Here Be Dragons

Is the PR Industry Buying Influence Over Wikipedia?

By Martin Robbins

We all know that Wikipedia can be subverted—it’s an inevitability of an open platform that some people will seek to abuse it, whether to gain some advantage or just for a laugh. Fortunately, the Wikipedia community has strong mechanisms in place to deal with this, from the famous cry of [citation needed] to the rigorous checks and standards put in place by its hierarchy of editors and admins.

In recent months though, insiders have encountered something altogether more worrying: a concerted attack on the very fabric of Wikipedia by PR companies that have subverted the online encyclopedia’s editing hierarchy to alter articles on a massive scale—perhaps tens of thousands of them. Wikipedia is the world’s most popular source of cultural, historical, and scientific knowledge—if their fears are correct, its all-important credibility could be on the line.

The king of these Wikipedia reputation managers is a company called Wiki-PR, that specializes in editing Wikipedia on behalf of their paying clients. The promise on their Twitter profile couldn’t be clearer: “We write it. We manage it. You never worry about Wikipedia again.“

The services they advertise on their website are a catalog of behaviors that run completely counter to the principles, rules, and etiquette of the Wikipedia community. Under "Page Management" they promise, “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.”

Another section focuses on "Crisis Editing": “Are you being unfairly treated on Wikipedia? Our Crisis Editing team helps you navigate contentious situations. We’ll both directly edit your page using our network of established Wikipedia editors and admins. And we’ll engage on Wikipedia’s back end, so you never have to worry about being libeled on Wikipedia.”

Companies have attempted to manage their image on Wikipedia before, with mixed results. What sets this apart is the scale of Wiki-PR’s ambition, and the depth to which they appear to have penetrated Wikipedia’s carefully established editing hierarchy.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but only a carefully vetted few are promoted to admin status on the site. Once in place, they have the ability to "block and unblock user accounts and IP addresses from editing, protect and unprotect pages from editing, delete and undelete pages, rename pages without restriction, and use certain other tools,” giving them far greater power than the average user. Some 30-odd thousand people edit Wikipedia every month, but only 1,000 or so admins have been created in the last ten years, and their recruitment rate has shrunk over that time. Wiki-PR isn’t just claiming to edit Wikipedia, it’s openly bragging about access to Wikipedia’s elite.

That would explain their level of success: Adam Masonbrink, a founder and Vice-President of Sales at Wiki-PR, boasts of new clients including Priceline and Viacom. Viacom didn’t respond to my requests for comment, but Priceline—a NASDAQ listed firm with over 5,000 employees and William Shatner as their official spokesman—did. Sadly, Priceline didn't choose to respond to us via Captain Kirk; instead Leslie Cafferty, vice president of corporate communications and public relations, admitted, “We are using them to help us get all of our brands a presence because I don’t have the resources internally to otherwise manage.”

Other clients are more outspoken, and less happy. Emad Rahim, Dean of the College of Business and Management at Colorado Technical University, recruited Wiki-PR earlier this year. “I have been focusing the last few years in developing my brand as a thought leader in higher education and entrepreneurship,” he told me. “[Modern academia] requires a lot more media visibility. In other words I have to be ‘googleable’ to make my brand credible and that’s what brought me to work with Wiki-PR.”

Rahim paid Wiki-PR $1,500 over two installments to create a page for him on the site. “After reviewing all of my information [Wiki-PR] assured me that my profile would get published on Wikipedia without any problems. We wrote a short bio, included quotes and links to credible sources, publications, employment history, and a picture.”

At first he was happy with the result, but within two weeks the page had come to the attention of other Wikipedia editors. Email exchanges show the extent to which Wiki-PR spun and obfuscated the issue. On July 17, Rahim emailed the firm after noticing that his page had been marked for deletion for not being notable enough. CEO Michael French replied, “You're covered by Page Management. Not to worry. Thank you for your patience with the encyclopedic process.”

A few days later the page was deleted, and Rahim contacted French again. “You're in the queue for reuploading. We'll be live in five to eight business days,” was the entirety of French’s response. “What will prevent them from rejecting it again?” the academic asked. “It wasn't rejected. It was approved and went live,” French responded, adding: “Your page was vandalized.”

When the page was finally created again, it contained only one sentence. Rather than apologizing, French told Rahim to raise his media profile, and connected the academic to Scarsdale media, who offered 30 days of "media relations efforts" for another $800.

“They promised me results that they had no control over.“ At just 30 words long, Rahim’s profile cost him the equivalent of $50  per word.

Jason Fox, former freelancer at Wiki-PR, has a different perspective. “As a writer, it was like stumbling across a bunch of rich children who would pay anything you asked for imaginary candy.” Fox worked at the firm for around five months until January this year. “[It was ] just lots of boring content about boring companies. It was sincerely the dullest copy editing I've ever experienced.


Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Photo by Niccolo Caranti

“I had been writing blog entries about hemorrhoids, sales copy about beanbags, and random keyword-slave content for years when one of my clients asked me if I had any experience working on Wikipedia. I had absolutely none, but I was desperate for work so I said that I did.” The work turned out to be an enticing combination of lucrative and easy. “They wanted to create an article for a company. I went to Wikipedia, registered an account, and submitted a draft to the Articles for Creation queue. A user denied it and suggested some improvements. I made the improvements and re-submitted. It was approved and the project was complete. The client paid me ten times what they had been paying me for off-wiki projects plus a $60 bonus for "outstanding commitment to finding a solution." I said, "thanks, mister" and promptly revised my portfolio to reflect strong Wikipedia editing skills.”

Meanwhile, members of the Wikipedia community have spent the last year involved in the most extensive sockpuppet investigation in the history of the site, detailed recently on Daily Dot. Triggered by the unusual behavior of an editor named "Morning277," the year-long investigation has identified a network of over 300 accounts so far, responsible for thousands of edits dating back as far as 2008. “They most likely really have maintained or written in the area of 12,000 articles, and many of their clients are quite notable,” claimed one investigator I spoke to.

Longtime Wikipedian Kevin Gorman has been involved in this process from the beginning. “A lot of the early investigatory work done in the Morning277 case was done by looking at similarities in IPs, and finding matching behavioral patterns,” he told me. “For quite a while they used the same set of websites to falsify sources for their clients, to make them look more impressive.”

The websites Gorman refers to are the numerous "news" sites and blogs that allow basically anyone to contribute to them, but still maintain the impression of credibility, from obscure business content farms to the Huffington Post. PR companies can easily plant articles on these, and use them as citations to give articles a superficial plausibility that only unravels if people bother to click through and examine the link. “Once we figured out what those sources were, we could use them to nail a lot of other articles that tried the same trick.” Common contribution histories were another way to identify articles with similar signatures.

“Almost everyone involved knew the company behind it was Wiki-PR,” Gorman claims. In some cases, information came directly from “contractors that Wiki-PR hired through places like oDesk and Elance—they were often happy to discuss the type of work they were doing openly, not realizing they were breaking our rules significantly.” The same goes for many of their clients, who may be hiring the firm in good faith without realizing that the site does not endorse their activities. Wikipedia editors I spoke to suggested that a number of customers had received refunds from the firm after articles were reverted or deleted.

In the early days, these spammers weren’t much more than a nuisance. “Many of their early articles were about things that weren't really encyclopedic, but unfortunately, as time has gone on, they have been able to attract bigger clients. I don't give two shits if they write articles about websites that sell erectile dysfunction pills—they're immediately obvious to the casual user as lame spam. I'm much more worried about what happens when an unethical outfit manages to start getting major clients, and start controlling articles that our average reader assumes are not written by corporate flaks. Wiki-PR is over that threshold at this point.”

Fox struggles to see what the problem is: “I acknowledge the devotion of Wikipedia volunteers, I'm baffled by the amount of time they invest into these things. It's simultaneously noble and ridiculous. It's hard not to view the situation as a group of hobbyists collecting badges of honor. The user privileges like sysop and checkuser that are bestowed by other volunteers don't seem to hold much weight. There's no formal training and hardly any oversight. The authorities (admins and checkusers) in these investigations are anonymous volunteers with no apparent real-world qualifications.” He disputes Wiki-PR’s claim to have recruited admins: “There were no 'hired gun' admins while I was there, and I doubt there are any now.” If true, this would seem to suggest that Wiki-PR was misleading their clients with regard to their influence on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s slogan is "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”

"ANYONE!” Fox explained to me: “If you want a Wikipedia article, write it! Make sure it sticks to the manual of style and doesn't violate Wikipedia's incredibly easy-to-understand neutrality policy. And don't be an idiot or asshole. And if you're an editor who has come across some content that is either i) promotional, ii) biased, or iii) non-notable, well fucking edit it, then!“

Given the scale and seriousness of the problem facing Wikipedia, you might expect the Wikimedia Foundation to be taking an active role in cleaning up the mess, but when I contacted Matthew Roth, their Global Communications Office, his response was oddly non-committal. “The Wikimedia Foundation is monitoring the sockpuppet investigation being conducted by the English Wikipedia volunteer community,” he told me in an email that set out the online encyclopedia’s policy: “While some public relations professionals have developed standards for working with the Wikipedia editing community, organizations and individuals are generally advised not to edit their own Wikipedia pages or hire other organizations to do so for them. Editing Wikipedia articles through sockpuppets or where there is a conflict of interest isn't in the spirit of Wikipedia and can have unintended consequences for those organizations."

Many in the Wikipedia community accept that there are responsible ways for PR companies to engage with editors, as long as it’s done in an open and transparent way that doesn’t result in paid edits to pages. But even others in the PR industry balk at the kind of behavior exhibited here. “Wiki-PR using the term ‘PR’ is kind of like referring to lancing boils as ‘surgery’,” said one industry expert in a discussion on Facebook, “in that one would not claim to be a surgeon based on that skill.”

According to James Hare, head of Wikimedia's DC regional affiliate, "what makes the Wiki-PR case especially heinous" is the way their blatant reputational whitewashing demeans and frustrates the work of the Wikipedia community. "It's how their success to date was made possible," he claims. "I have worked with organizations that had an interest in improving content on Wikipedia related to their work. I and my colleagues at Wikimedia DC consistently advise: be transparent about who you are and who you work for. Wiki-PR acted in gross violation of this basic community expectation, and I regret that volunteer administrators will have to clean up after them.”

The impact of this could be profound. Wikipedia is the world’s go-to resource for information on everything from the Boer War to fifth-season episodes of Buffy. Its reputation rests on the trust people have in its content, a trust that PR firms are degrading even as they attempt to mine it for their clients. We all know that the site is open to abuse, but until now its unique community of editors have prevailed. With ever more pages and more sophisticated ways to attack the site, however, their efforts are increasingly stretched. In a few years, a significant percentage of Wikipedia’s content could be spam.

“Wikipedia is also almost entirely a volunteer project, and it can be demoralizing for volunteers to feel like they need to spend a good chunk of their time cleaning up the detritus of operations like Wiki-PR,” Gorman told me. “More than one of the editors who were involved in the early investigation into Wiki-PR ended up completely leaving Wikipedia out of frustration, which is sad; they were very valuable contributors.

"Subverting Wikipedia may deliver short-term gains for PR firms and their clients, but in the long run everybody loses."

Wiki-PR, Jimmy Wales, and roughly 60 of the companies and individuals I contacted who have been identified as Wiki-PR customers, did not respond to requests for comment.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins

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