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How Wikipedia is preparing for Election Day

Wikipedia has a longstanding reputation for inaccuracy. It may no longer be deserved.

Wikipedia’s logo displayed on a smartphone with a person’s finger hovering over it.
Consider clicking on Wikipedia if you’re looking for accurate sources of information this Election Day.
Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.
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If you’re looking for up-to-the-minute results on election night, Wikipedia might be one of the first sites to pop up in your Google search. But, in this case, the crowd-sourced encyclopedia of human knowledge likely won’t have the immediate answers you seek. And that’s by design.

In yet another election cycle defined by copious amounts of misinformation from a variety of sources, Wikipedia wants — and is set up — to be a carefully curated resource of impartial facts. There’s no rush to be the first to declare a winner (quite the opposite, in fact). It’s also difficult for trolls to vandalize associated pages, let alone keep those edits up for a prolonged period of time or to allow them to spread.

For the 2020 United States presidential election page, as well as the pages for presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, only editors whose accounts are at least 30 days old and who have made at least 500 edits can change the article. This is what Wikipedians, the editors who run the site, call “extended confirmed protection.”

The election page lock was put in place on October 21 by Molly White, who goes by the handle “GorillaWarfare” on the site. She’s been a Wikipedia editor for almost 15 years and also serves as an administrator. This gives her some additional abilities, like the power to lock pages. But White is not anticipating any major issues on Wikipedia with regard to the upcoming election.

“For the most part, things will be business as usual on Wikipedia,” White told Recode. “Wikipedia editors and administrators have plenty of tools at our disposal to ensure that our readers are only seeing accurate information, even as things are changing quickly behind the scenes.”

This probably won’t be the case elsewhere online. Like Wikipedia, social media companies run on user-generated content, and they’re once again scrambling to come up with ways to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation on their platforms. After being blamed for influencing the outcome of the 2016 election, Facebook is particularly concerned with how it will handle Election Day this year.

But Wikipedia, which will be 20 years old on January 15, has been around longer than Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This will be the sixth presidential election in Wikipedia’s lifetime, and the site’s all-volunteer army of thousands of editors has used those years of experience to develop and refine methods of combating lies and inaccuracies during prominent breaking new events while also identifying and deleting anything incorrect or poorly sourced that happens to make it onto their pages.

Wikipedia editors are currently discussing how to handle Election Day and its results in public forums on the site. They’re debating how many sources to use for election-related updates, which ones to rely on when a presumptive winner is declared, and how long after polls close to start adding the results to the page.

“Wikipedia is intended to be an encyclopedia, not a news organization, and so we are much more concerned with being accurate than we are with being quick,” White said.

Indeed, Wikipedia’s stated mission is to be a repository for all human knowledge. The site has 55 million articles across its 300 versions — the most popular version, English, has 6.2 million articles. Wikipedia is also one of the most-read websites in the world, with 1.5 billion unique visitors per month.

So while huge social media platforms tend to expose their users to content that generally fits their existing worldview and political sensibilities, Wikipedia has quietly emerged as a website for people who are actively seeking accurate information. What’s behind the effort is a community that strives to provide that information as neutrally and as accurately sourced as possible.

Wikipedia’s Election Day plan

Wikipedia is ruled by consensus, its articles are fluid, and discussions over how and why they should be changed are ongoing. Wikipedia putting up information about the presidential election is no different.

Most pages associated with the election and candidates have some kind of edit protection on them, though the level of protection might vary. For example, while Harris currently has extended confirmed protection, her opponent, Mike Pence, has a page that is only “semi-protected.” That means edits can only be made by registered users whose accounts are at least four days old and have made at least 10 edits — though, again, this might change as Election Day nears.

Similarly, many United States politics-associated pages are also subject to additional rules limiting edits to reverse a previous edit or requiring a consensus to apply any edits that have been challenged. To reach consensus, editors will typically argue their respective viewpoints on an article’s accompanying “talk” page, citing various Wikipedia rules and procedures to back up their case until a majority of editors agree on what to do next. Administrators can block or ban editors who don’t follow those rules.

When it comes to the election results, editors are still hashing out whether the Associated Press’s projections are a good enough single source or if at least three news sources should be used. They’re also considering just locking certain pages from edits for everyone except administrators for a set period of time.

With standards, rules, and a community of editors to uphold them, “moving slowly has been a Wikipedia superpower,” Noam Cohen recently wrote in Wired. That, Cohen added, makes the site a less attractive target “to those bent on campaigns of misinformation with immediate payoffs.” Vandalism is hard to add, usually doesn’t stay up for long, and therefore doesn’t spread widely.

While Facebook and Google have spent billions of dollars on content moderators and other measures to combat misinformation and abuse on their platforms, Wikipedia’s editors do this work for free. Wikipedia is hosted by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which covers its associated costs, including servers, software, and legal fees. The Foundation relies on donations and gifts and gets a lot of them: The organization received $113 million last year alone.

“The Foundation’s role is to support those folks in every way that that they need us to,” Ryan Merkley, Wikimedia Foundation’s chief of staff, told Recode. “That means everything from keeping the servers up and running, to running our security operation, to communications, fundraising. But also working with trust and safety, and then supporting [editors] with the tools that they need in order to edit.”

Some of those tools include bots that can quickly detect article vandalism and either get rid of it or flag it to an editor. Editors can also add articles to their “watch lists” to be immediately alerted of any changes (nearly 550 editors have put the 2020 US presidential election page on their watch lists). And they can lock pages that might or already have become targets for vandalism.

The Foundation has also done some of its own work to prepare for the election.

“We put together an internal task force, with staff representatives from every part of the foundation who relate to disinformation,” Merkley said. “So that includes the security team, trust and safety, legal policy, communications, our partnerships group that works with the other platforms that engage with Wikimedia content.”

Wikipedia has its own challenges and high stakes

The guiding principle behind Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute anything to it. This being the internet, not everyone operates in good faith or knows what they’re talking about, so the site has a longstanding reputation for inaccuracy. That’s no longer wholly deserved, but Wikipedia itself will tell you that it’s not a reliable source for this very reason.

The site has also been criticized for systemic bias, with a lack of representation from certain demographics — there’s a lot of white English-speaking men who contribute — that can create a hostile environment for minority editors. The lack of diversity also has the potential for bias to make it into the articles themselves. The Wikipedia Foundation and Wikipedians have made efforts to improve this, but they still have work to do.

Other things get overlooked on a site as big as Wikipedia, too. For instance, you might stumble across vandalized articles, usually lurking in Wikipedia’s lower-trafficked corners, that have managed to escape the notice of editors. You may even find a version of Wikipedia that contains thousands of articles written by someone who doesn’t really know the language they’re supposed to be written in.

While anyone can become a Wikipedia editor, only a tiny fraction of Wikipedia’s readers actually will. And it’s deceptively difficult. The initial process of making an edit is as simple as signing in and changing some text, but Wikipedia’s editorial rules and processes — and the various code words and language around them — can be a barrier to doing it correctly, which is necessary for the edit to be accepted.

But the people who get it, like White, may spend a considerable amount of their time doing unpaid work on the site. They might also become the target of harassment as a result. White, who spends two or three hours a day working on Wikipedia, said she’s been doxxed, threatened with violence and lawsuits, and people have even tried to get her fired from her day job because of it.

“It is at best frustrating and at worst extremely frightening, but I both care deeply about the importance of Wikipedia and I am also a very stubborn person who does not like to feel like I am giving in to threats,” White said, attributing some of that harassment to her position as an administrator, her gender, and the controversial articles and topics she often works on (she created the Boogaloo movement page, for example).

And Wikipedia is important. It’s one of the top results for most internet searches, and so, for better or worse, Wikipedia is the site people are most likely to visit when they want more information about something. That means the stakes are high when big topics are involved.

Notably, its coverage of Covid-19 has drawn praise. This involved the creation of a “WikiProject” dedicated to the virus with over 200 participating editors (anyone can join!) who may focus on pandemic case data, the virus’s impact on specific locations, or the industries affected. One professor who studies misinformation told the Washington Post that Wikipedia was “a ray of hope in a sea of pollution” and handled the virus “exceptionally well.”

“There’s a lot of really great work done through these WikiProjects, especially during times of crisis where a lot of hard-hitting, late-breaking stuff is coming out,” Zachary J. McDowell, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Recode.

So if Wikipedia, with its high visibility and wide-open door for anyone’s contributions, can still provide readers with well-sourced, neutral articles, why can’t the social media platforms that play such a big role in the spread of misinformation do the same? Clearly, some of them see the merits of Wikipedia’s work; Facebook and Google use Wikipedia articles to provide additional knowledge in user searches.

Freeing information from the algorithms

Social media is designed to keep users on their platforms for as long as possible, both to show them as many ads as possible and to collect their data, which is then used to show them even more ads. They are incentivized to keep your attention, not to ensure that what you’re reading or seeing is accurate. That business model is unlikely to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s model is quite different.

“[Wikipedia has] no algorithms designed to serve content in certain ways to some people,” Merkley said. “None of that structure exists which can be later gamed, in order to advance this post about a person or to target this message to that person.”

Wikipedia is also very transparent, Merkley said. An article’s associated history and talk pages will tell you, in great and granular detail, all the edits that have been made, who made them, and any associated discussions between editors about them.

This transparency helps create trust, but good luck getting, say, Facebook to implement it. Facebook is notoriously secretive about its algorithms, which determine what you see on the site, from ads to posts from your friends to recommendations for groups you should join or people you should befriend. These algorithms create filter bubbles of information that tends to line up with your political viewpoints, offering little exposure to anything that might conflict with them. You get what Facebook thinks you want to hear or watch what YouTube thinks you want to watch, and that’s not always what’s true.

“It is essentially a game where the entire system is already rigged for disinformation, fake news,” McDowell said. “It’s monetarily incentivized to get people riled up and to click. It will always be a game where those who are trying to control the information flow will be the ones who are one step behind.”

McDowell’s studies include Wikipedia’s value as a teaching tool for information literacy. He stresses that Wikipedia itself shouldn’t be seen as a source but rather as a collection of information, clearly cited, that users can follow if they want to learn more or verify what they’ve read.

“Having a critical eye toward information is absolutely imperative right now,” McDowell said. “And a lot of people don’t.”

For their part, social media platforms have, in recent years, tried to hold back the flow of misinformation in some cases, including during the election. Facebook has made rules around political ads, voter suppression, and even premature declarations of victory. But social media still receives plenty of criticism from both sides of the aisle, and it will almost certainly be blamed for influencing the outcome of the election in some way, regardless of the winner.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, will just tell you who reliable sources say the winner is — as soon as its editors reach a consensus on what those sources are.

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