Wikipedia founder questions Facebook as 'arbiter' of public views


Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia and of WikiTribune, expressed concern about Facebook’s new mission to ask its users what news they trust and to push news into a separate feed. He warned it risked backfiring and turning the social network into the “arbiter” of public views.

“If five years ago you were talking about Facebook and you said to people what is your fear, your dystopian future of Facebook, it’s that Facebook would start shaping my public perceptions by choosing which information is in their opinion quality or low quality,” Wales said in a panel discussion hosted by broadcaster CNBC alongside the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Wales spoke alongside public relations industry leader Richard Edelman who shared his concern at Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook will reduce the importance of news from media companies in people’s news feed and survey its users to establish which news providers they trust.

“The idea that they would eliminate or reduce the availability of mainstream news on the feed is directly contradictory to what I would hope would be the future,” Edelman said. His firm this week released its annual “Trust Barometer” which showed some improvement in the trust in journalism over the past year, a dramatic decline in global trust of social networks as a source, and big fall in overall trust in the United States. The full Trust Barometer report can be found here.

Facebook knows what’s good for you

Facebook founder Zuckerberg responded to a year of crisis over the social media giant’s influence in spreading so-called “fake news” (Guardian) – including deliberate manipulation by apparently state and independent actors in Russia – by announcing a shift in strategy (Facebook) to prioritize “meaningful social interactions” with friends and family over news from media outlets and other corporations. The company has since said it intends to use surveys to determine what news to display.

In a phrase which certainly sounded like Facebook was peering into the soul of its readers, Zuckerberg proffered a quasi-psychological theory for the decision: “The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health.”

Wales said he had founded WikiTribune to combat the concepts behind the term fake news, as well as the dependency of the existing online news industry on generating “clicks” to support advertising. He said he was provoked to launch WikiTribune earlier than he might have by the now legendary remark of U.S. President Donald Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway a year ago, who suggested there were “alternative facts” (The Guardian) used to bolster White House claims that Trump’s inauguration had drawn the largest crowds ever.

WikiTribune launched as a public pilot in October, with a team of staff journalists working alongside a growing group of community contributors.

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    Explanatory note: We wrote this story because Wales and Edelman were speaking at public event — hosted and broadcast by CNBC and were addressing significant contemporary issues of trust in media and politics. Each is a significant player in their respective industries and recognized figures in the Davos community.

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