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Wikipedia-WHO collaborate to clear clouds of public mistrust on health coverage

Rita Widiadana

The Jakarta Post

Denpasar  /  Thu, January 14, 2021  /  11:42 am
Wikipedia-WHO collaborate to clear clouds of public mistrust on health coverage

The year 2020 was one of mis- and disinformation on public health issues, and on the COVID-19 pandemic in particular. (Courtesy of Shutterstock/Monster Ztudio)

The year 2020 was one of mis- and disinformation on public health issues, and on the COVID-19 pandemic in particular.

Wikipedia Foundation chief of staff Ryan Merkley shared his view on how to fight against mis- and disinformation to ensure everyone has access to trusted and reliable information about COVID-19. The following article is an excerpt of the interview.

The Global Survey has shown that the majority of people around the world (70 percent) are worried about false and misleading information, especially delivered via social media platforms and unauthorized websites and other online sources. How do you take on this issue?

Mis- and disinformation can spread quickly on digital platforms. At the Wikipedia Foundation, we realize that disinformation on one platform can have far-reaching effects across the broader web. It does not occur in a vacuum. When a government, corporation or other organized special interest launches a disinformation campaign, this challenges our whole information ecosystem.

At the same time, we think there is a lot that individuals can learn from Wikipedia’s model when it comes to being critical consumers of information online. When our volunteers edit articles, they evaluate whether claims are backed up by sources, and whether those sources are trustworthy and reliable. Even if you don’t edit Wikipedia, you can apply the same principles when scrolling through a social media newsfeed or a group chat with friends and family.

How does Wikipedia address false claims and conspiracy theories about COVID-19?

To deal with misinformation, whether it’s around general public health or part of the deluge of misinformation related to COVID-19 that began earlier [last] year, the volunteers that edit Wikipedia rely on Wikipedia’s fundamental principles to ensure quality of information. Information must be cited from multiple trusted sources and based on Wikipedia's principles of neutrality and verifiability.

Several of the volunteers that edit Wikipedia are also from or work within the medical community, including groups like WikiProject Medicine – a group of 100+ volunteer contributors who work together to edit and improve articles about medical content on Wikipedia. 

They have also developed a Translation Task Force, a global initiative where they have partnered with Translators Without Borders to translate over 1900 articles about public health and medicine into 100+ languages. 

And of course, part of addressing misinformation is documenting it. For example, volunteers recognized the massive amount of misinformation being shared about the novel coronavirus and have created separated articles dedicated to documenting misinformation about the coronavirus in over 30 languages. The English Wikipedia article on misinformation related to COVID-19 includes over 630 citations alone.

Ryan MerkleyRyan Merkley (Courtesy Wikipedia Foundation/-)

What was behind the collaboration between Wikipedia and the World Health Organization (WHO)? What will be the most significant steps to be taken following this effort?

The Wikimedia Foundation and the WHO are collaborating to ensure everyone has access to trusted and reliable information about COVID-19.

We both have a shared goal to ensure that people everywhere have the resources they need to understand current facts about the virus and prevent misinformation from spreading. Our work together will open free health information to the public across countries, languages and devices.

The partnership will initially focus on uploading WHO content, such as public health-related infographics, videos and other resources under a free license (CC BY SA 3.0) to be shared on Wikimedia Commons for use on Wikipedia. Wikipedia volunteer editors will then be able to integrate these resources into Wikipedia articles about COVID-19 and translate them across languages. 

In the coming months, the Wikimedia Foundation and WHO will continue uploading relevant WHO content to Wikimedia Commons.

We will also be working with Wikipedia volunteer editors to better understand gaps in information needs on Wikipedia articles related to COVID-19 and how WHO resources can help fill these gaps.

This will be critical for new and emerging information about the pandemic as well – ensuring volunteer editors can have access to top WHO scientific research and public health recommendations in future milestones (for example, the development of a COVID-19 vaccine) of the pandemic. 


As Wikipedia approaches two-decade anniversary of operations, is it challenging for Wikipedia to convince people?

It’s been fascinating to see how Wikipedia has evolved; when we began in 2001, teachers would warn their students against using Wikipedia in the classroom. Now, it has evolved to become one of the most trusted websites in the world. I believe the process our communities use to evaluate and share knowledge on Wikipedia is the reason why people continue to trust us, even in the current climate of rising misinformation and declining trust. 

Sharing knowledge on Wikipedia is a collaborative effort. Every day, volunteers add new information to Wikipedia on topics ranging from celebrity biographies to current events. Wikipedia communities are open and transparent about how they work, which builds confidence and accountability.

The misinformation that we’ve seen over this past year related to COVID-19 has demonstrated the cracks in our global information ecosystem.

This crisis has given context and urgency to how we perceive the value of information. Now more than ever, people are questioning where they normally get their information, what sources and public figures they can trust, and what’s missing from the information most readily available.

During this global pandemic where misinformation has become a matter of life and death, we have an opportunity, as a society to define what good information needs to be.

As users, we can promote complexity and nuance over headlines that promise only shock value. As tech platforms, we can create incentives that encourage people to analyze what they read and to share quality information.

By asking the tough questions and identifying those gaps in our information ecosystem, I believe we can significantly reduce our susceptibility to misinformation and manipulation.


The mainstream media around the globe mostly struggle to become the guardian of “true and accurate” news and information, but the misinformation and disinformation has been so overwhelming. How can Wikipedia and mainstream media work together to deal with this issue?

Wikipedia is not a primary source for information; we don’t write original or primary research. We rely on a thriving ecosystem of knowledge, including journalists, academics and researchers that provide the citations for the articles you read. Our movement is deeply invested in the trust and integrity of the free press and academic research. 

At the same time, we recognize that misinformation is a growing problem. Volunteers to Wikipedia deal with this by prioritizing accuracy over speed, particularly when it comes to current events, to ensure people can have access to trustworthy, accurate information. They aren’t focused on being first to break the news, but on getting it right. 

Even though Wikipedia isn’t a primary source for information, we are central to the broader ecosystem; our content is freely licensed in a way that allows for companies to use, edit and remix onto their own platforms. That means if it’s wrong on Wikipedia, it could be wrong on Siri, or Alexa or Google.

Collaboration is essential. We believe that there are opportunities for us to collaborate with media organizations to share what we’ve learned from 20 years of developing policies around neutrality, verifiability and accuracy of information. (ste)


-- The interview was made possible with support from Michael Kessler, communications and media director of The Union and Nadee Gunasena, executive communications of Wikipedia Foundation.


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