TOPICS > Science

Russian Blackouts, Neutrality and Trusting Wikipedia

July 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Hari interviews Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on today's blackouts in Russia, trusting crowd-sourced information and attracting more women to the Wikipedia community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, looking at the phenomenon of Wikipedia and the questions around it.

We turn again to Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: “Let me look that up on Wikipedia” has become such a common phrase that it’s hard to believe Wikipedia is just a little more than a decade old.

In that time, the encyclopedic website has become the fifth most visited in the world, with more than 20 million entries worldwide and almost half-a-billion visitors a month.

While Wikipedia has become an indispensable reference tool for some, its methods have been criticized in the world of academia and research. It also flexed its political muscle of late. In January, Wikipedia helped lead a virtual Web blackout to protest anti-piracy legislation.

Today, all Russian Wikipedia sites were blacked out in protest of government action it says is censorship.

Jimmy Wales is the chairman emeritus and a founder. He joins me now.

Thanks so much.

JIMMY WALES, founder, Wikipedia: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, first, the Russian situation today. Why can no one access Wikipedia pages in Russia or in Russian?


So the Russian Wikipedia community came together and had a big discussion and decided to go dark for the day to protest legislation that’s being debated in parliament there that would create a censorship system similar to what they have in China in Russia.

In the past, Russia has been quite good, with no Internet censorship or filtering. Medvedev was quite strong on that, but Medvedev is not the president anymore. And apparently Putin’s people really want to put this through. So they’re very deeply concerned about it and they’re trying to raise awareness.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A blackout is a pretty extreme step.

JIMMY WALES: It is. It is.

It’s something that we hope to never have to do again in English Wikipedia. We regret having to do it anywhere in the world. But at the same time, the community feels quite strongly that we need a free and open Internet to enable them to do their work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, either in this case or in a few others in the last few months, when Wikipedia has or the community of Wikipedia has a particular point of view, how should I weigh the information that I find on the service?

You value neutrality a tremendous amount, but when you have a point of view, what happens?

JIMMY WALES: Absolutely.

Well, I mean, first, the neutrality of the entries in Wikipedia is a sacrosanct principle. It’s something that we feel very, very, very strongly about. But that doesn’t imply that we can’t speak out as a community on issues that are fundamental to our ability to operate. We think that’s very important. So we do take a very hard line about that distinction.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, in these cases, I think people are wondering how active, how politically active are you going to become as an organization or even as an individual that ends up embodying your organization for a lot of folks?

JIMMY WALES: Well, we hope very, very little, really.

For us, we don’t intend to become an activist organization. That isn’t who we are. We’re trying to write an encyclopedia. And that’s really — we just want to be left alone to do our work. And that would be great. So people shouldn’t anticipate that we’re going to start protesting more or protesting environment or anything like that. We’re going to stick pretty much to our basic work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what about in that basic work when the conversation or the topic is controversial by nature? I see references that say “citation needed,” but there’s people that are questioning, how can I trust this information if it is crowd-sourced?

JIMMY WALES: Well, I think that’s an absolutely valid question, but it’s one we should ask much more broadly. How can we trust any information? How can we trust various sources?

And we need to have much more education in the public about, when can you rely on something? When can you not? What are some of the signs that you can do? The great thing about our operation is that everything is open to discussion, dialogue, debate. One of the great things to do if you’re not quite sure about something is go to the discussion page and see how people are debating about it. See what people have to say.

And then follow the sources and see if we’re accurately reflecting the source. Sand, if not, come and tell us, because we will be — that’s one of our core values, is to accurately report on what sources say.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, one of the things that we hear from, say, the News Literacy Project that works with high school students or lots of college professors, they say actively to their students, do not use Wikipedia as a source and absolutely don’t ever copy or plagiarize from it.

But that’s one of their big concerns, is you have made it so easy for people to not have to do that primary research.

JIMMY WALES: Well, certainly when — if people copy and paste from Wikipedia, that’s a very stupid thing to do, because your professors also read Wikipedia, and they will recognize it immediately.

And in terms of using Wikipedia as a source or not, that’s something I’m not too bothered by. Certainly, at the university, I think it would be silly to use Britannica as a source. Use it for background reading. Use it to get yourself oriented. Use it to point yourself in the right direction.

But at the university level, it’s time to grow up and start to do some real research on your own. I think that’s incredibly important. And I absolutely agree with that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And there’s been some question also into who comprises your community.

I believe for the past year or so, you have already known about it and have been working toward trying to increase the gender equality. But, right now, it’s predominantly males. And then that actually ends up influencing the volume of content that’s perhaps male-specific or male-tilted.

JIMMY WALES: Absolutely.

Yes. One of the things that we know about our community is that we tend to be tech geek males. And that does have some side effects for the content, not so much in terms of a bias. And our community is quite strongly aware and really thoughtful about trying avoid bias.

But, inherently, it means that there’s topics that we’re really, really good at. Go and read our article about the U.S. beef standard. It is quite good. And other topics where we have less coverage, because the people who are writing Wikipedia, it’s not their field of expertise. It’s not something they’re passionately interested in.

And so we think that by diversifying the contributor base and attracting more women to edit Wikipedia is a core part of that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how are you doing that?

JIMMY WALES: So, we have got a couple things that we’re really focusing on.

One of them, which is I think is one of the most important, is just simply outreach, that we are putting out in all of our messaging we really want more female editors, letting people know that they can edit, that we’re really welcoming, and that the community is really trying to appeal to and retain female editors.

Other things that we’re doing — and this is really more about diversity of all kinds — is taking a look at the actual editor. Right now, it tends to be too technical, too geeky to edit Wikipedia. And I’m always very careful to say I’m not saying women are not good at computers. That’s not what I’m saying.


JIMMY WALES: What I’m saying is that, if you have a filter like that, an implicit filter, that only allows super technically proficient people, computer programmers, to edit, it turns out most of those people are tech geek men.

My father, for example, doesn’t edit Wikipedia. And one of the reasons is, it’s technically too challenging. So, we have got our new visual editor. It’s in testing right now. It will be more like a word processing environment, something people are more comfortable with and familiar with. And we think, as we roll that out, that is going to really help diversify the community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia, thanks so much.

JIMMY WALES: Yes. Thank you. Great.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some of you sent questions for Jimmy Wales. Find the answers to 10 of them in a video on our home page.