When fact-checking means a lot

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Last weekend, Italy held its general elections. It is not important to state who won, after all, Wikipedia is nonpartisan. However, what I do want to talk about holds a certain importance, and it is closely related to Wikipedia. A few days before the elections, Oscar Giannino—a journalist and economist at the head of the list Fare per fermare il declino (“To act to stop the decline”)—resigned as the leader of the movement after it was discovered that the master’s degree in economics he had claimed to have achieved from the prestigious Chicago Booth university was nonexistent. Doubts over Giannino’s master’s degree had been discussed before, but what caused the story to explode was, in all probability, a post written by Wikipedians Jaqen and Tooby. The post made the rounds of social networking sites and contributed to the first public disavowal of Giannino by the co-founder of the movement, Luigi Zingales, ultimately leading to Giannino’s resignation. I recently interviewed the two authors about their scoop.

When did you start writing on Wikipedia? Are you also involved in other WMF projects?
Jaqen: I have been an editor on Italian Wikipedia since 2006 and a sysop since 2007. I recently became a sysop on Wikimedia Commons as well.
Tooby: I discovered Wikipedia in 2005, and I became a member of the community almost immediately. My first edit is dated 24 April 2005. I have also been very active on Italian Wikinews, where I still act as an administrator and bureaucrat.
Why did you start working on the Wikipedia article about Giannino?
Jaqen: I think I added it to my enormous watchlist after listening to his radio program.
Tooby: I don’t remember if I ever edited the article: I just followed the discussion.
Can you describe how you searched for your sources?
Jaqen: When the master’s degree of Giannino was first questioned in 2011, I found sources that I considered reliable, and they confirmed that Giannino had indeed received it from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. One of the sources was the website of the Bruno Leoni Institute. Then a Wikipedia user said that he had written to Chicago Booth, and they could not find Giannino in their database. So I wrote to the school too. I got the same answer, but they also asked when did Giannino had received his master? That made me think that they had an unreliable database. So when a user removed the information I did not oppose, even if there was no published source against it. In 2013, Oscar Giannino came under attention as the leader of the “Act to Stop the Decline” list. Eventually, an anonymous Wikipedia user published an email from the Bruno Leoni Institute admitting that they were wrong, Giannino did not have a master’s degree in economics. I wrote them an email and they confirmed it. They eventually changed the information in his online biography.
Tooby: I limited myself to “professional” and organizational support: I have been a political and economic blogger for five years, and I have conducted other investigations as an amateur, though not with so much media coverage. However, I feel that I have played an especially moral role in this saga. Both of us appreciated the movement led by Giannino, but Jaqen was hesitant, fearing what eventually actually happened. But we are long-time users of Wikipedia, and we know that even if we do not like them, the facts are the facts, and the reader has the right for them to be presented in an objective, neutral way. Also, thanks to the experience gathered with Wikipedia, hesitations quickly disappeared and we decided to publish all of the material as soon as it was ready and supported by the appropriate sources.
Did you expect such a reaction to your discovery?
Jaqen: Has there been? 🙂 It was not our discovery that led to the reaction, but rather the fact that Luigi Zingales publicly denounced Giannino and left the party. What did provoke some reaction, however, was the fact that questions over Giannino’s master’s degree were on the Wikipedia talk page since 2011.
Tooby: I expected a good response, but not this much! Even if we cannot be certain, I believe that our article helped to precipitate the events. We know that there was another journalist who was trying to verify the existence of Mr. Giannino’s master’s degree, and around February 14 it seems that Luigi Zingales had some knowledge of that. However we were able to anticipate all with our reconstruction: we published the article on the morning of 18 February, and it was shared very well before the abandonment of Zingales, announced in the early afternoon. In a way, I feel that we popped the cork.
How do you think Wikipedia came out from this story? I’ve heard some people say, “Yes, Giannino made a mistake, but the fault was really of Wikipedia who inserted the false news in the first place.”
Jaqen: According to an article someone tried to say this at first, but it was clear to everyone that this was not true. Wikipedia was just reporting what sources were saying.
Tooby: I believe that Wikipedia will come out much stronger than before. Many Italian observers have recognized the work of Wikipedians in search of the facts in this case. The Wikipedians were stubborn, and wanted to look beyond the “pseudo-official” biographies, such as the one by Istituto Bruno Leoni. I wouldn’t say that all of the participants in the discussion were unbiased in their search for the facts—some people were driven by envy and anger at Giannino. But the important thing is the end result. The neutral point of view is necessarily a collective work, where personal views are filtered from those of other users, allowing only what is verifiable and reliable.

Maurizio Codogno
Wikimedia Italia

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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I’m wondering, what should one actually do if some important facts are mentioned in a provate letter. After all, letters are not public sources, hence they’re not suitable by Wikipedia policies. Forward it to a newspaper and wait until it get published? But if it’s not sensational, e.g. just a correction of someone’s birthday?

I salute you Maurizio because not everyone has the effort like you. Keep up the good work!!