Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher discusses knowledge sharing at Berkeley Forum event

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VGrigas/Creative Commons
At a Berkeley Forum event Thursday, Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher went over the reliability and accuracy of the Wikipedia platform. Maher discussed its reliance on verifiability and that she encourages its readers to use it as a starting point for information. (Photo by VGrigas under CC BY SA 3.0.)

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Though Wikipedia covers an array of topics from World War II to Taylor Swift’s discography, there is more to address in accuracy, public trust and representation, discussed Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher at a Berkeley Forum event Thursday.

In 2014, Wikipedia banned undisclosed paid editing in response to politicians or companies attempting to use it as a public relations platform and to whitewash records, according to Maher. Two years later, as other technology companies faced scrutiny for how they dealt with fake news during election season, Wikipedia has relied on an incentive structured around verifiability, she added.

“We saw this in the COVID-19 pandemic, where editors were extraordinarily conscious of how they represented the novel coronavirus before we had information that we were really confident had been vetted by public health authorities,” Maher said during the event.

However, Maher cautioned that government regulation of business models, platforms and markets should not extend into the regulation of speech.

Maher also responded to the less positive view of Wikipedia held by educators, who often tell their students not to use it as a resource.

“It’s a great place to start, it’s a terrible place to finish,” Maher said at the event. “We really want to encourage people to go deeper, to go into the citations, really think about where and how knowledge is constructed and what does it actually mean to check those secondary and primary sources.”

Maher added that she has seen a shift in perspective where most educators now understand that students are using Wikipedia. Maher said she sees an opportunity to get students involved in a conversation on information literacy and knowledge production.

Having a majority white, male editing group has a massive impact on which and how articles are written, according to Maher.

“Often what’s not represented is completely in line with the structural biases that we see in this world,” Maher said at the event. “You end up with articles that are written about the history of the founding of nations that are written from a purely colonial lens or written from a purely male lens or exclude minority tribes and Indigenous languages and communities.”

As a result, despite Wikipedia’s vast library of articles, Maher noted there is still a lot that remains unrepresented.

When asked about improving gender, racial and geographic balance in knowledge, Maher not only addressed money and policy changes but also spoke about community building to bring in new contributors.

“Everyone in the world has something to add to knowledge,” Maher said at the event. “There is so much work to be done to write history, to write our society, to think about how we represent the world … I just ask you to keep being curious.”

Maher will be stepping down from her position in April but will continue to look into the sociological nature of knowledge and how it is constructed.

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.