Break hate by fixing the news
POLITICIANS across the developed world are turning to hate, alienation and fake news to win support. The information they produce translates into emotive headlines for our clickbait-driven news media. So says Orit Kopel, Co-founder of WikiTribune, which aims to rebuild news as a vital force in democracy. “They want to scare people into voting for them, and it works,” she says. “It also works for the media. Instead of fighting it, they encourage it. Too often the hate speech benefits them. Their business models push them into clickbait headlines because they need to chase clicks, not high quality journalism.”
She said the decision to start WikiTribune was because she and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, both felt “that voters were making decisions based on emotional motives steered by fake news. We think that if the news media is not doing its role right, then something is deeply flawed in our democracies, and that’s something that has to be changed for the sake of our society.”
Orit Kopel, co-founder of WikiTribune.
Photo © Clara Bellés
“It’s not the results I’m bothered with, it’s not that everyone should think the way I think about things. I just want people to have reliable sources so they can make an informed decision, even if the results stay the same, that’s fine. That’s democracy. I don’t think democracy is necessarily having the people I like to be elected.”
Having said that, she believes that fake news and radical discourses were prevalent enough during the last US election and the EU referendum that voters were unable to see through the mist of news. Their decisions were therefore based on misinformation rather than fact.
New business model
Despite her harsh critique of its current clickbait obsession, Orit is reluctant to write-off establishment media organisations. “It’s important for me to say that I respect journalists. There are fabulous journalists working in traditional publications. It’s not their fault that the news is broken. It’s not even the owners. I don’t think anyone has a deliberate intention to break the news. They are struggling against the speed of social media and bound to those business models that demand clickbait headlines. There is something wrong with the business models, not the journalists.”
In contrast, WikiTribune’s business model uses Wikipedia as a starting point. But there are differences. For a start, WikiTribune is for-profit, with profits being used to pay for more journalists. This is achieved through subscriptions (it now has around 5,000 monthly subscribers paying an average of £9-£10 per month) and grants (like the Google Digital News Initiative grant that helps fund its tech team). It means no paywall, no ads, a community and transparency.
As such, the values that drive WikiTribune differ to those held by existing media outlets. Much of this difference will be due to WikiTribune’s embracing of Wikipedia and its open knowledge roots.
This is hardly a surprise, considering the name, and one of Orit’s ambitions is for WikiTribune to be “the Wikipedia of the news, in the sense that it becomes the first place that people go before deciding whether they want to explore further.”
But there are a number of practical and legal differences that prevent a straightforward exchange of values and practices. Key amongst these is that Wikipedia is not a source. It introduces readers to existing, accessible sources. Orit said: “Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia. It is not news. That’s a huge difference and there are a lot of complications as a result. That’s one of the reasons why we hire journalists. Because we can send our journalists to find new information. We want WikiTribune to be the source, which is forbidden in Wikipedia.”
She said: “We also have journalists because news needs to be covered in a timely manner, the same day, preferably the same hour. But you can’t really tell community members there’s a fire in Grenfell Tower, go and cover the story.
“Our journalists’ work is going to be very different to other journalists. It’s one thing to allow your editor to go through your piece. It’s another to allow our community – practically anyone – to go through your story and make changes.
We see our journalists and community members as equals and encourage them to interact. So I would expect our community to tell our journalists that, let’s say, the Mayor of London needs to be interviewed. So, in some instances, our journalists are working for our community and that’s a change.
“Legal issues are also at play because inaccuracies in news stories may, in rare cases, expose the site to libel action by injured parties. It means that we should have a stronger review process of the drafts before publishing than in a traditional Wiki platform. On Wikipedia, if you have an entry corrupted, it would probably be reverted by the community within a few minutes. It may result in a funny screen shot going around social media, but nothing more. It’s more complicated having that with a news website, therefore we’re making sure that our community is vigilant and maintaining constant review of the content before publication, to minimize the chance of publishing unverified information”
As well as co-founding WikiTribune, Orit is also the Chief Executive Officer of the Jimmy Wales Foundation, supporting the free speech of bloggers and social media users. Her work at the foundation has included cases like Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger persecuted and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and 1,000 lashes and the “disappeared” leader of creative commons Syria, Bassel Khartabil. She said: “Unfortunately, recently, we were notified that he had been executed by the Syrian government.”
Both stories demonstrate the risks people are prepared to take for free speech.
In Western democracies, people like Edward Snowden also take big risks to expose information. But whistleblowers present problems to news outlets, particularly those that value transparency.
Orit said: “I have huge respect for whistleblowers. I think that a lot of corruption has come to light over the years because of courageous whistleblowers. I would love to publish that kind of a story and obviously we are going to protect them. We are not encouraging anonymous sources though, unless it’s critical for the person to be anonymous. We want known sources for most things but I realise that sometimes it’s impossible. There is a huge important role for whistleblowers throughout the world.”
WikiTribune recently announced that it has been collaborating with other media to create a protocol for dealing with whistleblowers, ensuring technical requirements are met, including highly secure communication and collaboration tools.
These have been prepared following discussions with whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, who said: “Exposing wrongdoing has never been easier.”
Debunking fake news
Less risky than whistleblowing but equally important, Orit says: “We’re encouraging our journalists to seek news stories that are either false or inaccurate or presenting half-truths and so on and debunk it. That’s one of our main goals. We want to debunk stories that are distributed and are completely false. We want to be that source.”
When it comes to stories that need debunking, ridiculousness is not the measure, it’s impact. “Really the question is whether you pursue every ridiculous story online. Personally, I think it must have some political weight or some kind of public weight for us to debunk it. We’re lucky because we’re community-based so if we get something that’s so borderline that we can’t decide among ourselves, we bring it to the community and let them decide. And if they think it’s important to pursue it, then we will go ahead.”
Fake news often includes conspiracy theories. WikiTribune can pursue it from both ends – either as a fake story to debunk, or evidence to investigate. “We encourage our community members to raise every issue that they have. However, if it’s completely crazy and has no footing in evidence then we are not going to pursue it.”
But, for the sake of democracy, the flow of information needs to be steady and reliable. “The process of deciding who to vote for and what kind of opinion you’re going to have is not a process you start a week before the vote, it’s something that is developing all the time.”
The flow of news needs to keep up with non-traditional news sources, and “The role of journalism is even more critical these days because of social media and the proliferation of information,” Orit says.
But whistleblowing and debunking aren’t naturally steady news sources. So WikiTribune also pursues mainstream stories, from a different perspective. She said: “Yes, we are covering stories that other publications are covering but we do it in a different way with different angles to bring information not provided by other publications so people can feel like they’ve learned something, that it’s something they couldn’t get somewhere else – that’s our goal. Obviously we have some development to do before we get there, we’re very new, but that’s our vision.”
A lot of the news is on a national level and it doesn’t really touch people, so one area where WikiTribune is looking to create a connection is in local news. “We are already working on that,” Orit says, “but we actually have two different paths for WikiTribune. First of all we want to launch in as many languages and in as many regions as soon as possible and the other pillar we want to have is local journalism. We want to apply the WikiTribune model on struggling local newspapers. And I think there is a lot potential there for communities to take part in the production of local journalism, covering issues that actually matter to people in their neighbourhood almost on a personal level.”
Funding is being sought to achieve this, and Orit said: “We are in contact with the Knight Foundation that is supporting local journalism in the US.” She added that “most existing funding for local journalism projects is in the US – for US projects”.
But while this means a pilot is likely to happen in the US, Orit pointed out that both she and Jimmy Wales live in the UK and it would make more sense to try a local project here as well. She said: “We are in contact with organisations in the UK but we don’t have a specific city in mind yet.” IP
In the next issue, Information Professional will be talking to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.