When a new respiratory illness began taking hold in China in late 2019, Wikipedia user Dekimasu took notice.
In the final days of January 2020, Dekimasu, a professor who confirmed his identity to the Daily Dot but asked to remain anonymous, began helping populate the Wikipedia page for the emerging “Novel coronavirus.”
“The novel coronavirus page contained everything we knew about the virus and the disease and everything we knew about treatment and vaccine research,” Dekimasu says. “At that point, there were about 2,000 known cases in China.”
Dekimasu has been editing on Wikipedia since 2006 with an original focus on translating pages from Japanese to English. Even after becoming an administrator on the site in 2007, his work on Wikipedia has always been a side project. COVID-19 has changed everything.
“It is actually rare for me to become as involved in a set of articles as I have been in the coronavirus articles,” Dekimasu says. “However, there is a clear need for people to edit them, and I feel an ethical obligation to make them as helpful as possible, since they are getting hundreds of thousands of views every day.”
Those pages include the Wikipedia article for the virus itself, known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, the disease it causes, COVID-19, and the ongoing global pandemic the coronavirus has caused.
With so many eyes on Wikipedia’s coronavirus articles, providing accurate information is more important than ever. But it’s not blatantly inaccurate information that Dekimasu worries about, but the “subtle misinformation” that can appear.
“Since Wikipedia works on the principle of verifiability in reliable sources, if there is a published medical study that draws a conclusion and someone wants to add that to the article, it can be difficult to keep the point out even if it doesn’t pass the smell test,” he notes.
Examples include the early claim that the virus came from a snake as well as a study that alleged the virus could have been engineered due to its “similarities” to HIV. The link to snakes has since been criticized by epidemiologists and the aforementioned study was retracted not long after it was published. Both claims were kept from being added to the coronavirus pages, Dekimasu says.
Misinformation isn’t the only issue. Certain “infrequent Wikipedia editors” have even attempted to “add references to studies they are involved with.”
“The motives for doing that sort of thing can be either good (a desire to get the study the attention it needs) or self-serving (self-promotion),” Dekimasu says. “We would rather people not do this; if the information is important enough to be covered, someone without a conflict of interest will find and add it.”
The same issue can be found for those looking to promote “drugs and vaccines under development by various organizations and pharmaceutical companies.”
“We’re not there to prop up stock prices,” Dekimasu adds.
But even relying solely on expert sources can be frustrating as knowledge is shifting every day. Editors rely on health professionals from the WHO and CDC, who at times have updated their initial beliefs regarding the virus.
“Early on, the WHO indicated that the virus did not persist on surfaces and that people without symptoms were not passing on the disease, so we reported things that way,” Dekimasu says. “Both of those claims have since been called into question by new studies, and I wish we could have been quicker to incorporate that information into the articles. One of the main points of attacking misinformation is to keep everyone safe.”
As argued by Wikipedia user TylerDurden8823, an active coronavirus editor who asked to remain anonymous, the site is an “encyclopedia and not a news channel.”
“Editors often want to add the results of one particular study, before it has had the chance to be properly reviewed by other scientists and discussed in review articles that assess the study’s strengths, limitations, and implications for how we think about the topic,” he says. “This is a concerning trend that many of the senior editors see daily.”
TylerDurden8823, who has spent several years editing health-related articles on Wikipedia, says he is unwilling “to sacrifice an article’s quality and reliability for the sake of speed,” especially during a global health crisis.
“In the midst of a crisis, just like we had not so long ago with the Ebola virus in Africa that was the talk of the 24/7 news cycle, Wikipedia views on the topic of interest go way up,” he says. “People have questions and they’re seeking answers from a source they trust to guide them through such uncertain times and, as editors, we want to ensure they get the answers to their questions with properly vetted content.”
The accuracy of the site can have real-world ramifications, especially for doctors on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.
James Heilman, a Canadian emergency physician known on Wikipedia as Doc James, has similarly had to combat attempts to add inaccurate information to the site. Heilman has spent the last 12 years editing Wikipedia’s medical content.
The doctor told the Daily Dot of one instance in which an editor attempted to add data about “enhancing natural immunity” against another coronavirus through a specific herb, despite no studies proving such an herb to be effective for humans.
“It persisted for almost 5 minutes before I removed it,” Heilman says.
The doctor can only do so much at the time being given the pandemic. When not treating individuals with suspected cases of COVID-19, Heilman spends nearly all of his free time under self-isolation. That means no badminton or going to yoga, two of the doctor’s favorite hobbies.
“This disease has no specific treatment and no vaccine. It however can be stopped through changing the way we all behave as China has proven,” Heilman says. “Wikipedia’s articles on the topic are getting tens of million of views in English alone and we have articles on this subject in more than 100 languages. As such, we, in my opinion, can play an important roll in helping the world address this crisis.”
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