The open online encyclopaedia that is among the top 15 websites visited globally turned 20 last week. Boasting of a repository of as many as 6.2 mn articles that are available in over 300 languages, the website, which is maintained collaboratively by the public, is essentially the go-to page when anyone wants to make a quick ref-check of sorts. The popularity of the portal, co-founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger has also been at the centre of intense debates, not just in academic circles and workplaces, but in households, government offices, and newsrooms as well, considering the question of the accuracy of the information, and the fact that any bit of data on Wikipedia can be edited by virtually anyone, anywhere and anytime. And that very open-source quality of this resource has fuelled conversations on how it’s susceptible to misinformation of all kinds, considering the politically volatile times that we are living in.
Back in 2005, a peer review had revealed that an average science-centric Wikipedia entry contained as many as four instances of inaccuracies, as compared to the Encyclopedia Britannica that had about three such instances. This has now become a talking point in the corridors of colleges and universities as well, as professors have repeatedly discouraged students from using Wikipedia based citations in their academic submissions. The resource has often been called out on account of bias – systemic, selection, and gender-based as well as geographic under-representation. A case in point is Africa, which is symbolic of how uneven Wikipedia’s geographic distribution of article topics is, an issue that the Editors chose to address at a Wikimedia conference in 2018 in Cape Town.
The debate around Wikipedia is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the idea of the accuracy of information shared on the Internet goes. A new study released this year said that the year that has gone by – 2020 – was marked by an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders globally. As per the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, public trust in social institutions - the government, businesses, NGOs and the media - had eroded from 2019 onwards, owing to the pandemic, as well as a rising mistrust in what both politicians, as well as journalists, have to say. The timing of the release of this report is telling, as consequences of such mistrust are now being witnessed in the reactions of the public, even when something as momentous as the discovery of a vaccine for the pandemic is announced. For instance, even in a highly advanced economy such as the US, only 1 in about 3 people are ready to take the COVID vaccine as soon as possible.
Interestingly, in 18 of the nations surveyed, citizens reported that they trusted businesses more, as compared to the government. Believe it or not, the introduction of vaccines for the coronavirus as well as improvising new ways to Work-From-Home shifted the balance of trust into the hands of enterprises, as compared to governments, many of which were accused of prioritising economic revival over the safety of citizens. The fact that a majority of the world’s population is more comfortable placing its trust in the hands of a select group of enterprises, as opposed to a democratically elected government, speaks volumes about the direction in which our lives are heading.
The importance of repeated fact checks, by relying on multiple sources, until all the facts add up, cannot be overemphasised here. Going forth, it’s essential that the purveyors of information, be it the citizenry, the government or even private enterprises, or the media, embed a pause button when it comes to the dissemination of information. It might possibly be the only way to restore the trust factor in institutions of any kind.