Rebecca Makinnon

Wikimedia Foundation is an American 501 nonprofit organization

Who is behind Wikipedia?
The myths behind the world’s most accessed information hub with Rebecca Mackinnon, Vice President of Global Advocacy at Wikimedia Foundation
1 Apr 2023

In times of misinformation, Wikipedia (supported by the Wikimedia Foundation) has become a giant in the production of content that usually appears on the top of a search engine. What does it mean for readers to always have this option when they request a search, and what does it mean for the organization to have such a responsibility?

Everyone has heard of Wikipedia, but not everyone knows about the foundation behind it. Please could you summarize the origin and ethos of the organization?

The non-profit Wikimedia Foundation operates Wikipedia and other volunteer-run projects whose purpose is to share free knowledge globally. The foundation was established in 2003, two years after Wikipedia was launched as a free encyclopedia that everyone can edit. As it grew, it needed technical, legal, fundraising, and administrative support.

Today, we run global technical infrastructure sustaining more than 16 billion monthly views, lead programmatic and grant making support to the affiliates and volunteers that make our sites possible. We also partner with institutions (including the United Nations) to advance global access to free knowledge, and to advocate for public policies that protect and support volunteer-run free knowledge projects like Wikipedia. The foundation has grown to meet the global footprint of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects, and today we have over 600 staff based all over the world. Foundation staff do not write or edit Wikipedia content. Every month, nearly 300,000 people volunteer their time to edit. Over time, this global volunteer community has built a remarkable system of content moderation that works well to create fact-based, neutral articles.

One of the foundation’s projects is linked to UNESCO’s initiative to close systemic gaps in language comprehension. What does this initiative consist of?

We share UNESCO’s vision of a world where knowledge is available to everyone, in their preferred language, and represents the full diversity of human experience. UNESCO’s “International Decade of Indigenous Languages” is a great example. In 2021, we supported Balinese volunteers to digitize and transcribe endangered lontar palm leaf manuscripts. Now, more than 3,000 texts are openly available online. UNESCO’s Jakarta office has joined a new partnership to digitize and transcribe manuscripts in three more Indonesian languages with academic scholars, as well as with Wikimedians in Bali and across Indonesia.

Wikimedia projects support indigenous communities by documenting and disseminating their heritage, histories, culture, and languages. A new global ‘Language Diversity Hub’ supports volunteer participation across languages.

Rebecca Mackinnon, Vice President of Global Advocacy at Wikimedia Foundation

As a creator of global content and as a promoter of content under an equitable, diverse, and inclusive policy, what is the foundation’s position on inclusive language, which in many countries is transforming the way younger generations communicate?

All content is created and edited by volunteers. Our 2030 movement strategy, co-developed by the volunteer community and the foundation, aims to enable everyone everywhere to access and share knowledge. It includes a strong commitment to knowledge equity: breaking down the social, political, and technical barriers to access and participation. To address these barriers equitably, we must use the language that represents the full diversity of our world.

Some of the information published on Wikipedia is either subjective or open to interpretation. What work do you undertake internally to ensure that the content is credible and that the truth is not arbitrary?

Anyone can edit Wikipedia if they abide by rules created by volunteers to ensure the information is reliable and neutral. Information in articles has to meet certain notability requirements, be presented from a neutral point of view, and be verified by a reputable source. Volunteer editors directly enforce these policies with a variety of tools and processes. To keep articles neutral and reliable, volunteers regularly review a feed of real-time edits; automated bots spot and revert many common forms of harmful behavior; and volunteer administrators (senior, trusted editors selected by other volunteers) further investigate and address problematic behavior by other editors.

The foundation’s specialized Disinformation Response Team works with volunteers to identify and counter organized attempts to influence or manipulate content. Other teams help volunteers produce high-quality content, and yet others support information literacy: our “Reading Wikipedia in the Classroom” programme, for example, helps educators use Wikipedia to teach critical media and information literacy skills. Since 2020, we have reached 10,000 teachers in 30 countries.

Considering that some content is translated into multiple languages and some is not, how does the internal policy that determines translation work?

Information on Wikipedia expands organically across languages as volunteers establish new versions of Wikipedia in new languages and add articles to them. There is no global, centrally-dictated process or policy for translating articles because each language instance of Wikipedia is run by people proficient in that language. Volunteers may create some articles from scratch in a given language; others may translate from articles that exist in other languages. The foundation has also created tools, like the content translation tool, to assist volunteers in the process of translating articles. 

* Julián Ginzo is a member of the Editorial Board of UN Today.
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