Wikipedia and the War on Sockpuppets

Wikipedia editors are actively engaged in a wide-ranging battle against PR firms attempting to edit the crowdsourced encyclopedia’s entries to reflect their clients’ best interests.

Over the past couple weeks, those Wikipedia editors have isolated several hundred user accounts linked to people “paid to write articles on Wikipedia promoting organizations or products,” according to Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia’s operations. Those users’ accounts violate Wikipedia’s guidelines, “including prohibitions against sockpuppetry and undisclosed conflicts of interest.” Some 250 suspicious user accounts have already been nuked.

“Our readers know Wikipedia’s not perfect, but they also know that it has their best interests at heart, and is never trying to sell them a product or propagandize them in any way,” Gardner added. “Our goal is to provide neutral, reliable information for our readers, and anything that threatens that is a serious problem. We are actively examining this situation and exploring our options.”

The idea of “pay for play” is a contentious one among Wikipedia’s editors, many of whom pride themselves on a high standard of impartiality when it comes to managing content. But the platform’s crowd-sourced nature often works against them in that regard, with pages about controversial subjects often turning into battlegrounds as multiple parties attempt to edit and re-edit content to fit a particular vision—unless Wikipedia opts to lock a page down, as it does with George W. Bush or Scientology. No matter how hard the editors work, though, Wikipedia’s gargantuan size also means they can’t eliminate every single vanity page set up by insecure and ambitious types.

Indeed, correcting biased text is a thankless job for those Wikipedia editors—the literary-world equivalent of killing endless hordes of zombies approaching your protective fence.

But that job gets even harder when a PR agency deploys dozens, or even hundreds of writers to systematically adjust clients’ Wikipedia pages. While Gardner didn’t mention the names of such agencies in her statement, The Daily Dot cited a firm named Wiki-PR that brags on its Website about its skill in building client-friendly Wikipedia pages. “We build, manage and translate Wikipedia pages for over 12,000 people and companies,” is one of its advertising slogans. Other services include “crisis editing” and “concept development”:

From Wiki-PR’s homepage.

Wiki-PR has not yet responded to Slashdot’s request for comment, and the firm’s Twitter page is now locked. (This piece will be updated if a comment actually arrives.) Whatever the company’s position on its practices—presumably it supports them, otherwise it wouldn’t be in business—Wikipedia has made it clear over the past few years that it frowns on paid advocates attempting to adjust its entries in any way.

That being said, Wikipedia only has so many people—both employees and volunteer editors—to police its many pages. And therein lies the downside of crowdsourcing: it’s great to have a million people building something for you, but not all those hands and minds are necessarily working in your actual best interest. Whether or not Wiki-PR sticks around, other PR firms are surely doing their best to change online history.


Images: Africa Studio/Wiki-PR