Sue Gardner, the outgoing executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, announced today that over 250 Wikipedia accounts have been blocked or banned as editors investigate accusations of people being paid to edit and manage pages.
"The Wikimedia Foundation takes this issue seriously and has been following it closely," writes Gardner. "With a half a billion readers, Wikipedia is an important informational resource for people all over the world. 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. 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."
Gardner said that she and the editors who are investigating have expressed "shock and dismay."
Not many would be "shocked" that people are trying to game the system. Wikipedia is one of the biggest and most visible sites on the Internet, and is the primary gateway to information about companies for many people. It's also tightly integrated into Google's Knowledge Graph and Apple's Siri. It should be no surprise that people would try their best to make themselves look better.
But what is more shocking is that there could be some in the Wikipedia universe with a great deal of power over content that are part of this.
Gardner references an article from the Daily Dot from earlier this month about a Wikipedia editor uncovering what the publication called " the largest sockpuppet network in Wikipedia history". This was kicked off when the editor noticed something fishy about citations on the page for a company called CyberSafe and the appeals that came in during the deletion process, which seemed to be coming from the same person through different accounts.
The article discusses a service called WikPR, which promises to manage its clients' Wikipedia presences. WikiPR says on its Services page:
"Trying to get on Wikipedia for the first time? Or has Wikipedia created a page that you want edited? We can help. Our staff of 45 Wikipedia editors and admins helps you build a page that stands up to the scrutiny of Wikipedia's community rules and guidelines. We respect the community and its rules against promoting and advertising. Don't leave your Wikipedia page up to chance. Don't get caught in a PR debacle by editing your own page. Ensure your Wikipedia page is 100% accurate with our Page Creation & Editing service."
"Let's face it: You can't monitor every edit made to your Wikipedia page. That's why we created Page Management service. We've built technology to manage your page 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Plus, you'll have a dedicated Wikipedia project manager that understands your brand as well as you do. That means you need not worry about anyone tarnishing your image - be it personal, political, or corporate."
WikiPR also tells prospective clients, "Let the largest Wikipedia research firm help you claim your top spot in Google search results."
As The Daily Dot's Simon Owens wrote, "Perhaps the most shocking claim on the Wiki-PR is that the firm employs admins. Wikipedia’s privileged few, admins possess special rights and powers they use to keep other editors in line. They can restrict editing access to a page (often when a page is being vandalized or is extremely controversial), ban users, and delete pages. Wikipedia admins (who, like almost other Wikipedia user, are volunteers) are often thought of as the site’s sacred guardians, committed to neutrality and fairness, able to wade into the most controversial and divisive entries and deliver impartial judgement."
"If Wiki-PR’s claims are true, that means there may be 'sleeper agents' among Wikipedia’s most powerful users, a revelation that would likely send chills down the spine of any devoted Wikipedian," Owens added.
Apparently this is indeed the case in Gardner's case.
"Editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature," she writes. "Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a 'black hat' practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people."
"What is clear to everyone is that all material on Wikipedia needs to adhere to Wikipedia’s editorial policies, including those on neutrality and verifiability," Gardner adds. "It is also clear that companies that engage in unethical practices on Wikipedia risk seriously damaging their own reputations. In general, companies engaging in self-promotional activities on Wikipedia have come under heavy criticism from the press and the general public, with their actions widely viewed as inconsistent with Wikipedia’s educational mission."
She says the foundation is continuing the investigation, assessing its options, and will have more to say about the situation in the coming weeks.
Earlier this year, Gardner announced that she would depart the Wikimedia Foundation. At the time, she said she was "uncomfortable" with where the Internet is heading. I'm guessing these events have done little to change her mind about that.
Image: Sue Gardner (Victoria Will for the Wikimedia Foundation)