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Jimmy Wales: Fake news, WikiTribune and the future of journalism

Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales discusses his new venture WikiTribune and the fight against fake news.

Jimmy Wales is one of the masterminds behind Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that describes itself as “a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project”. 

Since launching in 2001, Wikipedia has become an internet colossus, reaching around 1.4 billion users accessing some 46 million articles in 300 languages each month.

In 2017, Wales turned his attention to a new project, “WikiTribune”, a news website, which was set up to promote what it calls “evidence-based journalism” in an attempt to combat fake news.

“I had been thinking about the idea for quite a long time … but what really provoked me was the sense during the last US election, all the talk about fake news, about [a] “post-truth” world and all those kinds of things,” Wales says.

Wales initially planned to wait until President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office had passed but decided to put his plan into action earlier, after presidential aide Kellyanne Conway made reference to “alternative facts” regarding the number of people in attendance at Trump’s inauguration.

“I was just like ‘You know what? The 100 days is up’. This is not acceptable behaviour, facts do matter … it wasn’t just that, but that was the last straw. That was the thing that made me say “I’m going to do this now”. 

WikiTribune combines the work of journalists with volunteers, who contribute by proofreading, fact-checking and adding sources to the journalists’ articles.

We can't be silly and ignore potential problems ... but the existence of dark places on the internet doesn't disprove the existence of places of great light and joy.

by Jimmy Wales, WikiTribune founder

“The idea is to say let’s replicate and let’s build a healthy, strong community, much like the community that creates Wikipedia. It’s not wide open to everyone, we want people who are thoughtful and kind, interested in contributing in a positive way and I want that community to work side by side with the paid, professional journalists as equals.”

While Wales acknowledges that journalists have specialist knowledge and skills in areas such as interviewing and gaining access to sources, he feels that a wider community can contribute to news in a meaningful way.

He points to “slow” news stories, which unfold over a long period of time, and local news as areas where the community model might work well. 

But the venture has also had its critics, from those who say the platform undermines professional journalists by having volunteers fill the roles of copy editors for free, to those that question whether Wales’ optimism about the wisdom of crowds is naive.

“Maybe it is a bit naive,” he concedes, “But I hope not insanely so, Wikipedia has proven, largely, that there are a lot of nice people out there and they just want to help out and do something useful. 

“We can’t be silly and ignore potential problems … but the existence of dark places on the internet doesn’t disprove the existence of places of great light and joy.”