Youtube, Facebook, and Google Can’t Expect Wikipedia to Cure the Internet

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For the average internet user, Wikipedia operates in the background, its 44 million entries serving as a priceless resource, rarely thought of until you need to know the capital of Azerbaijan. This week, however, Wikipedia’s volunteer editors and the nonprofit that makes its work possible, the Wikimedia Foundation, suddenly found themselves in the news, tasked once again with providing a ground-level truth for a platform unwilling to provide one of its own.

On stage at the South by Southwest conference on Tuesday, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that her company would begin adding “information cues” to conspiracy theory videos, text-based links intended to provide users with better information about what they are watching. One of the sites YouTube plans to use is Wikipedia. “We’re just going to be releasing this for the first time in a couple weeks, and our goal is to start with the list of internet conspiracies listed where there is a lot of active discussion on YouTube,” Wojcicki said on stage.

The move came as a surprise—even to the Wikimedia Foundation. “In this case, neither Wikipedia nor the Wikimedia Foundation are part of a formal partnership with YouTube. We were not given advance notice of this announcement,” the organization said in a statement.

YouTube, a multibillion-dollar corporation flush with advertising cash, had chosen to offload its misinformation problem in part to a volunteer, nonprofit encyclopedia without informing it first. YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the move prompted protestations from the media and some of Wikipedia’s editors.

“As a longtime Wikipedia editor, I wondered whether YouTube thought deeply about how relying on Wikipedia to combat disinformation on YouTube videos is going to impact Wikipedia and the community of editors,” says Amanda Levendowski, a clinical teaching fellow at the Technology Law & Policy Clinic at New York University Law School.

Wikipedia never claimed to be perfect, and isn’t.

But YouTube is far from the first tech company, or even the first social platform, to use Wikipedia’s content for its own goals. Its parent company, Alphabet, frequently uses Wikipedia content in Google search results. Facebook is also testing using Wikipedia to fight its own misinformation problem, though it informed the Wikimedia Foundation of its intentions first. Artificial intelligence researchers also frequently use the online encyclopedia—which still adds 20,000 new entries each month—to train algorithms or teach smart assistants. And Levendowski notes that Alphabet-owned Jigsaw used Wikipedia article discussion pages, in part, to train its open-source troll-fighting AI.

“Our content powers hundreds of semantic web services and knowledge graphs, including those maintained by Google, Apple, and Yahoo!. Our traffic data is used to track the flu virus, analyze changes in the stock market, and predict which movies will top the box office. Our structured and linked data platform, Wikidata, is used to organize datasets from the Library of Congress to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” says Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Which is to say that much of the tech industry uses Wikipedia—it’s not only YouTube that has to consider the consequences of making it the arbiter of truth.

Who Writes History

It’s worth acknowledging that Wikipedia is, for the most part, remarkably good at its job. The site is a free, generally reliable, vast source of information. But it does have its issues. Only 16 percent of the site’s volunteer editors identify as female, according to a 2013 study. Nearly half of all articles about geographic places were written by inhabitants of just five countries: the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany, and Italy, a 2015 Oxford University study concluded. The same study found that more edits have been made from the Netherlands than all of Africa combined.

These disparities result in real consequences both for the kind of content that ends up on Wikipedia, and how it’s written. While it presents itself as a source of facts, articles can have their own slants. “For certain political topics, there’s a central-left bias. There’s also a slight, when it comes to more political topics, counter-cultural bias. It’s not across the board, and it’s not for all things,” says Sorin Adam Matei, a professor at Purdue University and the author of Structural Differentiation in Social Media, a book that studied 10 years worth of Wikipedia editing logs.

The vast majority of edits to Wikipedia are also made by a tiny fraction of its volunteers. Seventy-seven percent of Wikipedia’s content is written by one percent of its editors, according to Matei’s book, which he cowrote with Brian Britt, an assistant professor of journalism at South Dakota State University.

“The diversity and representation of our editor community has been an area of critical focus for our movement over the past several years. To truly be a free knowledge resource for all, Wikipedia has to reflect the lived experience of the world—and this extends beyond gender, to language, geography, and more,” says Maher. “At the Foundation, we’re committed to supporting the diversification of the Wikimedia editor community, and the efforts of those working to make Wikipedia more representative.”

Funding efforts to diversify Wikipedia’s contributor base is challenging, though, when companies use its content, but don’t also invest in its future. Or when they choose to treat it as an “endlessly renewable resource with infinite free labor,” as longtime Wikipedia editor and librarian Phoebe Ayers put it. Google confirmed to New York Magazine that it does contribute financially to the Wikimedia Foundation.1

Scraping Wikipedia content has already had unintended effects in other parts of the web. Consider what happens when you search a number of news outlets on Google. Several daily US newspapers in major metropolitan areas, like the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News, are presented as having “political alignments.” The search results describe the former as conservative, and the latter as centrist. But if you search for an openly partisan outlet, like Breitbart, no political alignment shows up, because Wikipedia’s editors haven’t added one to its entry. Because the information lives on Google, independent from its source, it’s not always apparent why a piece of information did or didn’t end up in a search result.

Of course, anyone could add a political alignment label to Breitbart’s Wikipedia entry if they wanted to. Wikipedia’s greatest strength is that anyone can contribute to it, a feature that also draws the most criticism. Powerful people have been caught editing entries to suit their own interests, or to bend history, exonerating themselves of past offenses.

Scraping Wikipedia content has already had unintended effects in other parts of the web.

In 2015, for example, a Politico investigation uncovered that someone with access to New York City Police Department computers had edited Wikipedia pages detailing alleged police brutality. They attempted to delete Wikipedia entries entirely for several well-known victims, including Eric Garner. The NYPD Wikipedia scandal is far from the only instance in which the site has been manipulated; a Twitter bot updates daily with anonymous edits made to the site from IP addresses associated with Congress, for example, though not all the edits it chronicles have political or policy implications. Wikipedia has also struggled with how to deal with people who are paid to edit articles to suit their benefactors.

Wikipedia never claimed to be perfect, and isn’t. But tech giants still use it as an unassailable force—often in an attempt to hide their own failures of moderation.

Conspiracists At the Gate

Some Wikipedia editors have expressed concern that YouTube’s new feature will make their jobs even harder by sending a flood of conspiracy theorists to the site, eager to edit pages to shape their worldview. So far, though, Wikipedia does have a good track record of fighting back against people interested in propagating misinformation. A 2016 study conducted by three Stanford researchers found that most hoaxes are detected and dealt with on Wikipedia quickly. While anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, the process is fairly bureaucratic, and not something you can do easily in the heat of the moment after watching a conspiracy theory video on YouTube. In fact, Wikipedia has had trouble recruiting new editors in the past because of the sometimes cumbersome safeguards it has installed to prevent poor-quality edits from making their way into entries.

If an army of flat-Earth truthers do try to infiltrate Wikipedia, what they will create is extra labor for the site’s editors, who aren’t compensated for their work. They may also harass the editors of articles that debunk conspiracy theories, a problem that the site dealt with during the Gamergate controversy.

Perhaps worse than vandalism is the worry that Wikipedia links on YouTube, or on any platform, will become a symbol rather than a source of more information. Users might not read the encyclopedia entries, but merely interpret them as a cue. Videos that are presented without Wikipedia pages or other additional information might be viewed automatically as more legitimate than those that are.

“When people go to interfaces they do not think, they do not want to think, they want to see conventions and encoded signals that help them make quick decisions,” says Matei. “It will signal just this is fake, this is bogus.”

More than anything, that’s perhaps the greatest risk that comes with tech companies using Wikipedia to fight misinformation. Using the crowdsourced encyclopedia as a shield, platforms abdicate responsibility for their own problems.

Everything in Moderation

1CORRECTION 3/17/18 2:09PM: This story originally said that Google does not contribute to the Wikimedia Foundation. That is incorrect; the company does contribute, and its Matching Gifts program is listed among the foundation’s major benefactors.





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