Creating a Wikipedia for Fact-checking

There are many ways in which wiki is the perfect vehicle for a fact-checking site.

  • First, the nature of the wiki consensus helps guarantee a fair treatment of issues from multiple perspectives.
  • Second, the nature of wiki (when a particular scale is met) is that it is quick to respond to new information — much quicker than more institutional processes.
  • Finally, wiki is iterative — which means as new information comes to light, fact-checking articles can be kept up-to-date, even years after the fact.

Unfortunately, there are many ways in which it is not a good fit.

  • First, Wikipedia civility often falls down around contentious issues. In fact-checking, EVERY issue is contentious.
  • Second, Wikipedia is prone to vandalism. It gets corrected quickly, but maybe not enough for a fact-checking site.
  • Third, Wikipedia grew organically over time — culture got set before the stakes were high. Can culture develop when it’s high-stakes from day one?

Do the pros outweigh the cons? I’m not sure. But it seems to me a promising idea worth exploring. We’re trying this idea with student authors across multiple schools at And so far it’s kind of sort of working:


How Wiki for Fact-Checking Is Different than Wikipedia

People will ask (as they always do) “Isn’t Wikipedia a fact-checking site already? What would be the difference?”

The difference is that Wikipedia structures knowledge topically. You can have an article on “Buffalo” or “The Pentagon Papers” or “The 2012 Benghazi Attack”. What you can’t have is a page on a claim, which is how fact-checking sites are structured.

So, for instance, in our student project above, one of the students submitted a claim “Women coders considered better than men, but only if they hide their gender.” That’s a great claim for a fact-checking page, but there is no corollary in Wikipedia.

Our fact-checking wiki has two major parts to every article. The first is the origin of the claim. This claim comes from a headline that references a study that may or may not support that conclusion. But the author does the work of tracking the claim to source.

Here’s an example of what that looks like on another claim about the Fukushima thyroid cancer rate.


Origin and Prevalence demonstrates the claim originated from a video put out by an anti-nuclear advocacy group, called Fairewinds Energy Education, and has been widely covered in both right-wing and left-wing media.

Even if we find a study that does support the headline,  a good article on the claim would place that result in the context of previous and subsequent work, noting the strengths and limits of the study. Does the study confirm previous work, or buck against it? Is it more rigorous than previous work? Less rigorous? Structured somewhat differently? In our wiki we use the Issues and Analysis section to do this:


Screenshot showing the Issues and Analysis section of a DigiPo wiki page on the Fukushima thyroid cancer rate.  A study is found that supports a lesser conclusion, but placed into context of subsequent work it appears that study was flawed.

There are similarities here to Wikipedia, but the focus of the article is to eventually get to that short summary of the truth at the top, not to cover a topic. In this particular article that summary turns out to be

Summary: The larger claims come from a misreading of statistics. Most experts, looking at the same data, believe that Fukushima has had little to no effect on thyroid cancer prevalence.

The rest of the page leads to the creation of that short snippet that an average reader can understand. It’s not about coverage, it’s about analysis. This is a piece of what people do on Wikipedia as they adjudicate the validity of various statements, but here it is the structuring principle.

Now, should this claim be rated “false”? Or is it better termed “Highly Unlikely”? That’s a great dicussion to have. Wouldn’t it be great to work it out through wiki?

Someone Else Should Build This Instead of Me

We are currently running DigiPo on a Dokuwiki install on Reclaim Hosting. It works for what we are doing. And I think it’s an interesting experiment in the use of wiki in education. I plan to support it as long as I can.

But I’m not a great developer or system admin. I’m an instructional designer and a community builder with a theoretical bent.

What I would love to do eventually is partner with someone on the software side, and just push students there to post. In my dreams, someone wants to spin off a specific sort of wiki site, the way that Jimmy Wales took his Wikipedia background and created Wikia around the culture of fandom. I know a fact-checking community is not as hip as the latest pages on Yuri on Ice, but we could give it a try.

If someone has the site, we have the pedagogy, and an army of teachers and students who would just love to engage with a site like this. We can focus on the pedagogy and community-building.

Is anyone out there with the resources to build and promote a major site like this feeling this? Want to talk?

Obamaphones and Misinformation

There are a couple of grafs in a recent NYT article that sum up our current civic information environment. From a story about Trump voters being surprised Trump is cutting their benefits comes this gem:

Moreno was sitting at a table with his boss, Rocky Payton, the factory’s general manager, and Amy Saum, the human resources manager. All said they had voted for Trump, and all were bewildered that he wanted to cut funds that channel people into good manufacturing jobs.

“There’s a lot of wasteful spending, so cut other places,” Moreno said.

Payton suggested that if the government wants to cut budgets, it should target “Obama phones” provided to low-income Americans.

The “Obama Phone” is an old chain email and Facebook legend that has gotten an occasional boost from Fox News. It’s not a myth — there is a kernel of truth to it. Phone companies have since the 1980s charged a fee that subsidizes phone coverage for the poor — typically those at or just above the poverty line. For the past ten years, that has included options to cover a very basic amount of cell phone usage. The idea is that like heat or water, basic phone service is a necessity in the modern world, and should be subsidized. It comes out of a tradition that actually subsidized poor white regions more than anything else.

There’s a few things here to note:

  • The program was established under Ronald Reagan in 1984.
  • It expanded into cell phones under George W. Bush.
  • It benefits all people at or near poverty.
  • No tax dollars are spent on the program.
  • The program does not subsidize the cell phones, it merely offers free basic phone service to poor customers.

As most presidents since Ronald Reagan have understood, modern people need phones — they need them to call 911, schedule meetings with social services, look for work, and keep in touch with caregivers. It was unproblematic for a long while. It was not a partisan issue. We subsidize a lot of things for the poor in this country — heat, electricity, rent. Phones are a piece of that. Have been for 30 years.

And then “Obamaphone” happened. When Obama became president, like so many things the program became racialized through the use of false chain emails. Here’s one picked up by Politifact in 2009, which they rated “mostly false”:

“I had a former employee call me earlier today inquiring about a job, and at the end of the conversation he gave me his phone number,” the e-mail said. “I asked the former employee if this was a new cell phone number and he told me yes this was his ‘Obama phone’… TAX PAYER MONEY IS BEING REDISTRIBUTED TO WELFARE RECIPIENTS FOR FREE CELL PHONES.”

The lifeline program is big — it’s a couple billion dollars overall. Still, it’s not funded by the government, but by that $2.50 cent or so charge you’ve seen on your bill for decades. Run through the misinformation engine of the internet and talk radio, however, it becomes a major reason for the deficit, and creates a script of white victimization even when voters find their own programs cut by the guy for whom they voted. Their perception, egged on by chain email, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, Facebook, and Fox News commentators is that while workforce development programs for white people are being cut, out-of-work inner city black folks are chatting up their friends on free phones given to them by the government because they are on welfare.

So bizarrely, the cutting of the programs the white working class is receiving just reinforces a sense a white victimization, which strengthens, not weakens, their allegiance to a President Trump.

This may be good politics for the Republicans, but it makes it impossible for anyone (including Republicans) to govern. Why? Because the entire worldview of the voting public rests on lies which strengthen political identity at the expense of keeping voters out of touch with reality. So despite net immigration from Mexico being negative, crime being at historic lows, terrorist violence being a fraction of what it was in the 1970s, voters who follow misinformation on the right live in a different factual universe, immune to reality.

Proposing rational solutions to voter problems in such an environment is as impossible as a modern doctor trying to propose medical solutions to a 16th century patient who believes health is powered by the humors, or psychological solutions to someone who believes that clinical depression is the result of demonic possession. Solutions exist, but to understand and approve them requires the acceptance of a known body of facts. Currently those known facts are so tied up with issues of identity that policy knowledge is close to useless.

And before the left gets too haughty about alternate universes — my sense is in the past couple months the Left is starting to catch up with this alternate-reality building. And as with the Republicans, that might be good politics, but it creates a situation where governing is impossible, because voter perceptions of reality are so warped that their expectations are ridiculous.

I don’t know what the answer to this is. It’s not entirely new — I know that people have believed ridiculous things for a long time (since the beginning of time, really). But the level of belief — the sheer scale and coherence of the alternate world average people are constructing — feels new to me in my lifetime. It’s not just that people believe in the Obamaphone. It’s that 90% of what people believe about politics is Obamaphone-level junk news. I don’t know how you quantify that, but I wish someone would try.