Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (pictured) is on the warpath against so-called “fake news” (against which Google is also having a pop, see our piece last week). Wales’ answer is to bypass the idea of an editor and make his members into stakeholders and the journalists accountable to them, as he explained on the BBC’s “Today” programme yesterday
He mentioned not having an editor, the idea being that the readers and members themselves are the editors.
This is where the fake news can start to creep in, although it sounds as though Wales is aware of the risk. A named editor can, at least in traditional publishing, offer a level of accountability otherwise unavailable, and give the reader an idea of where a publication is coming from. Looking at New Statesman Tech’s parent publication, the New Statesman, readers have always understood there will be a liberal/left agenda in there somewhere. Daily Mail readers understand that editor Paul Dacre has a firm grip on coverage and tone (love it or hate it, as an editorial product it’s consistent).
Take this controlling hand out of the equation and place it in the hands of the members and you might find selective interest groups take over. Wales is aware that this can happen.
Not just anybody who rocks up
He actually says in the two-minute extract available on the programme’s website that his idea of participants isn’t going to be just anybody who goes to the site but someone who supports the spirit of the venture.
This sounds ideal and hopefully self-selecting, but it’s also fraught with potential issues. Let’s say – old news though it now is – that someone puts a story up about how big the crowds really were at president Donald Trump’s inauguration. Reports that they were smaller than those greeting Barack Obama in 2009 have often been decried as “fake news” by Trump supporters. So what if they “rock up” and slate a new WikiTribune assessment as fake? The people in the spirit of the venture will disagree but that leaves the path open to dismiss the whole venture as “fake news”.
The same is true of the political opposites. Several of the anti-Brexit lobby are quite capable of spinning or reporting facts selectively and could well dismiss positive economic news at the moment as “fake”.
There are obvious fakes and more subtle versions. On Monday evening, Marine Le Pen stepped back from heading up the French National Front; is this a fake move? The fact of her stepping back is beyond dispute. The interpretation varies depending on who you speak to.
The good news (and we don’t think this is fake) is that substantial companies, whether it’s Google, Facebook or a new venture sharing Wikipedia’s branding, are aware that there is a problem. They are determined to take positive action and they are sophisticated organisations who are likely to have thought through all of the above and a lot more. Nothing is failure-proof, but the fact that major figures are starting their journey against the fakes is encouraging; New Statesman Tech is not going to criticise people for taking the first steps on that journey.