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How Wikipedia’s Volunteers Became the Web’s Best Weapon against Misinformation

Wikipedia is one of the webs most robust weapons against misinformation.

An experienced minority of editors patrol the front lines of Wikipedias war on misinformation.

Credit: Flickr user Gage Skidmore, Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

For a few minutes near the end of his first presidential debate, Mike Bloomberg was dead. At 9:38 p.m. Eastern time, a Wikipedia user named DQUACK02 added some text to the Wikipedia page for the former Democratic presidential candidate and New York City mayor:

"death_date   = {{Death date and age|2020|02|19|1942|02|14}}; |death_place  = [[Las Vegas, Nevada]], U.S.; |death_cause = [[Getting stabbed by Warren, Biden and Sanders]]."

Within three minutes, another user named Cgmusselman had reverted the page back. By then the inevitable screenshots and joke tweets had already begun to spread. It was an obvious hoax, and a rather cartoonish example of Wikipedia at its worst—the reason why many people still believe it can't be trusted: Anyone can edit it! But it was also Wikipedia at its best: Anyone can also edit an edit!

"Most of these edits are small improvements to phrasing or content, a few are masterpieces, and some are vandalism," says Cgmusselman, who is Charley Musselman, a 73-year-old retired physicist from Massachusetts who happened to notice Bloomberg's demise while double-checking the age of his senator and his then-preferred candidate, Elizabeth Warren. ("She is three years, two months younger than I am," he reports.)

Cgmusselman isn't among the experienced minority of editors who tend to patrol the front lines of Wikipedia's war on misinformation—his hundreds of edits have mostly involved copy editing. But like those other editors, he has put his faith in the power of the crowd to be fair and honest. "Weight of sincerity, truth, and goodwill will bit by bit bury falsehood and malice," he told me by email.


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