On Wikipedia, a fight is raging over coronavirus disinformation


As reports about the first cases of coronavirus started emerging from China, information about the virus – alongside rumours about its origins, virality, and potential lethality – began to spread through Wikipedia like, well, a virus.

Over a few weeks, the English-language version of Wikipedia witnessed the creation of at least six articles about the outbreak. Since the beginning of January, over 18 million people have read those entries. Countless others have found their way to articles indirectly related to the coronavirus, including those for Sars, Wuhan, “bat as food” – and even Corona beer, which has seen an uptick in editing.

This frenetic surge in interest is a challenge for Wikipedia’s community of volunteer editors, who have to deal with a firehose of information about the health crisis constantly flooding the website, and inevitably fight off rumours and misinformation.

While a short and generic Wikipedia page on “coronavirus” had existed since 2013, the article about the “2019–20 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak” was created on January 5, 2020. Four days later, a new article was spun off from it, dedicated solely to the “Novel coronavirus” – officially known as 2019-nCoV. Yet another was created in February to detail the symptoms of the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

Since its creation, the main article has undergone more than 6,500 edits by over 1,200 editors. So large was the deluge of facts and figures relating to the virus that less than two weeks after opening, the main article was forked off to create one devoted to listing the cases of “Wuhan coronavirus outbreak by country and territory.” A few days later another article was opened, displaying a timeline of the outbreak. It’s not just medical information that’s getting attention: at the beginning of February, an article was opened about “xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak”.

As soon as the crisis kicked off, people flocked to Wikipedia to read about the virus and its potential risks, turning to the online encyclopedia for bits of trusted information that would often be shared on social media. Wikipedia’s map of confirmed cases, for example, was circulated on Twitter, and citizen scientists used its list of known cases to create data visualisations about the outbreak. On Reddit, users cited figures from Wikipedia while discussing the virus’s mortality rates. In short, Wikipedia has become central in how the ongoing health crisis is processed and discussed online. The flip-side of that is that Wikipedia’s free-to-edit, open format can be easily used to spread disinformation.

“The editing community often concentrates on breaking news events, [and therefore] that content rapidly develops. The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus has been no exception,” explains James Heilman, a Canadian emergency room physician and long-term Wikipedia editor that goes by the username Doc James and has been instrumental in ensuring the coronavirus articles’ reliability. Heilman is part of WikiProject Medicine, a small but extremely active group of Wikipedia editors focused on medical information. The coronavirus outbreak has kept the members of the group busy in recent weeks.

On English Wikipedia, the pages about the outbreak and the virus have been locked to public editing. Currently, only editors with a username that is more than four days old and have at least ten edits under their belt can change its content. Anyone else who wants to edit has to ask an experienced editor to plug in their change. That happened, for instance, on February 3, when Doc James added a line about the first reported death from the virus out of China, in the Philippines, after the event was flagged by an anonymous IP on the outbreak article’s talk page.

One of the biggest issues plaguing the virus pages has to do with the tension between media sources and medical sources. For example,Marielle Volz, a volunteer editor, explains that “the media has seized on the idea that the virus absolutely must have come from an animal sold for food at the seafood market because a lot of the early cases were there. It’s of course totally possible, even probable, but the fact is we won’t know the true origin of the virus without a lot more research being done, and maybe not even then.” Therefore, she deleted the claim from the article about the virus, which appeared on the first version of the outbreak article as well.

Volz says that early information about developing events tends to be unreliable – including, in some cases, when it comes from scientists. “The first [research] paper that was published about the origin of the virus suggested that it came from snakes, and indeed this made it into the page about the virus, along with news articles about it. You can see an old version of the article where snakes were mentioned heavily here, with citations from CNN.However, this paper was met with skepticism from the scientific community – and this was reflected in the page with only a slight delay.”

When bats were accused of being the source of the virus, a report from China on a “bat cave” where scientists purportedly found a strain of the virus managed to infiltrate Wikipedia before being removed on closer scrutiny.

Editors like Doc James strive to maintain the highest editorial standards, demanding that every medical claim be backed only by peer-reviewed medical sources.

“Our emphasis on not only using but requiring high-quality sources allows us to rapidly remove inaccuracies,” Doc James says. “For example, one idea is that [coronavirus’s] spread was related to the Australian bush fires. No decent reference was available and therefore it was not added. Was a cure found by Thai researchers? We need a better source.”

This is also true for what is perhaps the biggest piece of disinformation related to the virus: The claim that it was artificially created in a Chinese lab and leaked. “There was a discussion about ‘HIV inserts’ within the virus and that it may be man-made,” says Doc James, “but the source was a preprint [an academic paper that hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet]. Not sufficient for inclusion and thus removed.” Even if he is a doctor, many of the editors involved in safeguarding the articles are not.

“You don’t have to be from a medical background to edit content on the [coronavirus] article. Wikipedia is always a collaborative effort by people from all backgrounds. There are so many non-medical aspects about the virus – e.g. food market, government policy, international aid, hospital constructions in a fast-record time, as well as all the economical impacts on tourism and business,” says Ismoyo, the Malaysian editor.

This editorial diversity is evident in the outbreak article, for example, which – in a meta twist – now sports a section on coronavirus-related disinformation. More importantly, it also seems to have worked. Professor Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, says he is “pleasantly surprised by the quality of the content of the [main Wikipedia] article on the coronavirus.”

“The article offers a relatively complex and nuanced picture of the outbreak of the Coronavirus, its local, national and international ramifications from more basic science to clinical, epidemiological, public health, to social, economic and political perspectives.”

Davidovitch praises WikiProject Medicine‘s rigid sourcing policy, too. “[The article] has a wide and diverse array of reliable sources – from medical information based on academic references such as the WHO, to trustworthy media outlets that provide good coverage of the more social aspects of the virus,” he says.

“It also provides good social criticism – discussing how racism has helped fuel the story, like was the case with the SARS virus.”

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