Wikipedia: To What Extent Can We Trust It?

Hint: Use the 'Up-Down-Up' method.

Should you trust Wikipedia?

The short answer is: Yes. But only if you learn to read it like this:

Up. And Down.

Then up and down again. Then again. And again, until the article is finished.

Call it the ‘up-down-up’ method.

For context, here are some methods we use to read on the internet:

  • The usual way, or ‘vertical reading’. Which is scrolling down a page (or skimming or skipping) until we finish the article.

  • Lateral reading, in which we get out of the article and cross-reference the subject on other tabs to figure out whether it is trustworthy or not (recommended, and here’s how to).

  • Swiping left and right, when we’re using a dating app.

  • Tap throughs, if we’re reading some types of stories on the New York Times.

For Wikipedia, the up-down-up method is best.

This is how it works:

  1. Start reading any entry on Wikipedia.

  2. Pause when you come to a citation or reference, denoted by a number like this: [1].

  3. Click on the number. It will take you to the very bottom of the article, the ‘References’ section. Check what is being cited, decide whether it is OK.

  4. Click back to where you were by tapping on the ^ sign and continue reading the entry.

  5. Repeat until you finish it.

Thankfully we don’t actually have to scroll up and down several times. Whether you’re using a laptop or a mobile phone, a citation or reference will just pop up if you tap or click on it. You only need to go down to the references if you want to take a deeper look at them.

Here’s a 02:33 long video of how this works, using the Wikipedia entry on Fake news. (It’s a silent video.)

Shobha SV is an independent researcher and an editor on Wikipedia. She’s one of tens of thousands of volunteers around the world who ensure entries contain references that use reliable sources. Starting in 2013, she began organizing edit-a-thons of women in order to close the gender gap on Wikipedia (more on this later).

In an interview to Media Buddhi, Shobha said that you can trust Wikipedia entries “by and large”, but you have to check the citations. “Blindly trusting anything in the internet is not recommended anyway”, she added.

According to her, a better question to ask is: Does Wikipedia have systems that can be trusted?

“What would be the right question to ask is, what kind of systems Wikipedia has. It is a collective of editors who are very passionate about open knowledge and they edit it across multiple languages. For every language, there are editors, and then there are hierarchies of editors. For example, anyone can start editing Wikipedia. If you edit a lot, you get recognised by the community. You get additional responsibilities. One of the main ones is to uphold the five principles of Wikipedia.”

These five principles of Wikipedia are that it is an encyclopedia, it is written from a neutral point of view, it is free to use, and that it has no firm rules. Another one is that editors “should treat each other with respect and civility.”

A couple of things to note here is that you cannot publish your own content onto Wikipedia. It is not a blog, or a news website. In other words, the encyclopedia is not a storehouse for primary sources. Entries must be cited with references to reliable sources.

Second, while anyone can create entries, they may not stay that way for long. Let’s say I want to create a profile of myself on Wikipedia. I can do it, but unless I cite third-party sources (I can’t link to my own website), it will be taken down. Also, creating an entry about myself is a violation of its guidelines.

Here’s what the Washington Post has to say about it:

The biggest reason to avoid a Wikipedia entry is that once you finally achieve one, it stops being your own. You might have created it, but everyone else can edit it. The resulting product isn’t going to be a celebration of you, it’s going to be a clinical analysis of your failures as well as your triumphs.

Or worse, it will be deleted. Wikipedia notes that most vanity entries are removed within minutes of their posting by diligent editors. It’s one thing to debate now whether you are worth a Wikipedia entry. It’s another thing to be informed later, under no uncertain terms, that you’re not.

Dr. Masato Kajimoto at the University of Hong Kong is one of the world’s most trusted experts in news literacy, and specializes in Asian countries. When I asked him over a Zoom chat if he trusts Wikipedia, he typed back,

“To me, Wikipedia is one of the best places to start any research, especially if you’re an English language speaker. We should not be trusting it because the quality of information in each entry page varies greatly. But most of them have detailed citations. Users can go through the reference list, click the links and see the original sources of information. Unfortunately, Wikipedia is rather limited in most Asian languages, though.”

This last point is worth stressing. Although Wikipedia is available in more than 300 languages, it is most useful only in English, simply because it accounts for the most number of entries and volunteers who check and edit the entries.

Wikipedia has several other limitations. Because editors are overwhelmingly male and white who, like all humans are subject to their own unconscious biases, there just haven’t been enough entries about women, other races, sexualities, castes, etc.

Edit-a-thons have been used around the world to make it more representative. Shobha said that they would bring in a number of people together and provide lunch for a few hours of concentrated work. “An edit-a-thon is hard work, you know? It’s like writing a research paper”, she said.

There’s plenty more to Wikipedia, its advantages and disadvantages and the fact that it can be gamed. But here are a couple of questions to ask yourself.

  1. For any topic, would a Wikipedia entry be more reliable than the top-rated Google search results? It depends on the topic. But manipulating search results to ensure an organization’s articles are the top hits on a Google search is an industry all by itself. On the other hand, a Wikipedia entry will have references to help you investigate its reliability.

  2. For any topic, say COVID-19, is the Wikipedia entry on it better than the New York Times’ or the BBC’s coverage of COVID-19? It depends, but here again, you can find more references on COVID-19 in the Wikipedia page than even on the websites of these excellent journalistic institutions. There are reportedly thousands of volunteers ensuring that Wikipedia’s COVID-19 pages are accurate.

These are not at all fair comparisons because Wikipedia is a repository for secondary research, whereas the New York Times or the BBC (or BOOM for that matter) are all about getting the news, adding context and investigating stories. Both are needed.

But these are comparisons that will get you to start thinking about the reliability of everything on the internet, including what we find on Wikipedia.

In the spirit of Wikipedia: if you think this entry needs more, please drop a comment or write back to me. If relevant, I will update this piece with your comments with due credit.

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GIF 2: H R Venkatesh

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