How Wikis Are Blurring The Line Between Opinions And Facts

In a world of fake news, wikis are blurring the line between what an audience would like to be true and what has been objectively verified. In fact, political parties of all stripes use wikis to tell their own truths. Ideological groups have joined them, using platforms based on the same technology as Wikipedia to legitimize their arguments. They bank off of Wikipedia’s authority, with good reason.

Wikipedia is amazing. When you google a question, Wikipedia is there with an answer. Not only are the answers easy to find, they’re all verified by other sources, which are also one click away. Users can flag entries that do not meet quality standards. Over the years, it has become the gathering place for those who care about the truth.

Its treasure-trove of content is available in more than 280 languages. More than five million people visit the English site every hour. There are an estimated 35,000 “volunteers” working to improve English articles everyday. These editors adhere to lofty editorial standards. They focus on objectivity and transparency by forcing the verification of claims by outside sources. Articles about contentious topics must give equal amounts of space to both sides. Disputes are resolved through debates in community forums. Users with a history of following Wikipedia’s rules have more weight than newcomers. The system may not be perfect but it’s working. No other source comes close to Wikipedia’s authority. There is nothing online or in traditional media with the same level of trust.

Wikis are authoritative because their information is the result of a group effort. They contain content that has been scrutinized by many people, most of whom have more than a passing interest in the topic. This makes them ideal for fan sites. For example, Wookieepedia started as a place to argue over the type of gun Boba Fett used in Return of the Jedi. Today, it is the online authority for all things Star Wars.

Wikis help make art accessible, which can help creators as well as fans. Publishers like Disney and Blizzard monitor fan wikis for feedback. Brandon Sanderson credits the Wheel of Time wiki for helping him keep details straight when he took over writing the series from the late Robert Jordan.

By providing a space for existing fans to clarify details in their favourite stories, these kinds of wikis confirm points of view through consensus. For science fiction, that fan consensus is as good as fact, especially when it’s backed by quotes from the source book or movie.

But in the non-fiction world, people are using wikis to spread their ideologies. Wikis are moving from art to opinions and becoming tools to spread an ideology online rather than hubs for people already interested in that subject. Users dissatisfied with mainstream perspectives are beginning to cultivate their own online encyclopedias. These sites reflect ideologies or personal truths instead of striving for an objective point of view. These “Wikipedia forks” are not new, but are gaining popularity. Popularity means more users and more entries.

We can see this effect at work when comparing two well-known and opposing ideological wikis. Users are growing more deliberate with how they position these sites as sources.

Infogalactic is an obvious place to start. The site looks like Wikipedia, which critics say is a deliberate attempt to conflate ideological content with Wikipedia’s more objective and widely-accepted articles. Infogalactic is not shy about its point of view. Most online encyclopedias use “wiki” or “pedia” somewhere in their names to get credibility. Infogalactic does something similar, only it invites association with publications like Infowars, defining itself against the mainstream as the alt-right’s version of Wikipedia. The name, like the editorial guidelines, emphasize ideology over function.

The chart below shows backlink growth for Infogalactic. Backlinks are to the Internet what citations are to research papers. Sites with more links from other sites on the same topic are considered more authoritative sources. They also appear more often and with more prominence in search results.

In June, there was a major increase in Infogalatic’s backlinks. This means Infogalactic’s articles were used more often as online sources than they were in May. This will make its content much easier to find, exposing more users to its point of view. The kind of spike Infogalactic experienced in June only happens when there’s a considerable effort to increase a sites’ search engine authority. This kind of growth also means more sites are being created based on Infogalactic’s content. Chances are, the bulk of these sites share the same perspectives as those expressed on Infogalactic.

Infogalactic Backlink Growth:

Let’s compare those results to Rationialwiki. Rationalwiki is the most famous counterexample to Infogalactic. It borrows from Wikipedia’s editorial guidelines, but applies them with a left wing ideology. It started as an antidote to the opinions that were being presented as facts on wikis. Rationalwiki began with science-based articles on topics users felt were misrepresented in popular digital sources like Wikipedia. Rationalwiki’s users rejected the democracy of Wikipedia and instead embraced an evidence-based meritocracy. Initial articles had to be grounded in science and guidelines for appropriate sources are much stricter than Wikipedia’s. Its backlink growth also spiked in June.

Rationalwiki Backlink Growth:

This backlink growth is no accident. Rationalwiki and Infogalactic are growing. They’re making pages about topics that fall outside of their supposed expertise and linking them to other web pages about the same topic. This is exposing more users to their points of view, while increasing their reach. Sure, Ratioalwiki’s entry about cheese is meant to be a joke, but some of its content provides advice people act or form opinions on. The cheese article is a hook to bring new users into the wiki, where they can be exposed to the “rational” ideology.

Infogalatic uses a different tactic. It has filled its wiki with entries about non-ideological topics like linoleum, lifted straight from Wikipedia. Users encountering one of these articles will likely assume the rest of the site is of the same quality. They are susceptible to the subtle suggestions in articles that differ from Wikipedia’s versions and reflect Infogalactic’s point of view.

To be clear, neither site is anywhere close to replacing Wikipedia or even showing up on the first page of Google. But they contribute to, or is a product of, a more polarized society. And their tactics are working.

For political or business subjects, wikis are a better tool for converting users into a way of thinking or legitimizing a point of view than social media. Sure, people are more likely to encounter content via social media channels than they are via wikis. But wikis have a lasting effect. Anything pushed through social disappears as soon as the user scrolls through their feed. By comparison, wikis remain visible in search engines and cultivate distinct, internal communities. And thanks to Wikipedia, wikis are taking on the same kind of legitimacy that news media once enjoyed.