The World Health Organization and the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, announced a collaboration last week responding to “misinformation” on the coronavirus pandemic. As part of the collaboration, the W.H.O. has released several “fact-check” graphics on a free license so they can be used on Wikipedia and other sites owned by the Foundation. The partnership prompted criticism from some Wikipedia editors due to the W.H.O.’s mishandling of the pandemic in its early stages in China.
Mainstream media have praised Wikipedia’s handling of information on the virus, which belies the site’s own mishandling. Wikipedia articles concerning the coronavirus have frequently been afflicted with significant errors and bias, consistent with problems in other areas of the site.
The announcement on October 22 claims the collaboration’s intent is to “expand access to trusted information about COVID-19 on Wikipedia” and argues “social stability increasingly depends on the public’s shared understanding of the facts.” Content released by the W.H.O. will be made available under a Creative Commons license, the standard license by which content on Wikipedia and related sites is made free to use and modify. Among the content planned for release are “infographics, videos, and other public health assets” according to the announcement.
Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that the collaboration would “increase access to reliable health information from WHO across multiple countries, languages, and devices.” Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher stated the global health crisis made collaboration necessary, saying: “All institutions, from governments to international health agencies, scientific bodies to Wikipedia, must do our part to ensure everyone has equitable and trusted access to knowledge about public health, regardless of where you live or the language you speak.” The W.H.O. has been campaigning against what it called an “infodemic” of “misinformation” regarding the coronavirus outbreak.
News of the partnership was greeted with mixed reactions by Wikipedia editors. Deryck Chan, an editor from Hong Kong who currently resides in the United Kingdom, expressed outrage at the partnership in the Facebook discussion group Wikipedia Weekly stating: “For what it’s worth, many editors working on combating Covid-19 misinformation have had to deal with unreliable info *from WHO* themselves. An official WMF-WHO collaboration sounds like a blunt betrayal of those editors’ efforts.” Chan was an organizer for 2013’s Wikimania, an annual gathering of contributors to Wikipedia and affiliated sites from around the world, which was held in Hong Kong that year.
Several others agreed with Chan’s sentiment with one responding in agreement that Wikipedia could lose “its neutral standing in reporting about the crisis in the eyes of those critical of WHO’s role.” When another group member defended the collaboration, Chan responded, “WHO blunders in the early stage of the pandemic are central to disputes about what is the ‘canonical’ version of the history of the pandemic,” adding “the perception of WMF endorsing WHO matters.” Chan refers to allegations China’s government withheld vital information about the coronavirus during the initial stages of the outbreak and concerns the W.H.O. made itself complicit to appease them.
Foundation Board member James Heilman also defended the collaboration in the Facebook group, stating he was working on it since 2012 and describing it as “not only a win for us but a win for everyone who believes in free and open access to high quality health care information.” Heilman has been interviewed for numerous stories in major media outlets praising Wikipedia’s handling of the pandemic, the continuation of a media campaign touting the online encyclopedia in the fight against “fake news” online. The collaboration announcement reiterated some of the praise stating site editors ensured “information about the pandemic is based on reliable sources and updated regularly on Wikipedia.”
In spite of this praise, Wikipedia’s actual handling of the pandemic has frequently been shoddy. Early on in the pandemic, the introduction to the article on the disease caused by the coronavirus was stripped of any mention that it was first identified in Wuhan, China. The editor responsible noted the paragraph mentioning this discussed the outbreak, not the disease. Although disconnected references to Wuhan occurred throughout the article body, none of these references noted it as the location of the first known outbreak occurred. Wikipedia guidelines state article introductions should only include material present in the article body. Social media attention ultimately got the error corrected after roughly two weeks.
While in the aforementioned case, the removal of information unfavorable to China was due to a combination of errors, other efforts have been more deliberate and politically-motivated. As criticism grew over President Donald Trump and other critics of China’s handling of the initial outbreak referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” or “China virus” Wikipedia editors had the term excluded from the introduction to the article on the virus, even citing the W.H.O. criticizing use of the term as part of the reason.
Editors also smeared those using the term as racist, such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson in one of many smear campaigns against him. Conservative outlet the Federalist has also been smeared by editors as spreading “misinformation” about the virus due to opinion pieces noting early extreme casualty projections and criticizing some of the harsher measures to contain the outbreak.
Political bias on Wikipedia is one issue complicating the site’s handling of the pandemic. While an entire article exists dedicated to attacking Trump’s administration, mostly Trump himself, for statements during the pandemic, no similar article exists discussing the Chinese government’s communications regarding the pandemic where reports indicate officials withheld information and downplayed the virus in the early stages of the outbreak. Instead, this criticism is covered in one portion of the article on the outbreak in China, which is only slightly longer than the article on just the Trump administration’s statements during the pandemic yet still is tagged as “too long” and too detailed.
Criticism of the W.H.O. largely adhering to the Chinese government’s early stance on the outbreak, including relaying misleading information about the potential for human transmission of the virus, is confined to an even smaller portion of articles on the organization itself and its response to the pandemic. Both sections reserve much harsher criticism for the Trump Administration’s response to W.H.O.’s failures early in the pandemic.
Members of Wikipedia criticism site Wikipediocracy focused less on the unreliability of Wikipedia and the W.H.O. on the pandemic and more on the ineffectual nature of the collaboration itself. The member who first mentioned the news on the site noted the W.H.O. had long released much of its content on a free license, downplaying the significance of the announcement about more content being released on such a license. Another member noted that some of the files in connection with the collaboration had been uploaded two weeks before the announcement, yet weren’t used on any content pages on Wikipedia in any language or on its affiliated sites.
Even basic details such as case numbers have been mishandled on Wikipedia’s coronavirus pages. Charts presenting case totals for the United States and Iran have been subject to vandalism or errors leading to egregiously inaccurate figures staying up for hours in one case. Notably, one day after the Wikimedia Foundation and W.H.O. announced their collaboration citing Wikipedia’s “effectiveness” in providing up-to-date information on the pandemic, the chart showing case numbers in Switzerland was broken by a user editing the chart to question why it hadn’t been updated since August. Over a day passed before the chart was fixed even though the error appeared prominently on the article for the ongoing outbreak in Switzerland for that entire period.
Despite promotion of Wikipedia by the press, Big Tech’s reliance on it, and partnerships such as with the W.H.O., the site remains a minefield of misinformation and bias. Previously, Wikipedia was the source for hoaxes in news reports and academic studies, including hoax medical conditions. Its left-wing political bias has meanwhile been condemned by the site’s co-founder as editors engage in smear campaigns against Trump and various other prominent conservatives. While the W.H.O. partnership is sold partly on making use of the different language versions of Wikipedia and its affiliated sites, many of those less-trafficked sites are even more heavily afflicted with bias and misinformation as evidenced in numerous cases.
T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.