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Social media can be a great peacemaker Wikipedia founder tells Vatican

VATICAN CITY (CNS): Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, told the annual assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences that the online encyclopedia could contribute to peace by promoting a more thoughtful world. 

Wales was invited to address the gathering at the Vatican, which ran from  April 27 to May 1 and focussed on Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, Peace on Earth  (Pacem in Terris)

Discussion centred around the continuing challenge of promoting peace and justice in the world. 

In his presentation to the academy, Wales explained how Wikipedia pursues its goal of promoting “a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” 

He said the Catholic Church must use the Internet and social media to engage in discussions with young people and it must do a better job of allowing them the space to comment and discuss. 

Church sites, though, need to have filtering software and participants who can exercise social control on those who misbehave. 

“If you invite 20 people over to your house for a party and somebody starts making obnoxious and racist and sexist comments, you may ask them to leave, but at the very least, you don’t invite them back,” he said. An interactive website must do the same with unruly guests. 

“The same spirit you would have at a Cchurch supper, you ought to have online,” Wales said. 

Oscar Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, from Honduras, told the meeting that while people today are better educated and have greater access to information than in the past, they are becoming less human because education is focussed so heavily on hard science, that it leaves aside questions about the meaning of human life and destiny. 

In an interview after his speech, Wales also spoke about Wikipedia’s arbitration process to determine the correct Wikipedia use of the terms pro-choice, pro-life, abortion rights and anti-abortion to describe individuals and movements. 

Wikipedia, which allows almost all entries to be initiated, updated and edited by almost anyone, had received complaints about an inconsistent use of the terms which some people think tend to unfairly use the negative anti-abortion to describe the pro-life position, while almost always using the positive pro-choice label to describe those who support legal abortion. 

Wales said that in general, Wikipedia recognises that certain words or terms “are heavily loaded” and the goal always is to find “a single, simple, neutral term.” 

One of Wikipedia’s principles is that “you can refer to people as they refer to themselves,” Wales explained. “Certainly the most common terms in the United States of America in this discourse are pro-life and pro-choice, but both sides have complaints” about the accuracy of the other’s description. 

He said Wikipedia also wants to be careful about terms that imply a judgment, for instance pro-abortion. Those supporting legalised abortion “may be pro-abortion relative to a Catholic priest of course,” he said, but most people who support legalised abortion would not say they promote abortion. 

While most Wikipedia pages can be edited by anyone, the edits are reviewed by other Wikipedia users and can be referred to administrators—usually longtime contributors who volunteer their time and are elected by Wikipedia users—and to an arbitration committee. 

Wales said he believes the online encyclopedia “has a significant role to play” in peacemaking, because it encourages participation, has a broad reach, makes information accessible and is available in about 280 languages. 

He said that the English, German, French and Dutch pages each have more than a million articles posted. 

Wikipedia is a “mediating and moderating influence on the discourse on the Internet,” he said, because each article is open to review, discussion and correction. 

He commented that much of the information people access through the news media tends “to be inflammatory. That doesn’t contribute to peace at all.”

His goal is to make Wikipedia “calmer, slower and more reflective than that.” 

Wales told CNS, “I would say the signs that I see are much more hopeful than that.”

When he speaks at high schools and universities, the young people cheer.

“I think there is a real passion among young people today to be better informed,” he said.

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