Not content with trashing one treasured website this year, Elon Musk has turned his sights on another: Wikipedia, the crowdsourced encyclopedia founded in 2001, which has become to represent the very best of what the internet has to offer.
The world’s richest person and owner of social media platform X, seems to have been rattled by a report published by NewsGuard, a company that rates the trustworthiness of information sources. Last week, it offered some troubling statistics around misinformation on X pertaining to the Israel-Hamas conflict almost a year after Musk bought the website for $US44 billion. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is an adviser to NewsGuard.
“Have you ever wondered why the Wikimedia Foundation wants so much money?” Musk wrote on X, referencing the non-profit organisation that operates Wikipedia and its appeals for user donations. “It certainly isn’t needed to operate Wikipedia. You can literally fit a copy of the entire text on your phone! So, what’s the money for? Inquiring minds want to know…”
Musk then suggested he would give Wikipedia $US1 billion ($1.6 billion) if it changed its name to a juvenile alternative. The Trumpian broadside was just the latest from Musk against sources of information that disseminate credible information.
Yes, Wikipedia’s articles can be updated by anyone, but they are tightly edited by a team of thousands of mostly volunteer editors, and its guiding principle has always been that every stated fact requires a citation from a trusted, verifiable news source with recognised standards. Millions of college graduates can vouch for the system.
Of course, in Musk’s world, no media source can be considered trustworthy, particularly those that criticise him. Indeed, he claims his own Wikipedia entry is false, despite being heavily moderated and containing verified facts. One of his followers on X suggested someone had been paid to write a negative Musk entry on “Wokipedia”. Musk agreed, naturally.
Unlike X which, as a private company, no longer has to share details on its financial condition since being purchased by Musk, the Wikimedia Foundation regularly publishes its audited accounts. In the 12 months ending June 2022, it received $US165.2 million in contributions from some 13 million donations. That year, it spent $US88 million on salaries and wages; $US15 million on awards and grants; and $US2.7 million on internet hosting – keeping Wikipedia and its related websites online.
In a Q&A accompanying the release of those numbers, Wikimedia Foundation itself draws attention to the most glaring detail – the payroll spend, which increased by just over $US20 million year-on-year. Since 2020, it has added more than 200 roles, as projected in its annual plans. Those new jobs have been focused on expanding Wikimedia Foundation’s programs globally and not throwing Silicon Valley-esque salaries at employees.
Also of note are the internet hosting costs. While Musk is right to say Wikipedia can be stored on a single smartphone, making it available to 25 billion visitors every month is no trivial matter. Compared to the operating costs of comparable sites, Wikipedia is run on a shoestring. (Twitter’s operating expenses in 2021 – the last full year available – were $US5.6 billion.) And keeping the encyclopedia online is about more than just hosting. It requires protections against cyberattack, legal fees to protect user privacy, and experts to combat efforts at misinformation.
Not for the first time, Musk is making enemies of people who fervently back the free speech principles he apparently cares so deeply about. Building Wikipedia could have made Wales one of the richest people on the planet, but he instead has a reported net worth in the low millions of dollars. Long a prominent activist for an open internet, Wales has previously called for “very strong implementation of a right to free speech in Europe – essentially the language of the First Amendment in the US”. Indeed, unlike Musk, who readily admits he will take down content in countries that demand it, Wales has consistently shown his mettle and stood up to Chinese efforts at censorship.
Wikipedia is one of humanity’s finest achievements. A collectively written and edited knowledge base of almost 60 million articles in 336 languages, freely available to anyone with an internet connection – and indeed to many without. I once joined a group of activists in South Korea who would load the Korean version of Wikipedia onto USB sticks and send them into the North using hot air balloons, to be picked up and plugged into clandestine laptops – such was the yearn for its contents.
Wikipedia would be, if we ever decided to designate such things, a digital wonder of the world, maybe one of the last surviving relics of the early internet, when the possibilities of what could be achieved together seemed endless and exhilarating.
That it has stood the test of time is down to good governance and selfless volunteer work. Its financial record, just like every single other thing that happens on the site, is out in the open. Its model allows it to be the only website among the 10 most visited globally that doesn’t sell our data, pummel us with targeted advertising, or demand a subscription.
No wonder Musk is attacking Wikipedia. If he only cared to look, he would see his complaints are bogus. Wilfully ignorant or just ignorant – take your pick.
Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion’s US technology columnist.
Fetching latest articles