Don’t use Wikipedia for learning about “breaking news”

Posted by Strainu on February 07, 2017
Wikipedia

I decided to start with the conclusion just in case you won’t have the patience to read the whole article. But I think you should read all the way down: in the world of “alternative news”, knowing who and when to trust is a much needed skill.

I’ll show you how the recent protests in Romania were reflected in the Wikipedia article. I’ll try to keep my examples from the English Wikipedia for the sake of accessibility, but the same applies to the Romanian Wikipedia, and very likely to any other language version of the website. We’ll then try to learn more from the coverage of other breaking news in the past, and I’ll give you a few pointers on how to use these articles (in spite of the title).

So, what happens on Wikipedia when something noteworthy appears in the news? First, an article is created. Then, if the news is really big, such as the protests, it’s added to the front page. Then on comes the usual wiki-work: interested wikipedians (along with hordes of anonymous users, with various different interests, stated or not) start to tweak, enhance and modify the news item and the article, trying to follow on the basic policies of Wikipedia: neutral point of view and verifiability.

That’s the theory. In reality, the “white, male and educated” majority of wikipedians will very likely skew the initial versions of the article pretty badly towards their PoV. For instance, this version from February 2nd, contains no mention of the different positions expressed in the public meeting from January 30th, just before the laws were adopted. Also, daily edits adding the number of protesters consistently selected the largest number (sometimes ignoring the previously added sources which mentioned lower turnouts), and certain editors chose to publish unverified rumors. On the Romanian Wikipedia, one person plainly refused to add any reaction coming from the government.

Surely, this must be because Romania is a small country and things are better with breaking news elsewhere? Let’s look at Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (you know, the one that went missing back in 2014 and was never found). The article saw over 500 edits in the first 8 hours after the accident went public, many more than the article about Romania. Still, one of the early versions of the article had 2 different departure times mentioned and also contained some unconfirmed speculation about the plane descending to 200 m, while another version later that day mentioned that an Austrian national was aboard this plane – later investigation found that the passport was stolen long before the flight. There were many disputable facts added in the next few days, as the press started to launch different ideas on the faith of the aircraft.

So, are the people stating that Wikipedia is unreliable to be believed? What are the experienced wikipedians doing to prevent these problems? Well, they do a lot actually, but since Wikipedia is free to edit, they can only cure, not prevent. You have to remember that the number of experienced users interested by any given subject is limited and they can easily be overwhelmed by the hundreds of edits in a short period of time – even in, or especially in, the English version. As time goes by and the interest of casual editors diminishes, the persons that remain interested in the subject continue to edit the article and bring it to a decent level. The current version of the article about MH370 is ten times the size of the early versions and has extensive sections about the search and the possible reasons of the crash. Perhaps there are still a few things that are not true, but these can be easily spotted by comparing the sources quoted to the article text and also, they do not significantly affect the ability of the reader to understand the events. I suspect that the same will happen to the article about the protests in Bucharest in about a month or so (assuming thing will de-escalate from now on).

Wikipedia overall is pretty reliable. Compared to the old encyclopedias that took decades to write, its articles converge much quicker to a usable form. But we’re not yet to a point where everything is correct from the very beginning. What you, as reader, can do is don’t take Wikipedia for granted, especially in articles about breaking news. You should always check the sources mentioned in the article, then compare them with other sources. If possible, try to find reliable sources that confirm the information you’re interested in, but beware of copy-paste and automated articles. Also, even if you feel strongly about a subject, please don’t vandalize articles. It only makes life harder for everyone using Wikipedia.

The text above is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License România v3 

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