Wikipedia’s coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic has outdone most media companies in both content output and page views. Josie Adams spoke to Wikipedian Mike Dickison about what makes the organisation so good at covering these events.
There are more than 5,200 articles about Covid-19 on Wikipedia. One defines the disease, and another the virus that causes it. Articles describe the virus’s impact on everything from disc golf to human rights. Timelines abound; you can follow Covid-19’s progress day by day, or country by country.
In New Zealand, there are pages for the Marist College and Ruby Princess clusters, for the contact tracing app and, of course, for Dr Ashley Bloomfield. The Covid-19 pandemic in New Zealand page, created in March under a different name, has been visited more than a million times. The detail in it is both comprehensive and precise: it contains statistics from clusters and cases, definitions of essential services and alert levels, and more Covid-19-adjacent information about things like the George Floyd protests, church services and the pig surplus.
Mike Dickison is one of thousands of volunteers working on these pages. He said that while New Zealand’s Covid-19 numbers are important, the colour surrounding our experience of the pandemic is also worth preserving.
“When lockdown first happened, I put out a call to encourage people to try and record the temperature of the time,” he said. “Signs, teddy bears in the windows, empty streets, that sort of thing. I was trying really hard to capture some of that ephemeral stuff that was happening publicly, because I knew that as soon as we got out of lockdown we’d just throw that all away and try to return to normal.”
Dickison, who has his own Wikipedia page, was New Zealand’s first Wikipedian-at-large. Funding from the Wikimedia foundation allowed him to take up residency in scientific institutions and universities spreading the word of the good e-book. He’s a museum curator and zoologist; an academic by (and about) nature.
Although not all volunteers working on the Covid-19 Wikipedia edits are medical experts, Dickison said they do have an understanding of what makes good information.
“Anyone can edit an article, but it’s important to note that articles on medical topics have especially stringent conditions on their edits,” he said. “It’s very hard to sneak any kind of vandalism or false information in there, because there are edits happening every minute or two.”
Edits made by someone who’s a first-timer or anonymous will automatically generate a red flag in the software, alerting what Wikipedians call “vandalism patrols” to come and double-check the edit as soon as possible. The Covid-19 pandemic in New Zealand page is one referred to as “semi-protected,” meaning users must meet a threshold of edits before being allowed to edit it.
Dickison said what makes for a good source is defined in crushing detail. “What you’re looking for in a reliable source is ideally a peer-reviewed publication that’s been through an editorial process, and preferably a proofreading and fact-checking process as well,” he said. Newspapers, scientific journals, and sometimes radio are the main sources you’ll see at the end of an article. Even then, some newspapers are flagged as unreliable, including papers like The Sun. “Some of the British tabloids, those references are routinely deleted,” he said. “That doesn’t meet our standards.”
The Covid-19 pages are checked for error more than most Wikipedia articles due to the massive number of views they get; there are more than 424 million page views between them so far.
Dickison feels the free encyclopedia is well-placed to handle news coverage of events like the Covid-19 pandemic because of its large army of responsive volunteers. “In many ways, Wikipedia handles this kind of breaking news coverage better than the media, because it’s a synthesis of different media outlets,” he said. “The Wikipedians will be ruthless in trying to find corroborating sources and suppress anything that looks like it might not be well-founded.
“It’s got an immune system against falsehood, so it’s actually quite resilient to hoaxing and fake news and bad information.”
The problem with information in the time of a pandemic is that normally reliable sources begin to show cracks. A study published in The Lancet that claimed the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine could actually be harmful to Covid-19 patients was retracted due to several anomalies in the data, but not before its publication put a halt to drug trials around the world.
“There are lots of studies coming out very fast, and not all of them seem to be reputable,” said Dickison. “So [volunteers] tend to use review papers or any kind of publication that does meta-analysis of a whole bunch of other studies. Those are considered better than hot-off-the-press brand new studies.”
Governments, too, can have their data questioned. On the Wikipedia page for Covid-19 in the United States, the statistics section comes with a caveat that “multiple sources note that statistics on confirmed coronavirus cases are misleading, since the shortage of tests means the actual number of cases is much higher than the number of cases confirmed.” The sources, of course, are provided. There are over 550 sources listed on this one page, many of them corroborating others.
“The speed and the size of some of those articles is just amazing,” said Dickison. “It’s really a pretty incredible piece of work.”
According to the Wikimedia foundation, 67,554 editors have worked on the Covid-19 pages in 175 different languages. The ‘Covid-19 pandemic in New Zealand’ page has more than 1,800 edits made to it by 219 editors. This information is all free and easy to access.
Considering the manpower and rigour behind Wikipedia’s coverage of Covid-19, it can be frustrating for editors like Dickison to hear people repeat decade-old warnings about the website: anyone can edit it, so it’s not a reliable source.
“They might be a little bit out of date,” said Dickison. “But if you do a comparison between Wikipedia and most other published, referenced sources, you’ll find that it stacks up pretty well, particularly in the areas of science, medicine, computer technology and history.
“Most people use Wikipedia almost every day, and I would say you’d want to know where that information is coming from and how much you can trust it, wouldn’t you?”
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.