In search of a source of truth – how reliable is Wikipedia?

December 2022
 by Sarah Keeling

In search of a source of truth – how reliable is Wikipedia?

December 2022
 By Sarah Keeling

It has become almost a cliché to recall the days when teachers and lecturers advised pupils, “never rely on Wikipedia for your information, because anyone can write it”. The site has come a long way since its launch in 2001, and for many, Wikipedia now has a reputation as a truly independent guardian of knowledge that is accessible to all. It is often the first port of call for information on almost anything, populating widgets like Google’s Knowledge Panels and reducing zero-click search statistics.

The site insists on the provision of reliable sources, deploys sophisticated mechanisms to detect interference, and is curated by a passionate army of volunteers who devote their free time to improving and moderating content. But despite all that, this behemoth of an online encyclopaedia suffers from numerous systemic biases, and has various accessibility barriers exacerbated by intricate rules and nebulous social etiquette. With Wikipedia itself insisting that it is not a reliable source, how accurate can we trust Wikipedia’s content to be?

The complex route to Wikipedia approval

On 9 September 2022, a Twitter thread from @depthsofwiki was shared compiling screenshots that showed how Wikipedia’s site users, known as editors, had reacted to the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death. Though @depthsofwiki is a humour account, the thread serves as an excellent first-timer’s guide to how a crowd of anonymous individuals, many of whom have no journalistic experience, come together to crowdsource truth on the world’s biggest news stories.

Graphs and before/after comparisons show the transition from a defensive position, guarding against vandals and false reports, to a complex collaboration endeavour. Some editors even set up a ‘WikiProject’ called London Bridge, and together argued on how best to cite, report and entitle Wikipedia’s entry on the death of the monarch. The Twitter thread presents a few clashes characteristic of the “tragedy of the commons”, showing how although, famously, anyone can edit Wikipedia, not everyone does so with the best intentions. And even those who do approach a project constructively will naturally have conflicting thoughts about what constitutes accuracy.

To protect itself against assaults ranging from opportunistic vandalism to coordinated state propaganda missions, and to enable itself to maintain impartiality against even the most contested subjects – the existence of God being an example – Wikipedia’s community has rules of engagement and methods to regulate the collaboration that is fundamental to its structure. All user activity is logged in History and Contribution pages, making it easy to identify when changes are made and who by. Unregistered accounts are monitored using IP addresses, and to discourage users from hiding their identity, those using VPNs/proxy providers are not able to submit edits. Wikipedia also has a page protection system that prevents inexperienced or problematic editors from interjecting on topics demanding more editorial oversight. For example, there are specific restrictions on who can contribute to articles concerning Israel and Palestine. Articles may be protected temporarily following an unusual rise in traffic, or permanently if they are prone to regular abuse.

The pros and cons of Wikipedia’s curatorial process

Wikipedia’s fight against misinformation is not solely focused on anti-vandalism and disruption efforts. Ideological battles are fought daily by volunteer groups, forums and individuals acting on behalf of Wikipedia, in an effort to thwart the efforts of individuals, companies, or their PR teams to edit articles about themselves or their clients. A commonly-held belief among editors, reflected in the site’s guidelines, is that a truly independent Wikipedia cannot trust individuals to represent themselves impartially due to a natural conflict of interest. This often turns out to be true, whether due to conscious efforts to present a more attractive image of oneself by adapting an article, or a simple lack of understanding of the site’s rules and etiquette.

While this can protect Wikipedia’s users against being presented with self-promotional and inaccurate information on a topic, the flipside of the approach is that those who best understand that topic (i.e. the individual or organisation themselves) can find their contributions come under scrutiny from Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, who may lack context and make judgements based on limited online research. To protect against this, it’s important for individuals and companies to take a proactive approach to addressing false or outdated online narratives that may be found by Wikipedia’s editors and used as research to inform the quality of an entry about them.

Verifiability on Wikipedia

Another moderation tool adopted by Wikipedia’s community is discussion spaces, which are used for dispute resolution covering everything from controversial topics to user behaviour. Editors can seek approval using Wikipedia’s Request for Comment (RfC) process, typically reached through long, laborious discussions with many different parties weighing in. One such debate led to the infamous 2017 “ban” of the Daily Mail as a reliable source on the site. Wikipedia’s perennial sources guide documents the outcomes of such debates, which assess the journalistic integrity of publications around the world.

Links to primary sources, such as a subject’s own website, are practically prohibited on Wikipedia – instead it insists on providing third-party, independent references to support the content of its articles. For those invested in the topics of its entries, the decision on who Wikipedia trusts as a source of information is therefore critical.

Wikipedia’s Verifiability policy used to stipulate “verifiability, not truth”. This implied that a sourced, factually-incorrect statement could override an accurate claim from a primary source, with the burden of proof often placed on discrediting the initial reference. The policy has since been reworded to state “Even if you are sure something is true, it must be verifiable before you can add it”. However, a quick perusal of Wikipedia’s internal site resources such as its perennial sources table demonstrates both the intensity and the limitations of the efforts to enforce citation standards. The Daily Mail has been discussed 49 separate times to date, and while it is not technically banned, in practice it is still often removed, even in cases where the information is accurate.

Similarly, though some publications in languages other than English are listed on Wikipedia, many are omitted, exacerbating a biased focus on topics in English-speaking nations. Ultimately, though the Wikipedia community makes a continued effort to achieve its goals of neutrality and accuracy, the humanity of the project makes it impossible to ascertain at first glance whether an entry is accurate. The citations it is built on are key to determining the reliability of the entry itself – indicating that perhaps our teachers were right after all, and we shouldn’t just take Wikipedia’s word for granted, but look at where the information came from. It may offer knowledge on over 6.5 million topics in English alone, but more than anything, Wikipedia should be teaching us to be media-literate in all of our online reading.

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