Apart from being an icon for reappropriated terms, fake news is viewed as a serious problem. To combat this problem Jimmy Wales, a co-founder of Wikipedia, has founded Wikitribune a “news website in which professional journalists research and report news stories, and volunteers curate the articles”. It’s like Wikipedia for the news, except perhaps maybe not as open. Wales intends this project to combat fake news.
There are two issues with this project. First, a problem about prioritization. Fake news is just not that large of a problem. A recent study found that single fake news stories on social media would have to have a persuasive effect of 36 television campaign ads in order to swing the election. Moreover, note that Fake news is not much of a new problem, there have always been widely disseminated media sources and stories which lack epistemic hygiene to the extent that they become propaganda.
The second problem is that this project is devoid of ambition. The cause of fighting fake news is a part of the larger project, the pursuit of truth. But Wikitribune doesn’t seem to give us much more by way of truth. The idea: there are professional journalists whose content will be curated by fact checking and proofreading volunteers. At best, this will be marginally better than the New York Times combined with Snopes. Both are great, but they are things we already have.
Wikipedia has given us a wealth of information. It was consistently underrated by my teachers. But Wikipedia doesn’t come close to what has been made available by specialists. Compare the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy with philosophy pages in Wikipedia. No contest. Wikitribune may be trying to take advantage of specialists, professional journalists, but they have probably selected the wrong class of people. These are the same people who gave us the Times. Even selecting academics wouldn’t be much of an improvement.
What’s lacking is a unique (and better) incentive structure. Organizations like Wikitribune have the ability to take advantage of both specialists and capable volunteers and also experiment with incentive structures that have yet to be implemented in large organizations. If Wikitribune wants to be more ambitious they should go after truth in unique ways, not be distracted by fake news and become an ordinary media organization along the way.