WikiTribune Is a Start, But It Misses The Core Issue On Fake News

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Photo of Zach Fuller
by Zach Fuller

Having created Wikipedia, one of the most widely read sites in the history of the World Wide Web, Jimmy Wales is aware of the complexities and pitfalls when it comes to managing the authenticity of information. Though he had promised himself he would only pass judgement on Trump after his first 100 days, Trump advisor Kelly Anne Conway’s infamous ‘alternative facts’ statement compelled Wales to set up WikiTribune. The site will act as a free to use service, but in a similar manner to Wikipedia will also be accepting donations from monthly ‘supporters’.

Wales has rightly identified issues of transparency; readers need to be able to see where the money that goes into the site is being spent and where the sources are coming from. In the site’s mission statement, it is declared that WikiTribune is 100% ad-free, with no one relying on clicks to appease advertisers and with no vested interest in anything other than giving you real news. There’s no paywall, so anyone can read Wikitribune and anyone can flag or fix an article and submit it for review.

Wales' project highlights that perhaps news is simply no longer suited to a commercial model without the motives that come with ad-funded propositions such as audience share and engagement targets, which dilute the capacity for niche and serious work. However, where WikiTribune potentially falls short is that the issues around fake news are more related to distribution and context. As Barack Obama flagged earlier this week in his first public appearance since he left the presidential office, the demarcations between a piece by a Nobel-prize winning physicist and one by an average person are less pronounced both online and on social networks. Articles can virally spread without the preliminary diligence of fact checkers and the accountability of traditional content producing new organizations.

WikiTribune is also very much in the TV channel/website model of audiences going directly to the service. What has changed now is that news consumption is now been allotted to algorithms through social networks that serve up news stories that through the motivations of Facebook to keep users engaged with the service – which often means confirming the worldview of the user in question. Comparable to the posters on bedroom walls and record collections of yesteryear, articles shared on social media have become a contemporary form of social signalling, demonstrating the user’s personality, likes, dislikes and values. Such a quest for individuality has been attributed to the drop-off in sharing stats for major news organisations between January and April 2016 (Fox down 43%, BuzzFeed 40% and The New York Times 31%), suggesting that users are increasingly using unverified sources of news to confirm their own opinions, which through being served up in the news feeds of those who agree and shared again, creates a feedback loop that serves to strengthen the filter bubble.

WikiTribune will be a useful proposition to users already engaged in the fight against ‘fake news’, but appears to offer little in how it can reach those who remain unaware of the problem. Whilst it is important that people in the position of Jimmy Wales are looking at the issue, creating a fact-checking website only addresses part of the process of how fraudulent information diffuses across social media.

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