Maryana Iskander

The Freedom of Literacy

Air Date: August 1, 2022

Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director and CEO Maryana Iskander discusses freedom of information and literacy.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome the new executive director and CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, along with its thousands of loyal editors around the world. Maryana Iskander. Thank you for joining me today.


ISKANDER: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: Maryana, you were telling me you viewed our past programs with the three previous executive directors or CEOs, and we’re honored to represent Wikipedia, to host you and to probe the issues of media literacy and information literacy with you. What struck you about those episodes with your predecessors in just thinking about the challenges you face now as the executive director and CEO of the foundation?


ISKANDER: Well, hopefully we’ll get more into it, but I was struck by how much remains consistent if you look at the last 20 years of Wikimedia and yet how much I would say the current times call on what Wikipedia has to offer the world, maybe like now more than ever. So it’s the, it’s keeping some things the same and changing other things pretty dramatically.


HEFFNER: Some general facts for our audience that your staff was kind enough to share with us. Wikipedia has more than 56 million articles and that may have grown to 57, and by the time folks are viewing this, that’s probably 60 million. And, you know, it’s increasing by the day. You have 75 million freely licensed media files that folks can use for educational or other purposes: photos, videos, and audio. Wikipedia is edited by more than 280,000 volunteer editors around the world. And it’s edited 350 times per minute and read more than 8,000 times a second. So imagine reading something 8,000 times a second or 8,000 people in a conference room. That’s going on. But how are you correlating all those data points with actual literacy in the United States and around the world?


ISKANDER: It’s a really complex question, partly because we don’t keep the kind of data, you know, that other platforms do. And so in some sense, have made conscious choices about how much we know about our users and how much we value their privacy in terms of how long to hold onto certain amounts of data. I guess, Alex, the example that would for me speak to societal knowledge, societal literacy, is if you reflect on what happened during the pandemic over the last two years, this was, this is a topic I think we probably agree, sort of global knowledge of COVID, the vaccines, you know, treatments, all of these issues required accurate and verifiable and reliable information. And we saw in real time as the pandemic was unfolding, you know, incredible investments by doctors and medical professionals who are Wikipedia volunteers and editors, being able to not just provide more up-to-date information. But in fact, we partnered with the World Health Organization to ensure that the content and imagery, some of it, as you mentioned on Commons, would be readily available in 188 languages, thousands of new articles that were formed. And while it’s sometimes hard to draw a direct line, I think that it for me, says a lot that Wikipedia was such a critical and neutral and accurate source of information at a time that frankly, I think the world was scared, and needed to know that there was a way of getting what they needed, certainly around health and medical information.


HEFFNER: Right. And of course we know about the incidents of domestic violence that increased in some countries during the pandemic. We know that professional and social lives were upended in ways that gave people access to Wikipedia. You know, one of our guests in the first stage of the pandemic is the CEO of Consumer Reports. And we talked about the efforts underway to expand broadband access and the combination of an expansion of broadband access and Wikipedia’s further explosion ought to have given people access to information that they might not have been able to have previously. I mean, do you have a sense of how many, how many new navigators, searchers of Wikipedia there were as a result of the pandemic?


ISKANDER: I probably don’t have an exact figure, although I’m happy to get it. What I will say is, you know, I’ve spent the last decade of my career working on the African continent. And I think, you know, your point about access to the internet is sort of a precursor to being able to take advantage of the information that’s provided and particularly to do it on mobile phones. I know that we saw, you know, significant increases not just in COVID content, but even in things that have been priorities for the Wikimedia movement over the course of the last few years, for example, increasing the numbers of female biographies, which is a topic I’m sure you’ve discussed with others before. And so I have to believe that some of the disruption of the pandemic actually did open doors for more people to invest their time, not just consuming, but more importantly, contributing to Wikipedia.


HEFFNER: Is one of your priorities to, to be able to make that correlation? Because it’s a question that I asked Sue and Katherine, and I may be obsessed and forgive me for this obsession. I don’t want Wikipedia to be perceived as big brother or sister, that you’re retaining all this data on your users, but at the same time, I want you to be able to track geographically where there is open access and where certain kinds of content are being read, related to the town square, rather than celebrities and TMZ and how that may be helping or hurting the dialogues in the town square, in those respective communities. And so is there a way you can do that without overreaching, so that we can understand, you know, that in Rochester, New York or in, you know, Winston-Salem North Carolina, there were people reading about, you know, the early delegates to the, you know, Continental Congress or the early legislatures for the states and their representatives and how they were thinking about constitutional issues or even just something as important as, you know, the, up-to-date information about the pandemic and efficacy of vaccines and masks. And just being able to make that link to the consumption of certain knowledge in these communities and how they’re able to further evolve as a result of that?


ISKANDER: I mean, the answer is certainly, but, you know, with as you said, a sense of the tradeoffs of how we use data, how we protect user privacy. I would also say, and I mean having observed some of your work over many years, you know, these are complex social science questions. Even if you look at research methodologies around correlation versus causation, I think the good news is that we have a community of, in many cases, contributors who are also researchers and academics. And they take, I think, a special interest in thinking about what are the important questions that they can use their academic and research skills to help answer about Wikipedia. And so I am aware of some work that is underway, you know, again in some cases, PhDs, in other cases, research manuscripts that might be able to help us draw some of those connections a bit more strongly, but the reality is complex social phenomena is often rarely explained in a causation model, even though I would say it’s probably hard to dispute that Wikipedia, just based on what we see on traffic numbers, what we see in our donor database, what we see in the comments that people contribute, is absolutely having impact in societies all over the world.


HEFFNER: That’s for sure. And I’m also interested in the comparative analysis, you know, what are folks consuming if they’re not consuming Wikipedia, what are, what what’s the alternative to Wikipedia, in terms of news sources or you know? Wikipedia occupies every single zeitgeist you could possibly imagine in the American and world experience, every sense you know, every who, what, where, when. And you can get a narrow contingent of the who, what, where, and when, in a lot of other places that is less reliable, that is subject to the whims of yellow journalism or outright falsehoods, fabrication, misinformation, disinformation, false-flag operations, you name it. And so, you have over time developed a reputation for objectivity and truth. How much of your fact-finding related to whether or not that reputation was still holding up amid these waves of disinformation?


ISKANDER: I think these founding pillars of Wikipedia have not only withstood the test of the last 20 years, but in fact, made it, as you said, one of the most, kind of reliable, safest places on the internet. One, it’s an online encyclopedia. It’s not trying to be a social media platform. It’s not looking for opinions. It’s about reliable sources. It’s about citations. I would say that, for me, you know, the sort of second page on Wikipedia, which is that when you go to an article, there’s a corner that says talk and you go to the talk page. And what that allows for is just radical transparency in how that article was written, who contributed, what the debates were, what the back and forth is. And one of the things that we have seen more recently and supported by again, kind of research and academic findings is that the more people debate an issue, the more neutral the point of view. So it’s okay if we might come at an issue from different perspectives, but the work of debating the citations, the work of debating the sources actually improves the article and improves the quality of that content. And so, you know, keeping it reliable, keeping it free, keeping it accessible. And the last thing I would say is, you know, if you pulled out your phone and went to Wikipedia and I pulled out my phone and went to Wikipedia, we’d see the exact same thing. And I think that, you know, that is an important part of making sure that, you know, we’re not trying to so optimize something that everybody sees their version of the truth. We all sort of see the same version of the truth.


HEFFNER: One thing though, where there would not be a kind of compromise is your editor’s idea of what is a verifiable source or a recognized reliable source for that source notes, because every Wikipedia article is derived article is derived from content across the web, which is some, some of it’s digitized from the paper trail over many years. Some of it is just digital assets. So in terms of recognizing the protocol there, is that something that is still, you know, deeply a community decision that you, as the executive of this organization have no control over this community, and whether it in effect blacklists certain sites that it says are not trustworthy and therefore would not be sources for any of your index pages?


ISKANDER: I mean, probably the thing I would say I admire most about this community is that it evolves, and it changes. So you’re right. These are content decisions that are left to communities, plural, right? Because they exist in different languages, in different places. And some of the policies are similar, some are different. And I think that the reality is Wikipedia and it’s actually one of the five pillars of Wikipedia is, you know, you don’t sort of hold onto arbitrary rules when new information proves that you ought to evolve, and you ought to change. I think the core issue is that we need strong journalism. We need strong research institutions. We need strong civic spaces. We need a lot of things that produce those reliable sources, that produce the kinds of content and the kinds of information that Wikipedia contributors can continue to rely on as well.


HEFFNER: Are there still though golden rules that are uniform, for example, a dot edu site would be preferable to a lot of journalism organizations that have taken a leaning on the left or right?


ISKANDER: I think that if you go and I had a really wonderful first conversation with Jimmy Wales, you know, one of the founders of Wikipedia, and I think that these original pillars stand true, like a neutral point of view is like not a negotiable issue, right? That’s a core foundational pillar. I think the fact that it’s ad-free and free is a core foundational pillar. I think that these are things that are sort of not open to debate within communities. Whereas the question of what sources are available, and again, you know, Wikipedia operates in over 332 languages. It’s the most multilingual thing on the internet. And so recognizing and appreciating the need for different language communities to adapt to what’s available and what their needs are is, you know, one of the realities that I think allows us to be such a global movement.


HEFFNER: And just to be clear, there is no guidance from the top. So every community of contributors and editors works within their own parameters. So if one community said that they wanted to, by community, let’s say one particular geographic base or language hub of Wikipedia said, we’re going to restrict using this as a source, they are free to make that independent judgment. And there is, there are really no rules outside of these communities and democratic governance within them?


ISKANDER: I would reframe it slightly to say that content is absolutely community-driven. I think that’s been a core principle since the beginning. I think that there are these, as I said, sort of foundational pillars that are consistent, you know, across language communities. But yes, I think that once you get into, for example, what sources are available in a particular language or what an approach might be to reliable sources of journalism in a particular country, those may vary more by language community, I think. And so, our job at the foundation, I think, is not to position it as hierarchical or top-down or what we aren’t and aren’t allowed to do. I think it’s actually more enabling the work of different communities to build the tools that they need and respond to, to, you know, their own either regional or local context. The last point I would make is that we have more recently adopted a universal code of conduct. And I think for me that represents quite a global alignment on how to ensure that Wikipedia and the Wikimedia projects are friendly to newcomers, a safe space for contributors, a way of ensuring that no matter where you are in the world, there are a set of expectations that are common across all communities.


HEFFNER: Now, let me ask you about the restrictions on speech and particular access to information in the United States and then zoom out globally, of course. You are originally from Cairo and can speak to the accessibility of information in regimes that range the spectrum of free to closed or totalitarian. But let’s start with the U.S. You have observed clearly in some communities the way in which the history of racism or facts about gender identity, that those discussions are being closed-off in the same way that some discussions were closed off about vaccine hesitance or mask efficacy. I mean, I really think about it in the same light. My question to you is what, if any role does Wikipedia have now in ensuring that if you’re in a classroom in Florida with these restrictive measures against discussions about homosexuality, for example, that those pages are available in the local public libraries and the school libraries, you know, in the same way that in other communities that enforce mask mandates, there should be discussions about, you know, the efficacy of masks, the efficacy of vaccines. And now I’m curious. We’re at a place that is different than when Katherine was at the helm, is Wikipedia roles. Is Wikipedia’s role more engaged in ensuring that Wikipedia is accessible in those places?


ISKANDER: You know, I would say to you that the fact that the pages look the same for you and me, for that teenager in Florida, for the person living in that masked community, is the reason that I think Wikipedia now more than ever before is an antidote to a lot of these things that are concerning about an open society, about free knowledge, about free information. There is no doubt that misinformation finds its way to Wikipedia. As you may know our community of contributors’ sort of take pride in that. They have a page called Hoaxes on Wikipedia, and, you know, again sort of are open to when that happens and what needs to be learned. But in the case of topics, like the ones that you mentioned, those are pages often watched by many editors and should there be something that’s not cited, something that’s not sourced correctly, it is typically corrected really within a matter of seconds or a matter of minutes. And so this idea of preserving the kinds of tools that allow our contributors to, in essence, keep a close eye and keep a watchful eye on the kinds of topics where societies, not just in the United States, but everywhere in the world, need to make sure, are going to remain open and accessible and free.


HEFFNER: And zooming out now to Cairo, and the rest of the world. Have you made it a particular mission of yours, in light of some of the repressive realities of Egypt and elsewhere in the world to increase Wikipedia’s availability? I was just curious at this juncture, which is probably different than if I had asked this when Sue was the head of Wikipedia or Katherine, but what is the situation in a place like Cairo that is sort of a hybrid of free and closed society, with Wikipedia, and what is your vision in terms of opening Wikipedia up to places as repressive as North Korea, Russia, and China?


ISKANDER: Yeah, let me answer the second part of the question, and then come back to the first one. The kind of global community of Wikimedians over the course of many years launched under Katherine’s tenure, developed a movement strategy, which was a compelling vision for what we want to see be true in the world by 2030. And in that are two fundamental pillars that I think inform a lot of the answer to your question. One is this idea of knowledge equity. And so what does that mean? What does it look like to have both more people come in, which by the way, is, you know, for me, the answer to repressive regimes is we need to increase the number of people contributing and feeling safe to do so and being able to do so. It’s always a tricky question of language communities because what you may find in some countries is editors choose to participate in English because maybe that feels safer than in a local language. And so what does it look like to again, have these tools that can be customized by different language communities as well? So this idea of knowledge equity, and I think, again, the sort of antidote to a closed society is getting more and more contributors and it’s the encyclopedia anyone can edit, right? So how do you continue to make that true in even the hardest places in the world. The second is this idea of knowledge as a service. And so if you think about the, the vision for 2030 is that Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects are the essential infrastructure of the internet, which is what we see today. I mean, the reuse of Wikipedia content in voice assistance, and so many other places, in so many other ways, speaks to the fact that people might find and access content that is Wikipedia, without necessarily coming to Wikipedia. And that, again, I think can serve as another avenue for access to safe information.


HEFFNER: And what about that example of Egypt? You know, again, different classifications of states where, to my knowledge I spoke not so long ago at the University of Cairo, virtually with a group of aspiring journalists. My sense was Wikipedia was fairly available there?


ISKANDER: Yeah, it is. And so again, what I, I think the question often in some of these countries becomes, do I contribute to Arabic Wikipedia, or do I contribute to English Wikipedia if I am somebody who speaks English and can access English, right? Because I might choose to make you know, certain articles more available in English. It’s going to get read more widely. In some cases I might translate them to Arabic. And so interestingly enough, in a country like Egypt, what I’ve learned, having engaged with a few contributors, is this question of language becomes a really important one.


HEFFNER: And do you guys have a different strategy as it relates to Russia, China? I mean, you know, you can obviously use mechanisms to break through in those places. But in the 60-seconds or so we have left, you know, each country is different in terms of how underdeveloped or developed is democratically. So, is it going to be Wikipedia place, according to that 2030 mission it sounds like it should be, to say we’re going to set a strategy for each and every country to have access?


ISKANDER: That’s exactly right. I think this is the, the kind of global reach is incredible. And I would say that even though there have been challenges and certainly back and forth with even the Russian authorities to this day, Wikipedia remains available in Russia. And so I think that it can’t be denied that this is one of the most powerful sources of information to people all over the world and societies know that, leaders know that, and we just have to keep growing this community of volunteers and contributors that make it possible.


HEFFNER: Final question. Are you aware of efforts in any of those places, Egypt, Russia, China, to de-legitimize Wikipedia? And have they been effective with any part of the local populace?


ISKANDER: Well, I would say two things. There’s no doubt as I said misinformation finds its way onto Wikipedia, and I feel like we’ve got good strategies for that. I think disinformation can only be combated, as I said, by more people contributing more different points of view. And that’s been the strategy I think, in a lot of those kinds of countries, like the ones that you’ve named. I would say first and foremost, if I look at the, you know, most repressive regimes and the most closed societies, our first priority is going to be building a community of contributors that feel safe to contribute, right? Because if you don’t have that, you can’t get much further. And so certainly in the case of both Russia and Ukraine, that’s been kind of the top priority alongside ensuring that the content remains accessible and verifiable and accurate and all of the other things that Wikipedia stands for.


HEFFNER: There is some balancing there, because of course, you’re not going to say that the, Tiananmen you’re not going to welcome a contributor, maybe you’ll welcome them to a conversation, but you’re not going to allow them to update a page. And of course it’s not accessible in China now in the mainland, so even if someone wanted to try to edit the Tiananmen Square page, they wouldn’t be able to. But if it were opened up, it would, it would be a whole different thing at this point.


ISKANDER: I was just going to say, I mean, maybe right, because like, if you went to go edit a page of something that’s probably highly watched, I guess what I’m saying is there’s enough checks and balances in how the content moderation and the community rules happen now, it would be difficult, right, to be able to change that without a proper citation, without the back and forth on the talk page, without the kind of radical transparency that sits behind how content gets created on Wikipedia. So maybe it’s not a full ending….


HEFFNER: I’m just wondering, when you’re indoctrinated to the point of, of the common denominator being illiteracy. That’s a pretty tough nut to crack.


ISKANDER: Yeah. Yeah.


HEFFNER: I know you’re up to the challenge…


ISKANDER: No, no no. But I’m saying, you know, I guess the differentiator is this is not a space of opinion. It’s an online encyclopedia. And so I think trying to really make sure that that’s what we’re reinforcing is really critical.


HEFFNER: Well, Maryana, thank you so much for your insight today. I congratulate you on your appointment and expect wonderful things for you and the Wikimedia community.


ISKANDER: Well, I’ve loved talking to you. I hope there’s a chance to get to know you better.


HEFFNER: That sounds good. Stay well.


ISKANDER: Take care of yourself.


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