People trust Wikipedia authors more than trained journalists—and perhaps they're right to.
Image: Flickr/Peter Thoeny
The British public trusts Wikipedia more than they do the country's newsrooms, according to a new poll by research firm Yougov. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they trusted Wikipedia pages to tell the truth "a great deal," or "a fair amount"—more than can be said for journalists at the Times or the Guardian, and also slightly above BBC News.
But before you bat off these poll results as just another manifestation of how the public don't trust the media in general, maybe it's time to give Wikipedia—that saviour of last-minute study sessions and the final arbiter of drunken arguments—a little credit. Perhaps people don't have more faith in the site just because they're sceptical of newspapers and television; Jimmy Wales' creation has its own reasons for becoming the world's go-to source for information.
Wikipedia's defining feature is of course its open-source, crowd-sourced construction. If you see something that you know to be wrong or out of date, or you deem the content to be biased in some respect, you—or anybody else—can change it. This leads to a landscape where theoretically no institutions, be they governments, businesses or lobbyists, can totally control what information is hosted on the site (although they'll certainly try). It's a self-regulating approach, where it's hoped the best quality information will sit on top.
That doesn't always happen. As we know, Wikipedia isn't the blissful, knowledge-sharing utopia that some may wish it to be. Hoaxes on the site can perpetuate and last for months if not years, even when the culprits come forward, and altercations over the minutest detail of an article sometimes turn into full-scale information wars.
It's not a complete free-for-all, however. Over a thousand users have administration privileges, meaning they can rename and delete pages at will, amongst other things. Some of these become Wikipedia veterans, such as user "gwern," who has made over 90,000 edits on the site and contributed to hundreds of articles.
Nevertheless, it may still seem surprising that people think a page anyone can edit—an academic, a hobbyist, or an internet troll—can maintain any sort of veracity. But it's not just public perception; several studies suggest Wikipedia can actually rival established sources of knowledge in the accuracy stakes.
Using the 'Reliability of Wikipedia' Wikipedia page (naturally), I was directed to a series of investigations that attempted to measure the site's feasibility at getting stuff right. A Guardian piece from 2005, entitled "Can you trust Wikipedia?", asked a series of experts from different disciplines to review articles within their subject areas. Generally, the information was accurate, although there were mentions of omissions and not everyone was impressed.
Another from Nature held up Wikipedia against a more traditional tome: Encyclopaedia Britannica. It claimed that "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries," though the latter quickly questioned the study. Nature then issued their own rebuttals.
In the latest poll, Britannica still keeps its crown. Eighty-three percent of respondents held "at least a fair amount of trust" in the accuracy of Britannica, compared to the 67 percent for Wikipedia.
Regardless the disputes over individual studies and their methodologies, how I found them is almost as telling as their results. I came across them because Wikipedia provided external references, allowing me to corroborate the information. This is one of the site's great merits: the aggregation of multiple sources, correctly linked, to build a more complete picture. As the results of the Yougov poll perhaps suggest, this surely seems more reliable than getting the coverage of an event from one newspaper.
It's important to point out that the results of the poll don't necessarily indicate that Wikipedia is more trusted than all media. As mentioned, BBC News journalists still came in at 61 percent, and the researchers wrote that the difference between them and Wikipedia editors in the poll was "insignificant."
Wikipedia should be treated with scepticism, as any source should. But for what it is—a free to access, flexible record of history—it does its job pretty damn well.