Feb 18, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

New Wikipedia leader sees it as a misinformation-age model


Photo Illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photo: Gabriel Diamond via Wikimedia Commons

In a world filled with distrust and misinformation, the new boss of Wikipedia's parent organization holds the volunteer-run encyclopedia up as a model for how people can disagree while still embracing the same set of facts.

Why it matters: Debate over how content should be moderated has raged in recent years, with little consensus on the role that governments and businesses can and should play. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has somehow managed to tackle some of the thorniest issues without devolving into chaos.

  • "A neutral point doesn't mean everybody agrees," Wikimedia Foundation CEO Maryana Iskander told Axios. Rather, she says, it means having the debate transparently and with sources and citations to back up assertions.

Catch up quick: Iskander, who replaces Katherine Maher as Wikimedia's leader in January, was previously CEO of the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa and before that was chief operating officer of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York.

  • Iskander says she wants to make sure more of the world not only sees Wikipedia's content, but also sees that a crowd-sourced, volunteer-led effort is thriving.
  • "We want to stand on the proverbial mountaintop," she said. "This is possible, it's real and we want more of it."

Yes, but: Wikipedia has been criticized for the prevalence of white men in posting and editing content.

  • Iskander says that the company needs to try a lot of different approaches to change that. Edit-a-thons, for example, have worked in some parts of the world. But in other places a lack of access to technology or societal norms can make it tough to get a diverse set of contributors.
  • "I suspect this is not one thing," she said. "We've got to try lots of ideas."

Between the lines: Iskander urges regulators to be cautious as they wade into the murky waters of content moderation. Iskander said she shares some of their concerns with everything from the power of large tech companies to the impact of state actors with bad motives.

  • "I think we are very sympathetic to policy makers and regulators worried about things we are seeing in the society," she said. But she also wants to make sure that laws are carefully worded "so that Wikipedia doesn't suffer at the hands of regulations not intended for our model."
  • "That worries me," she said. "The risk of unintended consequence is high for us."

The big picture: Iskander is also charged with charting the financial and technical future for the company.

  • While it still relies mostly on donations, Wikimedia has started to offer a paid product for the giant tech companies that use its data in bulk. That's a model she would like to see expand even as the group works to keep its content freely accessible. "I think that Wikimedia Enterprise is a step in the right direction," she said.
  • Meanwhile, Iskander also aims to expand Wikimedia's multimedia content. That's more technically complex than managing a digital encyclopedia made up largely of text.

What's next: Iskander acknowledged she is still trying to figure out what is working and what isn't.

  • "This place is like an onion with many, many layers," she said.

Editor's note: We've adjusted the wording in this story's headline and body to clarify Iskander's role as "leader" of Wikipedia rather than "boss."

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