmy Donald, that would be naming me after one uncle and ignoring the others so they chopped the 'd' off.

I don't think they had any thoughts of an Irish Donal. I live in the UK and I'm just coming up on the time when I'm able to get a UK passport, but it's right at the very moment it becomes completely useless. So if you can find a loophole for me to be Irish, that would be appreciated.

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