The rise of the online altcyclopedia
One fantasy I entertained in order to keep sane during the 2016 campaign was that the Fake News epidemic that was actively devouring my news feed wasn’t so different from the gypsy moth infestation of 1981.
Anyone remember this? Out of nowhere, they were just everywhere. Their furry little bodies pumping and curling across every surface like the living scribbles of a gross alien language. The once-safe shade of a favored oak was suddenly thin from eaten leaves, and thick with the stink of their cloudy nests, from which they’d lower themselves on silken threads, slowly spinning in the humid air until finding a home in your collar or hair.
You couldn’t walk without crushing them, you couldn’t crush them without smelling them, you couldn’t smell them without wondering (often aloud, to the sky) if they would ever go away and let the world we knew awaken from this nightmare vision of itself.
By 1989, and thanks largely to fungus, they did.
And therein lies (what was supposed to be) the comforting part of this comparison: The promise of a natural correction to a destructive infestation. A hopeful portion of my heart wants to believe that our carefully cultivated ecosystem of established truths will follow cues from nature itself and instinctively battle back against invasive forces that try to undo it, and that any plague, with time, will pass.
Alas, like gypsy moths, all metaphors have weaknesses. The fluid nature of our social media timelines makes it easy to believe that the fake news that took over during the election cycle had arrived like a fleeting swarm of pests, and that the proper repellents (i.e. knowing better) plus time would eventually clear the air.
But the Internet has proven to be a thriving habitat for today’s many competing species of untruth, and they’re starting to nest. A few fake news stories in your feed might seem like a few ants at a picnic, but follow them back to their mounds and you’ll find that fake news is no longer some passing parasite or pest; it’s a permanent resident.
For evidence, just observe the increasingly creaking virtual shelf of what I’ll call alt-cyclopedias.
The custom wiki is nothing new, per se — you’ve likely seen wikis for television shows and video games, as well as satire sites like Uncyclopedia and Encyclopedia Dramatica, most built upon open source platforms like MediaWiki, the platform developed and released by Wikipedia’s parent Wikimedia Foundation. Wikis provide easy ways for communities of interest to gather around a topic and fine-tune a comprehensive and collectively controlled understanding.
This is all well and good when it comes to, say, “Twin Peaks.” But when the bounds of a customized wiki expand to assemble a fresh take on reality itself, the stakes feel quite different.
Take Metapedia, an altcyclopedia “which focuses on culture, art, science, philosophy and politics” and sports a distinctively white supremacist bent. The Metapedia entry on “Slavery,” for example, leads with “slavery has existed in numerous other cultures and was very common globally until White countries prohibited slavery and enforced this globally.”
There’s also Infogalactic, the “planetary knowledge core,” heralded by Breitbart as an “alternative to biased Wikipedia,” which refers to #Pizzagate in an oddly earnest entry as a “crowdsourced investigation by independent researchers and commentators” rather than, say, a “hysterical mass white dude freakout episode.”
Then there’s Conservapedia, which is what it says on the tin (and always seems to have “just updated” its “liberal” entry); and, of course, Rationalwiki, the frothing liberal response wiki, which, according to Encyclopedia Dramatica’s entry on it, is where “other low life basement dwellers go to rant about everything that triggers them.” Seems objective enough.
None of this is to say that a bastardization of Wikipedia is tantamount to a bastardization of the truth. Wikipedia has had a long, tense history with the stuff — especially as it’s shifted over its two decades of existence from an academically steered catalog of entries to a crowd-sourced explosion of editorial controls.
Still, while Wikipedia remains an editor’s nightmare, its ease, convenience, and relative reliability when it comes to facts crucial enough to quash a quibble between barstools has been enough to elevate it to a kind of public standard of casual checkability.
One study out of Harvard Business School found that “the average Wikipedia article is more politically biased than its Britannica counterpart” but that “the more the crowd works on an article, the less biased it is.” Or as Alexis Sobel Fitts puts it in a piece for Wired on the altcyclopedia boom, “To everyone’s surprise, the power of the crowd propelled Wikipedia to something shockingly close to objectivity.”
Most of us don’t consider Wikipedia to be “the truth,” but we have a stubborn habit of greeting it and treating it that way — mistaking consensus for proof. This outbreak of altcyclopedias should come as a warning sign to the rest of us that truth can’t always push through what plagues it on its own: There’s no miracle fungus coming to take down the fake news. It’s up to each of us to put on our boots, hold our noses, and stomp it out.