Katherine Maher

Literacy and Fake News

Air Date: April 1, 2017

Wikimedia Foundation executive director Katherine Maher talks about how to preserve truth amid a post-factual democracy.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Days after the election last year, and in response to a campaign of flagrant lies and propaganda, the website that stood, historically as the first line of defense against misinformation, issued a message to its US based readers. “People talk about us living in a post-factual era of politics. Wikipedia is the antidote to that. We believe the facts matter, that reflective understanding matters. To protect our independence, we’ll never run ads.” Now, increasingly, that website, Wikipedia is the last line of defense against the raging proliferation against untruths and mistruths that have dominated political discourse in recent months and years. We were honored to host the first two Executive Directors of the Wikimedia foundation, and today we extend that streak with its third chief, executive director, Katherine Maher. I’ve gotten to know Katherine as a most fierce and eloquent champion of Wikipedia, and its unique imperative, to ensure the integrity of information, really knowledge, disseminated across our digital horizons. Katherine, it’s a pleasure to have you here today.

MAHER: And it’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And belated congratulations on your appointment.

MAHER: [LAUGHTER] Thank you.

HEFFNER: We’re thrilled to be here. Do you agree with that analysis of Wikipedia today being that last line of defense?

MAHER: No, I think we’re part of an ecosystem of information. Um, the information about what’s happening in the world today, politics, current events, is just a subsection of what Wikipedia does. Wikipedia is available to talk about everything from 18th Century tapestries to the origins of our galaxy to, of course, current events. I wouldn’t think of us as a last line of defense. I think of us as part of a knowledge ecosystem. We’re more important than what’s happening today. We’re really here for the past and we’re here for the future. And we sort of take a very long view of, of human knowledge and history.

HEFFNER: To issue that warning in effect…

MAHER: [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: Or promotional campaign around the integrity of information, as Americas were contemplating the reaction or their reactions to the election, the discourse was not being shaped sufficiently by fact.

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And you were at least acknowledging that, right?

MAHER: We were acknowledging that. I mean it was timely for us. We always spend November and December talking to our readers. It’s when we do our annual fundraising campaign, and we felt like we had to acknowledge the fact that the conversation in the public and the United States was very much around, are facts real? Do they exist? Can we find some sort of common consensus in all of the chaos of the conversation. And we believe that we can. In fact we believe that’s what Wikipedia does best. It takes all of this disparate information, and it encourages people to find truth among dis-, among disagreement, and it encourages people to find consensus among, sort of like, deeply challenging, contextual differences, and we wanted to articulate that that is something that we feel that we can still do as, as a society. It’s not partisan. It’s not political. There are truths that exist, and we can find them together.

HEFFNER: What does the reliability of Wikipedia depend on?

MAHER: The reliability of Wikipedia depends on reliable sources of information. So there are a couple core principles that go into building a Wikipedia article. They have to do with, no original research on Wikipedia. You want to be able to verify back to secondary sources. You want to make sure that it’s written in a very neutral point of view, um, and those secondary sources are everything from academic journals, to the press, and when we think about what constitutes a reliable source, we’re looking for the characteristics of reliability, not a list of sources. So what I mean by that is, you know, does a publication, does it have a history of fact checking. Um, is it known for issuing corrections when it gets things wrong. Does it engage in contemplation around what truth actually is, and sort of self critical reflection when it maybe doesn’t live up to those standards.

HEFFNER: So how do you scale…

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And this is an ongoing question we’ve had for years now on this program, but how do you scale that mission in a way that can affectively combat the onslaught of misinformation, and is there any mechanism through which you try to identify that, to overt course.

MAHER: Sure, so, how do you scale the Wikimedia mission, I think is a mystery even to Wikimedians. There is this sort of expression that nobody really kind of knows how it works in theory, but it’s a really great thing because it does seem to work in practice. I think there’s something so compelling about the idea that any single person can contribute to the sum of all human knowledge, regardless of where you come from, regardless of what language you speak, regardless of whether you’re an expert in the subject area. All you need to do is have a good set of resources, some critical thinking, and dive right in there. Say, say what it is that you’re saying. How does that scale? I think, you know, hundreds if not thousands of graduate papers have been written about trying to actually unpick sort of the mechanics of it, but when it comes to the moment in time today, I think what we’re really looking for is, you know, what model can Wikipedia hold up to the, to the world, just in terms of thinking about, how do you engage people in critical conversation. How do you think about the sources, engaging in media literacy or uh, critical reflection. How do you engage in dialogue that is about the information at hand rather than sort of the passions or, or politics that we bring to the table. Um, and, you know, in terms of what it is that we’re doing to get that out there, well, we’re keeping ourselves as open as we’ve ever been. Anybody can edit Wikipedia, and we’re here to tell you that we want you to be part of that process.

HEFFNER: I want you to encourage our viewers to be involved…

MAHER: [LAUGHTER] I do…

HEFFNER: Please, please, before we get there though, the prerequisite for that is just learning how you can retain competiveness in this ecosystem…

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Where, as I was saying to another guest, the lowest common dominator of discourse is, the emoji, is, a tweet, is a 140 characters, the capacity to learn, the patience or stamina with which someone would be able to grapple with all the facets of a particular entry, that’s in question now.

MAHER: So I mean, I actually, I text with emojis. I tweet on twitter. I think there’s a time and a place for different forms of communication. One of the things that we found so interesting as we get to understand more about Wikipedia, and it is a universe that’s constantly expanding, and even at the Wikimedia Foundation, we’re always learning more about how it works, um, is understanding that many of the people who come to us, come to us to answer a question that they have. It might be something simple. It might be about pop culture. It might be something about history. It might be something about, uh, philosophy. You know, people come to us for all sorts of different reasons. What we then find is that, that sort of self-directed learning often drags them deeper into that rabbit hole of understanding, until they’ve got multiple tabs in their browser open. They’ve clicked through 17 different articles and found themselves in a totally different space. We want to maintain that serendipity. And I think, to your point, about how to make that a richer experience, um, that’s something that we’re always looking for, and looking to do, whether it’s through increasing the quality of images on the site, whether it’s thinking about how do you bring rich media, and interactive displays of information into Wikipedia, these are definitely the next steps for us. But we also want to stay true to who we are, as a text based source of information. The way that you consume textual information is different than the way you consume video. You can’t snack on video in the same way. You can’t sort of skim through it. With text based information, Wikipedia makes it really easy, whether it’s that you’re looking for a population of a city, or whether you’re looking at the etymology of how that city came to be named, you can find all of tat through scanning, and we think there’s something there’s, there’s an integrity to that.

HEFFNER: There is certainly, most certainly…

MAHER: [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: An integrity to that, uh, when you think of the evolution of the Facebook profile, or any social media site that uh, had to respond to the marketplace, uh, and the result was, arguably betraying some aspect of their mission, which you have not done, and I think that’s important to acknowledge. I was saying to you off-camera, I just returned from this conference on post-factual democracy where there was a, an expiration of the political currents, and how we ought to respond to insure that integrity, not just on our computers but in our self-government, in our…

MAHER: In our mission…

HEFFNER: Right.

MAHER: Our obligation and accountability.

HEFFNER: In our digital footprint…

MAHER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Broadly speaking, um, how do you apply that, um, for someone who’s watching and wants to be armed with the truth and help make possible the perpetuation of truth?

MAHER: Hmm. So one of the wonderful things about Wikipedia is you don’t actually need to be an expert. Um, as I mentioned, you need to have access to reliable sources, you need to cite the things that you write into an article. But, I’ve written articles about things that I’ most decidedly not an expert in, for example, um, my very first article was about a housing development on LA’s skid row. I’ve never been to LA’s skid row, but it felt like an important thing that was missing in terms of talking about services that were available for the homeless population there so I pulled up a bunch of resources, I did some research, and then I went and I wrote an article, and I cited it as carefully as I could, and it’s there on Wikipedia today. So you don’t have to be an expert. You do, we do ask people to engage in sort of deliberative reasoning and, and contemplation as they go into articles, to spend the time learning about the subject and, and that way they become an expert. But it’s a wonderful, like general purpose sort of expertise. That’s not to say that we don’t have expert editing Wikipedia. We have medical doctors, we have scientists, we have all sorts of different folks, um, professors of English literature, um, historians of linguistics coming and editing Wikipedia, and that’s what makes it such a great balance of, of general purpose expertise, and deep expertise and so anybody, anybody can really engage in that. I think, to your, perhaps your other point about the accountability to the mission, you know, one of the things that Wikipedia is, it’s also very self reflective. Um, it’s very transparent.

Every single edit that has ever been made, you can go back and take a look at, for every article that’s ever been written, all the way back to the very first edit. Um, what this means is that there’s an accountability to our readers, as to what’s in Wikipedia, who put it there, why was it put there, and when was it put there. We’re very forthright about that. There’s a transparency to that that I think is really critical to our integrity, and that’s not something you necessarily find in a world of like, fast moving algorithmic news feeds and revisions of articles in, in publications that are put up and taken down without any sort of clarity as to what was in the previous one and what’s changed to the next. That’s not true of Wikipedia. You can find, where information came from, who put it in there, why they put it in there, and I think that that maintains an accountability with our readers, where we trust them to trust us and we also trust them to know when to do more research, and correct us if we’re wrong. Um, and that’s really rare, and I think it does depend on this idea that we believe that people are fundamentally smart, and that if you give them good information and the ability to engage in good faith, they’ll generally do so.

HEFFNER: I think you’re making an important point about the accountability and the origin of democratic purpose, democratic values imbedded in your model…

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Of how you actually function, and if you think about it, the analogy was made, in a question that was asked at this conference, about democratic norms and values in the US and of course Wikipedia serves an international community, but looking at it from this vantage point of, when we pay taxes, in terms of accountability of how those funds are being used by the government…

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: That, we understand municipal services broadly, but we don’t have that kind of, we can look at the IP address, we can find the source of the information, the citation, and trace it back…

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Um, and so fact is veritable fact,

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: That can’t be denied as such. The other point you made about experts, I think is useful to know, because it is the self-purported experts that are often at these polar ends of the spectrum, and refuse to find the common ground that often is a gray area of nuance…

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: In a fact.

MAHER: And we all like facts that reinforce our worldview, right? There’s a, sort of an instinctual element of that. It, it, um, animates systems in our brain, it makes us feel good, it releases serotonin, and we’re like ha, look, we’re right. Um, Wikipedia is not about facts necessarily that reinforce your world view. In fact there was a recent study that I believe was conducted at the graduate school of business at Harvard, Harvard Business School, um, that looked at, the longer you’re engaged in Wikipedia, and if you come from a particularly polarized point of view, the more you shed that polarization, and move towards neutral perspective, which means you use more neutral language, you take a more neutral approach, you bring more facts to the conversation in a way that is about open discourse and dialogue, that is more questioning, that is more accepting of perhaps people who don’t share your point of view.

And so we think that there’s a model there around discourse, and expectations too, where we say, look, you know, hyper partisan language or, highly polarized language, is not acceptable. We expect civility and discourse, civility, meaning respect, meaning patience, meaning an openness to others, and that, I think is something that scales within the Wikimedia model. We have a, a page, we call it’s like the newsroom behind every article on Wikipedia, and these conversations happen behind the scenes in every single one. We would love to see something similar. I don’t think the solution to today’s hyper partisan moment is for us to be sitting on television, shouting at each other. I think it is much more the model of the Wikipedia conversation. It’s six people around a table having coffee, talking about their experiences, and coming to some sort of understanding and empathy for the perspective that we all bring. I’d much rather that we were all meeting in church basements or synagogue basements, or mosque basements and having a conversation about what it means to be a community, about the different perspectives that we have, and trying to find some sort of common identity and purpose. Now that’s far beyond Wikipedia. That’s jut my reflection as a citizen today, but I think community conversations are far closer to the solution than anything you see in terms of talking heads on a screen.

HEFFNER: What do you say to someone, respectively looking in at what you do, who says, I, I couldn’t possibly relate to one of those six people in the mosque or church or synagogue, in that, you still face…

MAHER: Of course you can relate, I mean…

HEFFNER: You would hope, but…

MAHER: All of us, all of us have parents, some of us have children, you know, we all have people that we love and care about. I think it’s possible to find those similarities. You know, many of us have grown up using, you know, public school infrastructure. What was that experience like. There’s ways that we can relate to each other through finding common experiences and identities that may have nothing to do with our political perspective, that allow us to be in closer dialogue with each other as neighbors. You know we all, as neighbors, we share fences…

HEFFNER: Right.

MAHER: Like, we sit on both sides of it. That’s a common thing that we have in, we have together.

HEFFNER: So, do you not experience some resistance that has formed in recent years, that suggests that Wikipedia is some kind of elite institution, that is not…

MAHER: Sure.

HEFFNER: An organic democratic process, such as you’ve described, because that’s the person that I’m alluding to, who has that point of view and it doesn’t matter how many citations, how many are from neutral, objective sources,

MAHER: I would say that, you know, somebody who might disagree with one thing that they read in terms of a political debate, or coverage of a news event, might find something else that they fundamentally agree with, if it’s the coverage of their favorite television show, for example. We tend to think of Wikipedia as sort of very high minded and all about, you know, um, Plato’s Cave or um, the, um, I read a lot about, for example, the physics of flight, I’m fascinated by planes. You know, we tend to think of it as very high minded, intellectual, academic, but in reality we have hundred of articles about pop culture, about the Simpsons, about Pokémon. I mean it’s famous for at one point having an article for almost every Pokémon character that has ever been created, and I challenge people not to find commonalities, and to find identity in the things that we share that are part of our popular cultural experience.

HEFFNER: Absolutely. I was just looking up Hamlet and reading of all the accounts of Shakespeare’s Danish prince. Um, the, the thing that we come back to of, supporting your community, which is a unique one, the economic model of an informed democracy matters fundamentally, in terms of where your focus is. If you’re gonna have an electorate or a citizenry that is informed, as opposed to misinformed, or if you’re gonna have a factually rooted democracy, I think you are able to generate some foundation of stability in that educated infrastructure because of what I read from the outset, no ads…

MAHER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: A model that’s not contingent upon going viral, clickbait, and that is…

MAHER: It’s unique.

HEFFNER: Few and far between.

MAHER: Definitely.

HEFFNER: We’re on the public airwaves. We share that with you, but, the, I think this question of informed democracy, and it being in the economic model determining if we’re going to be factually rooted or not, is important.

MAHER: I do think it’s important. I, I, I always struggle a little bit with this being honest, because I don’t mean to imply that our friends at privately owned publications for example, are necessarily any less factual than we would aspire to be. In fact, I think that, as I mentioned earlier, so many Wikipedia articles are written based on sources and citations that come from the press that might be privately held. But I do think there is something wonderful to the integrity of being a for-profit that is independent and that is supported by the value that it gives to people, right, and that might, that’s true of public media, and I think it’s true of Wikipedia as well which, we sort of think of as like little ‘p’ public media. We belong to the public. We want, you know, the content on Wikipedia is freely licensed. It doesn’t belong to us at the foundation. In fact it belongs to the world. We want Wikipedia and the idea of free knowledge to belong to the world as well, and we want people to support that idea, and they do, millions of people around the globe support Wikipedia every year.

That, that sort of independence I do think is really critical to sort of the integrity of saying, we’re not going to optimize for how long you spend on our site. We’re not going to track you. We don’t track anybody who comes to the sites. We know vaguely how many devices come to Wikipedia every month. We don’t know how many unique users, and we’re really OK with that. We don’t want to end up in a situation where we’re trying to retain your eyeball on the site for as long as we possibly can. Some of these platforms that are very popular today have what, sort of known as a god metric, which is something like, how many minutes a day do you spend on that site? Taken to its rational point of, or taken, spun that out to sort of the point of absurdity, it would seem that they want you on their device, on their devices or on their platforms, 24 hours a day. I don’t want to live that life. You know I want to dip into information sharing. I want to dip into social networks that I’m part of, and then I want to come back out and sit across the table and have a conversation that is not intermediated by devices. So, we believe very strongly that not being dependent on ad revenue, not being dependent on the number of clicks, not being dependent on the number of minutes you spend on our site, is actually critical to providing people with sort of an integrity of experience.

If you’re just looking for one fact, and you come and spend five minutes looking for it, then we’re not doing our job. But if you’re coming for five minutes really reading into a subject, or fifty minutes reading into a subject, that’s great too. We’re, who is it, it’s not for us to judge how people learn. We’re just here to provide that information. And being a neutral nonprofit that’s supported by people, helps us do that.

HEFFNER: And are people learning? Do we know people are learning.

MAHER: I, I do hope that people are learning. I mean what’s your, I think the definition of learning should be as broad as it can possibly be. As I mentioned, if you’re going on to look up something about a popular television show, maybe you’re learning that it’s rooted in, you mentioned Hamlet earlier. Maybe you’re learning that it’s actually rooted in some sort of historical allegory or, or archetypical story that is a core to our human experience. That, that is a form of learning, even if it comes from a reference as I, to the Simpsons, or something along those lines. We know that people learn when they spend time on Wikipedia and we can tell by the number of links that they click. We can tell my sort of the, the, the way that, the number of visits that we get, the page views per, per month. People are spending a tremendous amount of time on it. It’s brining value to a large number of people, and if you sort of narrow that into sort of specific use cases, you know we just, members of our community just launched an app that uh, takes all of the medical information on Wikipedia and makes it available to you offline.

Now that might not seem really relevant to you and I sitting here in a studio. But if you’re in a rural part of the world where your access to the internet is limited, your access to even electricity is limited, the ability, and say you’re a student of medicine or perhaps you’re a practitioner, the ability to take that information with you whenever you go, is quite critical. And what I, the reasons I bring this up is, it’s already been downloaded something like a quarter of a million times since it launched just a few months ago. I think that gives evidence to the fact that there is real value in the information, and people certainly are getting value out of it.

HEFFNER: When one of your predecessors was here, Sue Gardiner, I asked her from the outset, I said, I said, are you more or less confident, upon her retirement from…

MAHER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: The post you sit in now, about the virtue of, of, the internet and the internet as a force for good, and it was a mixed answer…

MAHER: Hmm.

HEFFNER: But I, I think it definitely reflected your achievements over that tenure. As we close now, Katherine, can you tell our viewers about your aspiration for the achievement or achievements that you aspire to make in this, in this tenure…

MAHER: Sure.

HEFFNER: Um, where,

MAHER: Where are we going,

HEFFNER: Are you and your fellow Wikipedia readers and editors and staff, where are you going, and what is the ultimate goal?

MAHER: So there’s an aphorism that technology is not good, technology is not bad, nor is it neutral. And I am a firm believer in that. I don’t think that you can say that the internet necessarily has been a, an unequivocal force for good, and I certainly think it has offered a lot of good to the world, so nor is it purely bad. Um, it is a complex thing and, Wikipedia sits within that complex ecosystem. Our goals for the future, we turned sixteen, just this past January. Um, we’ve been around, we’re, we’re an adolescent. We’ve been around long enough to be a very different institution than we were when we started. When we started out, you know, everybody thought this model of an encyclopedia that anybody could edit, how would that ever work. Today we’re trusted, we’re relied upon, we’re reliable, we’re used by people in nearly 300 languages around the world. We’ve got a global contribute, contributor community as I mentioned, from medical doctors to students.

I think the question for us it, what do you do with that responsibility. Our vision statement is a world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. It doesn’t say anything about an encyclopedia. It doesn’t say anything about being a website. So I think we’re asking ourselves a question over the course of this year. In 15 years time when we look back, when we’re 30 years old, what will we have accomplished? Who will we have reached? Will every single human really be sharing in knowledge? It’s not just about accessing. It’s about participating, and using that knowledge to do something that improves their lives, their livelihoods, that gives them greater sort of connection to the society and shared culture that we have.

HEFFNER: What is, in your mind, the principle obstacle that you have to overcome, whether it’s culture at large, or institutionally, in order to say that by 2030, there will be a fuller grasp of knowledge across the globe?

MAHER: There are many obstacles. I’m not going to try to summarize and simplify into one.

HEFFNER: And we’ve talked about some of that tonight.

MAHER: There’s awareness, there’s connectivity, there’s censorship, there is um, leisure time, people’s ability to actually engage in knowledge, there’s literacy challenges. At the same time, there is increased connectivity around the globe, access to information, and access to the internet is less expensive than it has ever been. Literacy is rising, globally. There are some really wonderful trends that we’re looking at in terms of our ability to potentially, actually reach that vision in a way that was aspirational but not necessary practical when we first started out. So I think the opportunity for us is vast. I think the challenge for us, is how do we continue to grow in a way that increases the diversity of content that exists on Wikimedia sites, continues to make sure that we’re trusted and neutral and reliable to all, um, and that we keep our mission and our vision at the forefront of our hearts and that we sort of keep that as our north star into the future.

HEFFNER: Onward.

MAHER: [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: Thank you Katherine.

MAHER: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programing.