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Can Wikitribune Really Prevent The Spread Of Fake News?

26/04/2017 11:53 BST | Updated 26/04/2017 11:56 BST
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Wikitribune has every chance of success, and almost no chance of neutralising fake news. 

Of course, joining together professional journalists with content provided by local, engaged and well-informed amateurs is not new. It has been a mainstay of journalism for decades. Local correspondents bring news of jumble sales and parish council meetings to local papers, or cover local sports events with a depth of knowledge and enthusiasm that national journalists could never match, and in a breadth and volume that editors could never afford. The same is true of specialist magazines and websites; it is the lot of the working journalist to be forever cast in the role of generalist, covering everything from fat stock prices to wars in foreign lands, and rarely be granted the luxury of specialisation. 

This well-established pattern of collaboration aims at a style of journalism that is local, attached, and fully engaged in its community of interest, reflecting and challenging the views of its viewers, listeners or readers. But recent decades have seen some well-intentioned but mostly localised experiments to go further, and push back the frontiers of community journalism. These pioneering moves have offered a slightly different formulation, usually aimed at representing people who are marginalised or disenfranchised by a mainstream media agenda. Such initiatives have some bite.

If Wikitribune can emulate some of this success, and harness the potential of the Wiki brand to sustain independence from proprietorial and government control, then more power to it. It has every chance of doing so, although that depends to some extent on the funding stream. 

Thus primed, then, why would Wikitribune fail to turn back the tide of fake news? Surely such a global engine would have the ability to access pockets of information, to rebut falsehoods or at least subject them to scrutiny, and to counter lies? Indeed, it might, and I hope it does. But then again, there is no shortage of that already. We do have media outlets that provide those stories already, but they hold less appeal than tantalising falsehoods.

There is huge value to be gained in providing balance where it is lacking. Currently press freedom in Turkey and China is curtailed; can Wikitribune counter that? It is doubtful for as long as these regimes are willing to block access to particular websites.

So, if we want to judge the success of Wikitribune, we will probably have to seek that in regimes where the media is already relatively free, but where viewers, listeners and readers have already revealed a strong appetite for fake news. That isn't simply a matter of media availability, it is a matter of media culture and mass education.

Politicians of every hue need citizens who can read and write. They also need adults who are educated enough to meet the basic needs of the labour market, so that they can work and pay taxes. But politicians as a whole neither invite nor support mass education that encourages criticism, balance, thought and the exercise of independent political will. We educate our children as consumers first, as workers second, and as citizens, not at all.

Wikitribune is a bold initiative, and I wish it luck, but until those social conditions change, it will face an uphill struggle to attract readers who want, value and appreciate balanced reporting on important issues that affect them. Instead, it is more likely to be an amplification and support to established liberal media outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, which are currently operating under severe financial pressures. Perversely, the success of Wikitribune may even damage them.