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The rise of Wikipedia as a source of medical information

How Wikipedia became a trusted source for COVID-19 information
How Wikipedia became a trusted source for COVID-19 information 06:59

It was just a decade ago when people talked about the website Wikipedia as, let's be blunt, a place for lies and nonsense. As Dunder Mifflin's Michael Scott noted in "The Office," "Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So, you know you are getting the best possible information."

But, since then, the site has transformed. Today, Wikipedia is regularly the first place many of us check for information about everything. In fact, Wikipedia's pages on COVID-19 and the pandemic are viewed more than a million times a day, and edited almost every hour of the day. 

And chances are good that when you visit the page, Dr. James Heilman may have just finished editing it.

"We don't have a vaccine, but we do know that this disease can be stopped," said Heilman, or "Doc James" as he is known. He is one of the hundred or so editors with WikiProject Medicine, which edits and reviews all the medical content on Wikipedia.

Dr. James Heilman is one of the editors of medical information on Wikipedia. CBS News

His view? The only proven way to stop COVID-19 is through social distancing.

Wired Magazine editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson asked Heilman, "Do you think that social distancing is working?"

"Yes, definitely. You know, we have a good understanding of the transmission of disease. You know, if everybody was to hold entirely still for four weeks, this disease would be eradicated," he replied.

In his other life, Heilman is an ER doctor at a small hospital in Canada. "I do not recommend people trust Wikipedia blindly," he said. "I think doing so would be silly. Yet, you know, people shouldn't trust other sources of information blindly, either."

Wikipedia runs solely on the good will of volunteers like Dr. Heilman. Some are your typical denizens of the internet. Others are academics and retirees, like Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight: "We, the editors of Wikipedia, are really like a learning machine," she said. "We collaborate. We have networks of people who work in various areas."

She wrote English Wikipedia's six millionth article last year.

"We've learned that what we did initially – write articles that maybe didn't have any reference, or enough references – that wasn't the best choice for an encyclopedic article," Stephenson-Goodknight said.

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She said references and transparency are critical to Wikipedia's success.

Katherine Maher, the CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit that runs Wikipedia), said, "You can check every edit. If something is wrong, you can go ahead and fix it. It relies on reliable sources."

Maher said that, in comparison to the news we get off of social media, Wikipedia almost always wins.

"It turns out there's a lot of challenges with social networks when it comes to information distribution, a lot of questions about whether they can be trusted, [and] who's monitoring for that," she said.

Maher said having your own private newsfeed can actually divide us, which is a problem Wikipedia doesn't have.

"There's just one front page of Wikipedia," she said. "It doesn't matter if you are in Iran or in Italy or in Japan or sitting here in New York City. You're all looking at the same information."

Still, even though medical pages are strictly monitored by the WikiProject team, and hot topics that get a lot of page views are carefully edited, inaccurate information persists on some of Wikipedia's less-read pages.

When Thompson started working on this story, he looked himself up on Wikipedia, and someone had edited his entry to describe him as "a Martian technology journalist."

So, how do you keep information accurate on Wikipedia? Wikipedia feels the answer is to recruit more, and more diverse, editors.

One way that Wikipedia has tried to expand its pool of editors is through "Edit-a-thons," like one held in Hong Kong in March, organized by Asia Art Archive and M+, of the West Kowloon Cultural District. "Wikipedia becomes more important because of people using the internet more and more widely," said one volunteer. "Different organizations with their own political aims and goals will try influencing Wikipedia."

A Wikipedia "Edit-a-thon" held in Hong Kong, organized by Asia Art Archive and M+, West Kowloon Cultural District. CBS News

Companies, governments and politicians all have tried to edit Wikipedia's entries for their own benefit.  But Wikipedia editors are using computer programming to fight back.

Now every time someone makes an edit from the White House, a computer algorithm notes the edits, and sends out a tweet about them:

But, it's no secret why someone would want to influence Wikipedia.

"Knowledge is power," said Maher. "And that means that it is fundamentally disruptive, often to those in power. If you think about the history of what Wikipedia is, it's actually pretty radical. And I don't mean that in, like, a political sort of left/right way. I mean, that it is an inversion of power structures, this idea that information can and should be available to all."

But it's no secret why someone would want to influence Wikipedia, which explains why lowly Wikipedia, which was founded in 2001 by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales almost as a kind of experiment, has grown to be one of the most-visited websites on the planet. It also explains why it's banned in China.

In fact, one in three Americans now get their medical information from the web.  

That's just fine with Dr. Heilman: "I don't mind having an educated patient," he said.

Thompson asked, "And do you think that having accurate information about COVID-19 on Wikipedia can save lives?"

"Well, you know, right now the only tool we have at our disposal to combat this virus is education around how it spreads," Heilman replied. "You know, this disease can be stopped by knowledge."

Maher said, "I genuinely think that Wikipedia runs on generosity and care. Somehow, this encyclopedia on the internet has given an outlet to millions of people to show that good."

Oh, and in case you were wondering, on March 30, an anonymous internet user based in Hillsboro, Oregon, using their cell phone, decided to make two changes to Wikipedia. One was a detail about baseball's opening day, and the other was about Thompson, who is no longer a Martian technology journalist, but an American technology journalist. 


So, thank you, anonymous internet user!

For more info:

Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Chad Cardin.

Correction: In the original posting of this report, Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight was referenced as Rosie Goodknight-Stephenson. We regret the error. 

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