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Wikipedia Founder Says Internet Users Are Adrift In The 'Fake News' Era

At any given moment, volunteers and paid workers are writing fictional narratives that they present online as news stories, and some of those will get picked up and shared — perhaps thousands of times — on social media.

Hoaxes are presented as fact, conspiracy theories are offered as truth, and some of them may even end up on Wikipedia, one of the most-visited sites online.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the crowdsourced encyclopedia, has been thinking about how to tackle the problem of "fake news." On Thursday, he delivered a keynote address on "the future role for evidence-based journalism" at the Westminster Media Forum, an international conference organized by the British Parliament.

In the face of false information, Wales still believes that the more open and connected people are online, the better things will be for everyone.

"In this era, where we've seen the rise of these fake news websites and so forth, Wikipedia has had almost no problems with this at all," Wales says. "Simply because our community is quite — you know, it's their hobby to debate about the quality of sources, and it's very difficult to fool the Wikipedia community with this."

Interview Highlights

On Internet users who unknowingly share false stories

Yeah, well, that's just human life. All of us have a few idiot friends, and now they can share stuff on Facebook. The thing is, it's easy to be a little bit condescending about these people and to joke about idiots sharing nonsense. But the truth is, in free societies, people have a right to not be interested in the news. But when you're not that interested in the news and you do decide, "hey I think I want to find out some information," you still deserve to get quality information. And that's what we've really been lacking.

On distrust of the media

A lot of people say they've lost trust in the media --they think everything is propaganda. And then it becomes very hard to come to any kind of a consensus in society, where we say, "well look, you and I disagree on a certain policy, but here's some facts underlying it," and we could at least agree on those facts. Whereas now, I feel like a lot of people are just adrift — they don't know what to believe.

On preventing the spread of false information

Maybe one step that a lot of people could do is, immediately take a more skeptical attitude towards things that you're sharing online. Just take a second and look in a search engine, check some of the keywords and terms, and just make sure you're not adding to the problem....

A lot of the things that do go viral, they go viral because you hear it and you chuckle, and you're like, "That's great." And it confirms something you believe is probably true anyway, so you just blast it off, and you've just been fooled.

It's not required that everybody do it. As long as some people in our social circles are vigilant about this sort of thing, they can raise the alarm.

I'll give an example: I nearly posted something. So here was a story that said "scientists have confirmed that if your cat was big enough, it would eat you." And that's a funny story, right? And we all kind of, we kind of believe it about cats, right? And I was about to share it to my daughter, and I just thought, "I'm gonna Google this quickly."

And I did, and what I found was, it linked to an original study. I opened that PDF, and I looked through it, and you know what? The study absolutely said nothing of the sort. So I didn't share it, and that was a good thing. And I felt like, "phew, I nearly got duped by a great story."

I mean, that's the thing: A lot of the things that do go viral, they go viral because you hear it, and you chuckle, and you're like "that's great." And it confirms something you believe is probably true anyway, so you just blast it off, and you've just been fooled.

Art Silverman and Courtney Dorning produced and edited the audio story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

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