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Knowledge panels, and Wikipedia as a force for good

In my information literacy classes I frequently blow students’ minds (and faculty even more so) by praising Wikipedia. I’m a librarian, aren’t I supposed to be telling them that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source? I don’t. I tell them truthfully that I love Wikipedia, which is a community of people who agree with Jimmy Wales, the site’s co-founder, that all humans should have access to all human knowledge. It is a great example, like citizen science project Galaxy Zoo, of the power of crowd-sourcing.

And now I’ve read that Wikipedia and many of its dedicated collaborators are working to help local newspapers be better represented on its site, which is the source of many “knowledge panels” on Google and Facebook, through a project called Newspapers on Wikipedia (NOW). In a terrifically interesting article on Medium, Eni Mustafaraj explains why this project and knowledge boxes matter.

If you’re thinking you don’t know what the heck a knowledge panel is, you do. Here’s one:

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 7.49.10 PM

It’s that little box that appears in the upper right part of your screen, or at the top of your results list, in Google. Mustafaraj and colleagues looked into how knowledge boxes can unduly influence publics’ understanding of news sites’ credibility. Some sites’ knowledge boxes seem to be watered-down or spiced up to make them seem more reliable or inoffensive.

Mustafaraj notes that a benefit of the NOW project is that many smaller community papers will be better represented not only on Wikipedia but also with knowledge panels, which come mainly from Wikipedia entries. So once again Wikipedia is a force for good in the struggle for information literate. There I go again, equating Wikipedia and information literacy. Yes. It’s a great place for students to learn to decide for themselves how thoroughly an article has been written, cited, and edited. It’s a place where knowledge professionals and subject matter experts converge to share what they create with all humanity. It’s a place that is democratizing access to a wider variety of news sources than most Americans are routinely exposed to.

But, as Mustafaraj explains, knowledge panels aren’t necessarily providing people with accurate information, and they may not even address a source’s reliability or accuracy. Some of the examples she provides are quite eye opening — Google and Facebook are claiming publicly to fight fake news and even have a tool —  knowledge panels — to help publics find out about sources, but these powerful companies are not always using those tools to inform. Here’s the link to Mustafaraj‘s article again in case you are too discouraged to scroll up.

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About Deb Baker

Deb Baker is a writer and insatiable reader, and library director at a community college. She muses about library issues at The Nocturnal Librarian (https://thenocturnallibrarian.com/) and blogs about books, reading, and life at bookconscious (http://bookconscious.wordpress.com/). Her family includes two awesome offspring, a husband, and the cat who adopted them. And a crazy rescue kitten.

One response to “Knowledge panels, and Wikipedia as a force for good

  1. I’ve read this article several times, trying to decide if I should respond or move on. Decades ago, I attended a teacher’s conference where Wikipedia was discussed, suggesting it was the most democratic of devices for information sharing. I felt then, as I still sometimes do, that an article uploaded by anyone claiming to be an expert on a subject might present inadequate, incomplete, or even totally bogus information. I still have this worry but now I understand that Wikipedia tends to be an introduction, that much more information on any subject can be accessed with judicious searching.

    Maybe the issue is that readers ought to move beyond this first site to find more scholarly info, but what about teachers who encourage the use of the Internet as the only source of information?

    I worked for a short time (as an instructional assistant) at a private elementary school that did not use textbooks. Instead, they focused on an inquiry based pedagogical method, encouraging students to find the answers to their questions on the Internet. College students might be able to navigate whether information is accurate or prejudicial, but children have no such filters. These are kids, after all, who still believe in Santa Claus. Knowledge panels stump them – they’re the truth, right?

    I’m pretty certain that you aren’t suggesting that elementary age children employ Wikipedia or any Internet site as their primary information source, but wanted to remind you how easy it is to persuade those not yet ready for diligent research. Of course, the school administration was the primary culprit, substituting easy (cheap) access on the computer for well written (and expensive) textbooks. People need first to understand which information sites are valid, and how to determine this among a wealth of articles, many of which are written not only by amateurs but also by people with suspect credentials. In other words, those who have a coin in the pot or an arrow aimed at another pot.

    Teaching young kids to use the web responsibly and knowledgeably takes a lot more than looking at a Wikipedia page. Textbooks still have their place.

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