In Wikipedia We Trust?

Article published on Aug. 17, 2016
Article published on Aug. 17, 2016

Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into one of the most used sources of information on the planet. But when any one of its millions of pages can be anonymously edited at any time, how do you know what to believe?

Robbie Williams eats domestic pets in pubs for money and David Beckham was a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century.

These claims, once allegedly published on Wikipedia, the Internet’s free encyclopedia, might make you laugh. But the trust put in the site’s information by the millions of people who visit it each day may not be so funny.

According to the site's own statistics, the total number of Wikipedia page views is 19.545 billion, with more than 13 million unique visitors every day. Some of them go online to look for fast information about a topic they are curious about, or to win a bet with their friends, and usually have an idea about the way Wikipedia functions: that is, all you need to edit or create articles is an internet connection. It’s simple, free and – importantly – anonymous.

To check how it works, I opened an account on Wikipedia (which took less than 10 seconds) and randomly chose a page to edit. On the page for the Sarajevo Film Festival page I changed a simple sentence, from “The Sarajevo Film Festival is the premier and largest film festival in Southeast Europe, and is one of the largest in Europe.” into “The Sarajevo Film Festival is one of the film festivals in Europe.” When I refreshed the page, there was my edit. What I wrote wasn’t incorrect, but it shows that any information can be easily manipulated.

“I choose to believe, and it is an informed decision that I’ve made, that majority of volunteers are those people who share the vision and the idea of free access to information and knowledge for everyone everywhere,” media literacy expert Vanja Ibrahimbegovic Tihak from Sarajevo, told me in an interview for cafébabel. “However, does it mean that we should blindly believe everything we read on Wikipedia? No. How could we possibly know for a fact that each and every one of the site’s 80,000 contributors has properly researched and verified every piece of information that they put online?”

Who's editing Wikipedia?

Wikipedia’s largest version (in English) currently has more than 5 million articles and averages 800 new articles per day. In total, there are 38 million articles on the site, in over 250 different languages. 

But a study by Oxford University carried out last year has revealed that the vast majority of articles and edits made on the site have come exclusively from Western sources. Nearly half of all edits made were by contributors living in just five countries: the UK, the United States, Germany, France, and Italy: these are also the countries where Wikipedia is used the most.

To try and boost the number of articles from central and eastern Europe, Wikipedians organized the Wikimedia CEE Spring Competition 2016, which saw thousands of new articles published about the history, culture, traditions and people of European countries like Bulgaria, Poland and Ukraine.

As the number of contributions of volunteer authors from across the globe increases, so too will the amount of false information being published. However, skepticism about the content of Wikipedia articles is not so widespread.

The site has compiled a long list of known hoaxes, as a “clear or blatant attempt to make something up.” Among them was an article saying that Lord Byron kept a crocodile as a pet, which was left online for more than eight years until it was detected and deleted in 2015. In the meantime, the UK’s Sunday Times magazine published a piece reiterating the claim that the famous poet shared his house with a reptile.

“We cannot be sure that all of the contributors have good intentions,” says Tihak. “But even if we want to focus on the positive side, we always have to bear in mind that each person, as a content creator or consumer, has his or her values that are reflected in the way they create the content, as well as understand it. This is the bias connected with any message we come across online or offline, and we need to consider it when deciding if the message is trustworthy.”

Always dig deeper

Whether journalists should be using Wikipedia is up for debate, but the site is widely used among students as a source of reference materials; a practice which is even recommended at some universities. When we search for something on Google, a Wikipedia article is very often the top result. However, a good research demands digging deeper, as those references that should in theory give credibility to Wikipedia articles can be fake too.

A 2013 article entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”, written in Science magazine by John Bohannon, describes the author’s experiment in which he submitted fake scientific papers with obvious errors. He sent his articles to more than 300 open access scientific magazines, more than half of which accepted them.

“My recommendation to everyone using the Wikipedia is really the one made by [the site’s co-founder] Jimmy Wales,” Tihak concludes. “Depending on what information you need, you invest more or less time to check the sources quoted on Wikipedia and potentially search deeper, when working as a journalist or a student.”

Even Wikipedia says that Wikipedia is not a reliable source. So should we trust it?