Wikipedia’s Plan to Resist Election Day Misinformation

On Election Night, she wrote, Wikipedia is likely to impose even tighter restrictions, limiting the power to publish a winner in the presidential contest—sourced, of course, to reputable outlets like the Associated Press or big network news operations—to the most experienced, most trusted administrators on the project.

One administrator, who goes by the handle Muboshgu, compares the vigilance that will be needed to keep the political coverage reliable and accurate to the work he does tamping down baseball-focused editors eager to “break the news” of reported trades. “We try to explain that while those reports are often accurate, they are also inaccurate enough to merit caution,” he wrote in an email. “I plan to apply that same logic to 2020 election-related pages, if necessary.”

Moving slowly has been a Wikipedia super-power. By boringly adhering to rules of fairness and sourcing, and often slowly deliberating over knotty questions of accuracy and fairness, the resource has become less interesting to those bent on campaigns of misinformation with immediate payoffs.

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Wikipedia’s article on 86, for instance, was immediately revisited once it was used to bolster the Trump campaign’s case against Whitmer. At first, an editor took the reference to killing out of the article, noting that there was no reliable source provided for that definition. Others objected, arguing that such a swift response made it appear that Wikipedia was so hell bent on not helping the Trump campaign that it would change even accurate articles.

Ultimately, killing was returned to the article, but not in the first line. Instead, it was included this way: “The term is now more generally used to get rid of someone or something. In the 1970s its meaning expanded to refer to murder.” It’s hard to imagine the Trump campaign would tweet a screen grab of the revised article now, with its explanation that 86 mainly means what Whitmer obviously intended it to, even if it at times is used in this other, violent way.

Similarly, the Wikipedia article on the QAnon far-right conspiracy theory is straightforward and evidence based, laying out the claims of a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles plotting against Trump and concluding, “No part of the theory is based on fact.” This summation disturbed the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, however, who recently wrote in Bloomberg Opinion that it “makes me slightly uncomfortable” because there isn’t a similar disclaimer on the pages for the world’s major sects and religions, or “for the Book of Revelation of the Bible, which shares with QAnon an apocalyptic spirit.” QAnon may best be thought of as an inarticulate revolt against elites, he offered.

Being a stickler for accuracy is a drag. It requires making enemies and pushing aside people or institutions who don’t act in good faith. To some, you may be losing the poetry and performance of politics. To profit-making ventures like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, you may be losing the users who make you money.

And lurking in the background, spreading the misinformation and conspiracy theories, are those who see elections as a battle between warring cults, and bend the facts accordingly. Wikipedia insists, however, that contemporary politics can and should still be distilled down to reason and shared facts, including who won a free and fair election. Let’s hope they are right.


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