Lately, problems in online media run the gamut from manipulation of distribution through the rise of hoax sites to less shady but significant social media rifts.
Now the founder of Wikipedia – the site that doesn’t take commercial sides and anyone can edit articles – is thinking about creating new tools for the public to bring out the “soul of journalism.”
Tom Lehrer, 46, stepped down as the 26-year-old head of the online encyclopedia last year after six years. In a new book, “Code: The Missing Arithmetic in Technology and the Developing World”, Lehrer takes on what he calls the “most dangerous digital issue” of our time: the growing problem of misinformation, especially misinformation during election campaigns.
Lehrer said he had been aware of the problem before the 2016 US presidential election. He said Wikipedia, with more than 17 million active users, was one of the few places that people could turn to for up-to-date information. He said Wikipedia was able to create a platform with zero bias to act as a “super-correspondent” in the run-up to the election.
“One of the aims is to make Wikipedia the most politically neutral contributor to the current debate,” Lehrer said.
He’s not the only one interested in Internet journalism, however. The Pew Research Center found that the number of news websites that consume data from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Digital News Report grew from 81 in 2010 to 127 in 2016. Pew said the news industries “were aggressively hunting down and building their own computational expertise at a faster rate than the technology experts they borrowed from in their search for market access and survival.”
Lehrer pointed to Wikipedia’s rich digital storage and its easy use of image and video editing, to replicate the craftsmanship of traditional news editing techniques. He said some of his focus, however, would be on building tools that would help “modernized newsrooms overcome a huge disconnect between their traditional journalistic quality and new formats that have evolved since they started covering the world, one case at a time.”
One possibility, for example, is to enable Wikipedia to allow readers to create articles that do not feature a team of human editors, Lehrer said.
He said that the news industry has historically made the mistake of focusing on one method of publishing and not the one that’s currently popular.
“Neutrality is a cornerstone,” he said. “Neutrality requires understanding. We are dealing with human beings who need to be able to think on their feet and are not necessarily aware of how other people feel.”
On the other hand, he said people still look to Wikipedia as the standard, often to learn the “who and what and where.” He said there’s still “an incredible nostalgia attached to Wikipedia,” and some people still want the original “please forgive the late editor” option.
Lehrer added that as his new book is released, there’s a lot of momentum behind the idea of putting factual data online.
He said it’s an opportunity for the news industry to “think out of the box” and re-imagine the news business. “In the process, Wikipedia can be a central part of that.”
– Aisha Issa contributed to this report.
– Olivia Askill contributed to this report.