FETISHIZING FACTS WILL NOT FIX THE NEWS, OR WHY WIKITRIBUNE WILL FAIL
In a video launching a new crowdfunding campaign, Jimmy Wales stares into the camera, deliberately adjusts his charcoal-rimmed glasses, and delivers his pitch: “The news is broken … but we’ve figured out how to fix it.” The co-founder of Wikipedia has brought his longstanding interest in facts out of the encyclopaedic mode and into the present. The campaign seeks funding for a new hybrid-journalism venture, Wikitribune. Like many of us, Wales is concerned about the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics and its counterpart, fake news. He thinks Wikitribune is the solution. Sadly, he is wrong, but wrong in ways that are revealing.
If the campaign is successful, Wikitribune will be a news site where professional journalists collaborate with community members “side by side as equals”. Wales describes this as a promotion of the “community” who typically “hang at the bottom of articles in the comments that serve little purpose”. “Wikitribune”, the site claims, “puts community at the top, literally”. Accompanying these words is a picture of what such a collaborative arrangement will look like, with community members acting as whistle-blowers, fact-checkers, fact-finders, grammar-whizs and (financial) supporters, all working around a journalist. Wales hopes that after the initial campaign to employ 10 journalists, Wikitribune will be sustained by contributions from supporters.
In addition to this community-on-top model, journalists will “only write articles based on facts they can verify” and readers will have the opportunity to “see the source” and “make up your own mind”. The site will be free to access and free of ads, and its finances fully transparent.
How exactly does this fix the news? Unfortunately, it doesn’t. At best, Wikitribune will discover another raison d’être and pivot accordingly. At worst, it will be another well-intended wiki-failure, joining the likes of Wikia Search in the dustbin of internet history.
For starters, it’s difficult to see the novelty of Wikitribune. The site describes combining professional journalism with “that radical idea from the world of Wiki that a community of volunteers can and will reliably protect and improve articles”. I’m sorry, but what year is it? Didn’t Web 2.0 happen over a decade ago? Hasn’t that caravan moved on? Don’t our current predicaments with the news derive precisely from that moment in web time? Fake news, trolling, live-streamed killings — this is the dark side of that once radical idea that everyone can participate. Clay Shirky’s enthusiastic book from that period, Here Comes Everybody, is in desperate need of a sequel: They Came, They Saw, They Conquered.
The idea that journalism can be done by others is well established. Using the web for these purposes can be traced back to the Independent Media Center or ‘Indymedia’ — a network of alternative media outlets who provided grassroots coverage of the WTO protests in Seattle, in 1999. Indymedia’s stated purpose, “the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth”, sounds very similar to what Wales has in mind. Wikitribune is little more than a “remix” of near two decades worth of web experiments: bits of Indymedia, throw in some Wikipedia and PolitiFact, a dash of Wikileaks, and a few sprinkles of [insert your favorite citizen journalism project here]. The problem with this retro approach goes beyond a lack of novelty, however: put simply, what’s wrong with the news is not something collaborative community dynamics can fix. It’s not a question of throwing bodies at a problem. Nor is it a question of creating a single high-quality news organization, as if the masses are desperately seeking the one source that will guide them to the truth.
Any attempts to fix the news will need to begin, rather, with platform dynamics. It will need to recognize that the platforms (Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on) now control distribution. The circulation of news has little to do with the truth-value of an article or a journalistic notion of newsworthiness. What “spreads” is largely a matter of platform dynamics, a combination of user activity and algorithmic sorting. The nature of the sort is mostly black-boxed and a small algorithm tweak can literally change the game. Wales laments the rise of “click bait” and this general coupling of news and social media, but his solution does nothing to address it. Wikitribune will be subject to these dynamics, the same as everyone.
The platforms, of course, are not oblivious to the situation. Facebook is taking steps to address fake news after receiving criticism for its role in its dissemination during the recent US elections. In his response to criticisms, Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook will enable the flagging of fake news by community members and the company is already paying 3rd parties, such as Correctiv, to identify and flag content. In January, the company also introduced The Facebook Journalism Project, a broad initiative to rethink the relationship between Facebook and the news, and part of this includes a commitment to “curb news hoaxes”. Others have suggested the platforms need to be regulated and to be held accountable for their central role as distributors of news.
One can forgive Wales for not wishing to help the likes of Facebook deal with its issues –issues which arise largely because of its monopolistic practices — but surely intervening in these dynamics is much more pressing than in tweaking the formula for content production? Indeed, one might ask Wales’ opinion of the numerous traditional news outlets that ostensibly do pursue journalistic ideals, such as The Guardian (where Wales was a board member until recently), or the New York Times. Are these outlets broken simply because they generate revenue from advertising? Are all the journalists working for these organization compromised a priori? The issue, it seems, is less with the political economy of news organizations or how they go about creating stories and more with the uncertainties of the role of platforms within hybrid media economies.
Beyond ignoring platforms dynamics, there are other significant problems with Wales’ view of what constitutes news. Wikitribune is presented as “evidence-based journalism”, filled with “fact-based articles” that can be “verified”. An illustration on the Wikitribune site depicts the model of the platform as one where communities and journalists come together through a mutual relationship with facts.
Let’s be clear: the problem with fake news has little to do with a scarcity of facts. Facts abound. We may, in fact, have the opposite problem: too many facts. We have become desensitized to them. When all the facts point to a civilization in rapid decline and mass species extinction, ignoring the facts is a fact of life. Call it denial as coping mechanism. And yet, Wikitribune is presented as if a lack of facts is the issue. If only we could “see the source”. If we could just “verify” the account, like police officers interrogating a witness: ‘Just the facts ma’am’ — everything will be fixed. The problem with the news’s relationship with facts will not be fixed by an army Wikitribunian neo-positivists, large or small. It is not a matter of “more eyeballs” fixing a few “bugs” in the truth. News is not software.
Indeed, there is reason to believe this fetishizing of facts could exacerbate this issue. Why? Because facts are rarely completely solid. Philosopher Karl Popper once defined facts precisely as those things that could be challenged and disproven. For Popper, being contestable distinguished facts from the realm of religion. The realm of facts is thus one of war. They cannot do what Wales’ and others want of them; they cannot hold the burden of settling disputes over reality. Facts divide. Wales’ doesn’t seem to grasp this fundamental point. Even Zuckerberg gets it: “Identifying the “truth” is complicated.” But Wales continues to believe that something like a ‘neutral point of view’ (NPOV), one of the pillars upon which Wikipedia collaboration is based, is unproblematic. I’m tempted to say believers in NPOV aren’t much better than the producers and consumers of fake news: one group critically disengages, the other uncritically engages.
A final criticism: Why isn’t more attention being placed on the consumers, circulators and believers of fake news? One could accuse Wikitribune of preaching to the converted. Meanwhile, entire populations of ‘fakesumers’ are being overlooked. If we look to these people, what and who will we find? People forgotten? The former middle-classes? People never acknowledged? People who have always been on the margins? People who were sold a version of reality that hasn’t held up? Perhaps. I suspect we will encounter a “filter bubble” much bigger than anything found on the internet. A filter bubble so large we’d have to call it culture. To fix this problem we might have to think about things like education, social welfare, work opportunities and other political issues. If you’re a believer in such things.