Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
Sometimes (a lot of times?) the internal politics of Wikipedia mirrors its real-world counterparts. In January 2017, the United Kingdom House of Commons launched a parliamentary inquiry into the “growing phenomenon of fake news.” The chairman behind the inquiry expressed concern about the effect of fabricated news stories on democracy, particularly the influence on voters in the recent United States election.
That same month, the English Wikipedia user Hillbillyholiday launched a “Request for comment” about the Daily Mail, a top-selling British tabloid newspaper. Volunteer Wikipedia editors argued that the Daily Mail had made a habit of spreading misinformation, referencing the paper’s then-recent sanctions from the International Press Standards Organisation for violating professional norms for accuracy. After an extended discussion process, the Wikipedia editing community decided that the Daily Mail was a “generally unreliable” source that should not be used on Wikipedia. Going forward, any user who attempted to cite the tabloid on a Wikipedia page would receive a warning and a request to cite a more reliable publication.
At the time, Wikipedia’s judgment about the Daily Mail generated a significant amount of media attention, especially in the British press. The Times, the Guardian, and the HuffPost U.K. all reported on the unprecedented ban. Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales, a British citizen since 2019, agreed with the Wikipedia community’s decision, noting that the Daily Mail had mastered the art of running false clickbait stories. Meanwhile the Daily Mail punched back at Wikipedia with an inflammatory article attacking both the site’s individual volunteers and the project as a whole.
The Wikipedia community upheld its decision regarding the Daily Mail in 2018, and since then, there has been a lot less coverage about the site’s relationship with the newspaper. Based on an archived version of Wikipedia from Jan. 1, 2017, there were at that point more than 30,000 articles using the Daily Mail as a reference. Earlier this month, a Reddit user posted that Wikipedia was now down to fewer than 10,000 uses of the Daily Mail as a source. “As far as I can tell, there’s been no journalistic interest in these basic issues of why Wikipedia editors make the decisions they do, and how they give effect to them, despite the fact the announcement of the ban was basically worldwide news,” wrote Reddit user ronsmith7.
Well, ronsmith7, today is your lucky day because this journalist is interested in those issues. The Wikipedia community’s deprecation of the Daily Mail shows that the project’s volunteers are unwilling to accept that all publications are equally reliable. Moreover, Wikipedians are willing to reject newspapers that flagrantly disregard the truth—even if those publications are otherwise popular.
The print circulation of the Daily Mail, which was founded in 1896, is quite high, exceeding 960,000 copies per issue, according to ABC Data, an organization that tracks the U.K. media industry. The British paper is often compared to the U.S. tabloid the National Enquirer.
Steven Slater, a Wikipedia editor based in Essex in England who was involved in the deprecation discussions, told me in an email that British people regularly use the Daily Mail as a byword and a meme for shoddy and dishonest journalism. Consider this example: The Daily Mail in 2015 published an article titled “Read History as It Happened: Extraordinary Daily Mail Pages From the Day Adolf Hitler Died 70 Years Ago This Week.” The featured image in the 2015 story purported to be a photo of the front page of the Daily Mail’s print edition from that time, which boldly declared “HITLER DEAD.” The actual front page from 1945 used a slightly different headline, “Hitler Dead, German Radio Tells World,” and included different content. “Is it just me or this extremely weird: the Daily Mail forging its *own* archival front pages?” tweeted Huw Lemmey, a British writer.
The Wikipedia verdict on sources like the Daily Mail can be found by searching Wikipedia for “WP:RSP,” which leads to a list of so-called Perennial Sources. According to Wikipedia, Slate is considered generally reliable, which has us feeling chuffed. Traditional newspapers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post have also received Wikipedia’s greenlight.
On the other hand, the Wikipedia consensus on certain publications is a lot more complicated. For instance, Wikipedia editors have distinguished the inconsistent editorial quality of BuzzFeed—which is open to user-generated blogs and listicles—as opposed to BuzzFeed News, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner that is considered a reliable source. At present, Fox News opinion talk shows like Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight are considered generally unreliable for statements of fact and not to be used as sources on Wikipedia. Outside of the opinion shows, Fox News can be used as a reliable source for most news coverage, with one big caveat: When it comes to politics and scientific subjects, Wikipedians note that Fox News should be used with caution.
Who precisely is making these decisions about what journalism is and is not acceptable as a source on Wikipedia? That would be Wikipedia’s volunteer editing community, who collectively own decisions about the site’s content, often via the process known as “Request for comment” or RfC. Once an RfC is proposed, Wikipedia editors make statements opposing or supporting the proposal. To the untrained eye, it might seem that Wikipedia editors are voting on the topic. But Wikipedians are quick to point out that the process is not a vote. More specifically, Wikipedians refer to it as a “not-vote” or “!vote,” where the “!” represents the symbol for logical negation. That’s because the goal of an RfC is not to gauge majority rule but rather to have a consensus-building discussion, where the proper course is determined by the strength of the respective arguments.
Those editors who !voted their opposition to the ban in the 2017 RfC mostly argued that every newspaper made mistakes, especially now that the industry could not afford proofreaders and fact checkers, and that it was unfair to single out the Daily Mail, specifically. But many more editors argued that the Daily Mail’s errors exceeded the occasional mistake and that selling false but sensational stories seemed to be part of the paper’s business model. Guy Macon, a Wikipedia editor with more than 15 years’ experience, pointed to incorrect Daily Mail news stories such as publishing the wrong verdict in the Amanda Knox case and falsely claiming that Beijing residents watched sunrises on giant TV screens because their sky was too polluted to see natural light.
At the end of the comment period, volunteer administrators reviewed the comments and decided that there was consensus to generally prohibit use of the Daily Mail as a source. In reply, the Daily Mail published a scathing attack on the Wikipedia editors who were involved in the decision. The paper name-checked Slater and Macon as “Wikipedia activists” with a “warped agenda.” Macon told me that he was able to brush off the attack, writing, “I have been on the Internet since the days of USENET and have reached the point where the trolls are either amusing or boring.” Still, there is plenty of evidence that one reason people are discouraged from editing Wikipedia is because of past issues with harassment of its contributors. The fact that a newspaper with a circulation of nearly 1 million copies per issue put individual Wikipedia editors on blast for their Wikipedia-editing hobby doesn’t help change the perception that Wikipedia isn’t safe.
As ronsmith7’s Reddit post mentioned, the number of citations to the Daily Mail on Wikipedia has decreased dramatically in the three years since the publication was deprecated. Slater told me that removing Daily Mail links requires a lot of human work, in the form of finding these links on Wikipedia pages, analyzing the context, and removing them or finding other sources as appropriate.
I wondered whether the Wikipedia community had considered programming a bot to remove the Daily Mail links. There are bots for other basic tasks on Wikipedia, like ClueBot NG, which flags edits containing markers of vandalism such as common swear words. When I spoke to editors about the bot idea, they made the distinction between the encyclopedia’s sources, which should be reliable as a matter of policy, and the content of the articles, which might be accurate regardless of the source. “It would be easy to just fire up a bot that removes all citations to the Daily Mail, but we don’t remove material just because it came from the Daily Mail,” Macon explained. “Instead we carefully evaluate it.” Furthermore, it’s not as if anybody can simply let a bot loose on English Wikipedia. According to the site’s bot policy, bots must be approved by actual humans, specifically the Wikipedians who sit on the bot approvals group or BAG. As one member of the BAG explained, a bot that removed all Daily Mail links would be unlikely to be approved. According to the site’s bot policy, unsupervised bots should not make context-sensitive changes that would normally require human attention. Although the Daily Mail is prohibited in most contexts, it is permitted as a source when used in an about-self fashion—a nuance that a bot is perhaps unlikely to detect.
For now, there is a lot of nonautomated, human effort involved in the process of pruning the internet encyclopedia from the Daily Mail and other deprecated sources. In recent years, Wikipedia has been focusing more on the project’s human side in its messaging. For instance, when Wikipedia celebrated its 20th birthday earlier this year, the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation celebrated the humans, volunteers, and supporters who make Wikipedia possible. Like a lot of nonprofit fundraising drives, the human-interest theme felt a bit too cute to me. But at its core, that is the right way to think about Wikipedia. The project is a human-led effort to build a knowledge resource, which of course means that it involves the emotions and messiness that define us !robots.