Future Tense

The Coronavirus Is Stress-Testing Wikipedia’s Policies

How does the internet’s encyclopedia stay accurate with news and knowledge changing by the hour?

The Wikipedia globe is seen next to a coronavirus cell. Both are surrounded by asterisks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by CDC/Wikipedia and Wikipedia.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.

When Wikipedia editors describe the challenges they face in producing coronavirus articles for the free internet encyclopedia, they bring up two main themes: novelty and speed. “Clearly the rapid expansion of the pandemic and the justified general concern makes it impossible to write a stable article,” Graham Beards, a Wikipedia editor, said. Beards is a retired consultant virologist for the NHS in the United Kingdom who in recent weeks has been actively editing and monitoring the Wikipedia articles for the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 (the infectious disease itself), and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing the disease). “Everyone has an opinion and the lack of reliable sources, which [are] the bedrock of our medical articles on Wikipedia, does not help.”

Since the World Health Organization characterized the spread of the coronavirus as a pandemic on March 11, the disease and outbreak topics on English Wikipedia have averaged 1 million page views per day, resulting in more than 50 million views so far this year. And that’s not counting the traffic for the 200-plus other coronavirus-related pages on English Wikipedia—detailing subjects ranging from conspiracy theories about the disease to the status of COVID-19 vaccine researchor articles about the pandemic in more than 100 non-English-language editions of Wikipedia.

While Wikipedia is not generally thought of as a source for breaking news, it is enjoying a prolonged period of favorable press coverage. Especially since 2016, journalists have been praising the site’s editors for their efforts to fend off lies and misinformation on the web. In a feature article for Fast Company earlier this month, Alex Pasternack praised the encyclopedia’s volunteers as “good-hearted people who care about a shared reality” and “defeat[ing] all the b.s. out there.”

Many of the volunteers are excellent people, yes. They are also working incredibly hard to produce thousands of daily edits about COVID-19 to keep the information up to date yet free from misinformation. But generosity and hard work are not all that good coverage requires. Wikipedians are also operating within an extensive framework of editorial policies, guidelines, and norms. And the application of those rules to something unprecedented like the coronavirus pandemic is not always so clear-cut.

Take the principle of open editing: Over its nearly 20-year history, Wikipedia has billed itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” At press time, more than 2,100 editors have contributed to the pandemic’s main Wikipedia article. The page itself falls under the domain of WikiProject Medicine, a group of editors dedicated to improving the site’s medical articles. But there is no requirement that the editors who are working on the page for the pandemic have any sort of medical training or credential. That’s because Wikipedia famously doesn’t require any editor to disclose their CV or personal information, or even whether they are human. (Wikipedia’s predecessor Nupedia did require that editors have subject matter expertise in order to work on an article. But that project developed too slowly, closing in September 2003 with only 24 articles finished and 74 in development.)

If nobody cares about your credentials, does that mean that anybody can edit articles about the coronavirus on Wikipedia? Not quite. The Wikipedia article on the pandemic itself is semiprotected, meaning that unregistered users are restricted from editing, as are editors who have not had an account for more than four days. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s database of coronavirus cases and deaths has been locked down with extended confirmed protection, a measure that’s usually only applied to the most highly contentious topics, like the Gaza Strip and Hunter Biden. An article with extended confirmed protection can only be edited by experienced users, those with more than 500 edits and accounts more than 30 days old.

When I asked Wikipedia editor and emergency physician James Heilman about the level of protection for the coronavirus articles, he emphasized that the intent was not to lock down the content so that it can only be edited by medical experts. “It’s moreso that you have a good understanding of Wikipedia policy, including the basics like always having a reference,” he said. Still, the careful use of technological restrictions shows how far Wikipedia has come from its earliest days, when the site was noted for its authorial anarchy. “We’re restricting this to those with Wikipedia expertise,” Heilman said.

Even within this group of experienced Wikipedians, there are spirited arguments about how the site’s policies should apply to a topic that’s developing so quickly and touching so many lives. For instance, last week editors debated whether Wikipedia should use coronavirus statistics published by Johns Hopkins University or Worldometer: As a highly regarded medical research institution, Johns Hopkins was arguably the more reliable source, and using Hopkins would be keeping with Wikipedia’s reliability guideline. But at the time, Johns Hopkins was only updating its stats intermittently, whereas real-time stats site Worldometer updated every five minutes. Heilman framed his favoring of Worldometer to me like this: “Is something that’s an hour old wrong?” (At press time, the Wikipedia community seems to have landed on using Worldometer for most countries.)

Along with debating the quality of different sources, Wikipedians have long found true-false distinctions to be overly simplistic. A popular maxim among Wikipedians is “verifiability, not truth.” Here’s an example: It may well be that Avi Schiffmann, the 17-year-old self-taught coder from Seattle, is providing the most accurate coronavirus stats on his popular site. In other words, Schiffman’s site could be the truth. But until the community of Wikipedia editors is convinced that Schiffman’s information is verifiable—meaning the most authoritative and trustworthy—his site is unlikely to be accepted as a credible source that should be added to Wikipedia.

When editors are not updating stats, they are trying to share qualitative information about the new disease. With all the media coverage of the coronavirus, it’s difficult to remember how little was known as recently as January. The Wikipedia editor who goes by Whispyhistory, a doctor from south London, told me that when she first started editing the topic on Jan. 6, the editors described the novel disease only as an “atypical pneumonia” of unknown origin that was connected to a wet market in the Wuhan province of China. As more information has come to light, Whispyhistory has continued to be a prolific editor on the coronavirus-related pages. She says the process has not been without frustrations, like the edit conflict error messages that pop up because multiple editors are simultaneously editing the same section of the Wikipedia page. And in recent days, Whispyhistory hasn’t been able to spend as much time editing Wikipedia, due to a spike in the number of patient consultations and changes in her ways of working. “I haven’t seen this intensity of demand for a long time,” she said.

I asked a few editors with medical backgrounds how the experience of editing articles about the coronavirus differed from doing so for previous outbreaks. Beards and Heilman edited extensively during the 2014 Ebola outbreak—Heilman even reduced his hours in the emergency room at the time so that he could devote more time to the topic’s Wikipedia page—but neither thought that situation was comparable to this. Heilman said: “Ebola was always very distant for 99 percent of the world. This is completely different. We all consider that this global pandemic will reach us.” Another difference is that, as a disease, Ebola was well-known before the 2014 outbreak, giving Wikipedia editors time to stabilize an English version of the article that could then be translated for other languages. Beards predicted that, breaking news aside, the coronavirus-related Wikipedia articles would be quite different in a year’s time, as more rock-solid sources from medical journals become available.

In the midst of the fast-paced editing, some Wikipedians are thinking about the role that the project is playing during this crisis. Last week, William Beutler made a persuasive case on his blog, the Wikipedian, that there should be a dedicated space on Wikipedia’s front page for coronavirus news that would easily catch readers’ attention. “Like it or not, Wikipedia is in a unique position to point information-hungry citizens around the world to better information than they can find almost anywhere else,” Beutler wrote. On Monday Wikipedia updated its front page with the new coronavirus news feature in line with Beutler’s suggestion. But the debate between editors about the proposal was contentious. Highlighting news about the pandemic arguably goes against another of the site’s content policies: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and “not a newspaper.” Then again, that distinction raises tricky questions, like, what’s the difference between a journalist and an encyclopedist who are both chronicling a pandemic in real time?

Rather than going down that particular rabbit hole, however, it’s probably better to highlight how the information about the coronavirus on Wikipedia is truly serving the reading public, or as some volunteer editors jokingly put it, “the customer.” Personally, I appreciate English Wikipedia’s category table, which neatly organizes English Wikipedia’s 200-plus articles about the subject. These pages are neatly grouped by subtopics, like the financial impact of the coronavirus or its effect on tourism. Overall, the way the Wikipedians have been organizing the information and summarizing it reminds me of a high school history textbook—except that this one is being written in real time, with thousands of authors making thousands of changes.

Meanwhile, at least one Wikipedian has shifted a portion of his attention away from the encyclopedia and toward another key player in the coronavirus-knowledge ecosystem: the World Health Organization, which has published proprietary videos and explainers about COVID-19 on its website. Basically, Heilman wants WHO to open up and collaborate with Wikipedia. “I’ve been working on WHO for nearly 10 years to try to get them to release their content under an open license,” he said, “and I think I’m really close.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.