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Can Wikipedia’s Model save the Internet?

It was Twitter and now it’s X. But many of its users simply call it “the hellsite.” What was once a relatively reliable platform for breaking news, a place to laugh and mindlessly kill a few minutes – or waste an hour – is now drowning in disinformation, hatred and anger. Instead of bringing people together, t media posts seem to be more and more entrenched, and any idea of taking opposing viewpoints in good faith has gone out the window.

Since billionaire Elon Musk bought the platform – and the US courts refused to let him out of the purchase – standards are widely perceived to have dropped. It’s a long way from the Arab Spring of the early 2010s, where social media including Twitter and Facebook were used as a communication tool by citizens protesting autocracies. Or, in the previous decade, when Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia that can be read and edited by anyone, showed how collaboration and crowdsourcing could lead to free, reliable information.

The promise of the Internet seemed to sour around 2016, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal laid bare how our personal Facebook data could be misused for political purposes. Facebook never quite recovered its reputation, particularly among younger people. More recently, X was widely criticised for spreading misinformation, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism during the Israel-Hamas war.

But Professor Taha Yasseri, UCD School of Sociology, a physicist and sociologist known for his research in computational social science and particularly on Wikipedia says that the same crowdsourcing that made Wikipedia such a success could also re-energise “the social marketplace of ideas”.

“In its early stages, the Internet was so new and exciting,” says Yasseri.

Somewhere between that first excitement and the later and more recent disappointments, the actors involved changed.

Initially, the Internet was for students at universities, librarians and researchers. When it opened to the wider public, technologies designed with possibilities in mind couldn’t adequately respond to the different demands and intentions of new users.”

History provides a guide to how – and why – this happened.

“New technologies have always gone through the same cycle,” Yasseri says. “People were sceptical of electricity at first. They said that the print press would be the death of romance. Now, we need to take a moment to regulate and develop good practices that can ensure we benefit from these new technologies too.”

X and Wikipedia don’t initially seem comparable. The former is a site with a stream of different topics attracting a diverse range of contributors with diverse interests; the latter is a collection of pages curated and edited primarily by people with a special interest in, or knowledge of, particular topics.

“Yes, the user base, design, intention and motivation of their users are different,” Yasseri says. “But they are both open platforms that almost anyone with Internet access can contribute to, they are both about user-based information sharing and they are both based on the social web infrastructure. It’s not about copying all successful elements from one to the other, but there is much we can learn from one to make the other better.”

Over the past decade, much of Yasseri’s research has focused on Wikipedia as a model for exploring how collaboration is key to achieving consensus.

“As someone who has studied Wikipedia for years, I had a lingering question: how could we implement ideas from that site to save social media? We can apply these insights to other platforms, including the Community Notes, a new initiative on X, which is based around collaborative content moderation. If a user sees a misleading post, either due to misinformation or a lack of context, they can write a short text to refute or debunk it. And then the Note which received the highest scores by other members of the Community Notes will appear next to the original post. Despite the initial design, the scoring system is no longer based on the note receiving a large number of upvotes, as this was gamed by partisans, according to our research. Instead, they are scored on who supports the note; if the note is backed by individuals who may otherwise not generally agree with each other, that agreement is counted at a higher rate.”

Working with an interested colleague, Yasseri observed and collected data. He found that X’s community note creators seem largely well-intentioned and that these collaborations seem to be filtering out some misinformation and disinformation, however with some caveats. “There may be hours and even years of disagreement online, but our studies show that when people write about a topic together, their views get closer. The shared experience of co-production brings people together, and that co-ownership seems fundamental.”

Yasseri suggests that a similar system could eventually allow users to edit each other’s posts, or for people to add context to posts and comments, potentially further reducing polarisation. He has been carrying out simulations with diverse opinions, edits and direct conversations among editors to further explore how collaboration could work. One idea floated is to decrease polarisation by making it more difficult to unfollow or unfriend other users, but there is little incentive for social media firms to take this action.

“This is proving beneficial, and people were very collaborative. We didn’t end up with opposing parties unable to work together, and often their notes were of very good quality, even though they never met face-to-face. There are other obstacles,” he concedes.

One experiment he is working on involves taking different groups with different opinions and getting them to work together to evaluate notes.

“The platforms know what they need to do, and that they must adapt, but the business plans of Facebook and X are about maximising profit, so there may be resistance to wider change. But, that said, they also need to think long-term and not just think about the immediate financial benefits – and I think they know this.”

Overall, Yasseri is largely hopeful for the Internet’s future. “I am pro-technology and excited about the innovations we have, but that should not blind us to dangers. In this digital universe, the fast cars are there, but there are no traffic laws,” he says.

“Look at the history of other technologies: electricity wasn’t fully regulated in the US for its first 40 years, even though people were getting shocked and killed. Policymakers are similarly lagging behind when it comes to social media and more generally digital technologies’ regulation but, working and communicating with academics, they are realising that they don’t need to know everything about a platform to regulate it – they just need to know enough. And when we come up with better regulations systems and double up social norms, the online world will become more reliable, and more fun.”

Professor Yasseri was in conversation with Peter McGuire (BA 2002, MLitt 2007), a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Irish Times and to Noteworthy, the investigations unit at