Digital Deception: Wikipedia’s PR Problem

In June of this year a joint statement was issued by 11 PR firms promising to not try to edit Wikipedia articles about their clients without going through “proper channels.” Some of the biggest names in the business were part of this initiative, including Burson-Marsteller, Edelman and Ketchum.

So it is nice to know that the PR folks are going to play by the rules when it comes to Wikipedia. But that begs the question as to why they felt the need to make this pronouncement. I think we all can guess the answer to that one. And in fact in the statement made by the PR consortium they commented “We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of WikiPedia editors.” In other words, PR people have used whatever means at their disposal to circumvent those editors and change the content on behalf of their clients.

Here are some examples:

The most widely cited agent of Wikipedia deception is a Texas based agency called Wiki-PR. If you look up Wiki-PR in Wikipedia you’ll see this. “Wiki-PR is a consulting firm that formerly marketed the ability to edit Wikipedia. It was then banned, including all of its employees, contractors, and owners, by the Wikipedia community for unethical editing.” What the Wikipedia investigation reported to uncover was hundreds of sockpuppets created by this agency to edit its clients’ pages.

A pretty substantial UK PR firm, Bell Pottinger, was caught in 2011 editing its clients’ Wikipedia entries, an act which Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales suggested was an example of the agency’s “moral blindness.”

In 2012 another UK firm, RLM Finsbury, a WPP agency, removed negative information from Wikipedia about the Russian oligarch Alisher Usanov. At the time, Usanov was listing his mobile phone company on the London exchange.

Back in the U.S., the PR firm New Media Strategies employed by Koch Industries, used the sockpuppet MBMadmirer to edit the Wikipedia entries of Charles Koch, David Koch and the page titled “Political Activities of the Koch Family.”

But it is not only PR agencies who are at work on the popular crowd-sourced online encyclopedia. Jamie Bartlett, author of a technology blog in London’s Telegraph, notes that “plenty or people and companies edit their own pages, a practice known in the Wikipedia community as Wikiwashing.” (Wikiwashing: how paid professionals are using Wikipedia as a PR tool.)

An earlier story in the Telegraph pointed to the case of UK MP Chuka Umanna. Seems as though Umanna’s Wikipedia article was amended and the new version compared him to Barack Obama. An investigation to trace that update led to a computer in Umanna’s office.

Bartlett also noted that “a new cottage industry has grown up around Wikipedia, the professional editors.” One such individual is Mike Woods, whose Web site is www.legalmorning.com. Among Woods credentials is an AAS (?) degree in law enforcement from Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Woods describes himself as “an expert Wikipedia article writer with over 10,000 edits and 100’s of pages created.” His pitch: “I know what it takes to make an article notable for inclusion and can get your page published today.”

So what is Wikipedia doing to deal with its PR problem? Most of the instances of sockpuppetry described above were uncovered as part of a Wikipedia investigation. When they are found, the fraudulent accounts are deleted. In November of last year a cease and desist letter was delivered to Wiki-PR, although it appears they have neither ceased nor desisted. The Wiki-PR home page continues to identify itself as “the easiest way to accurately tell your story on Wikipedia.”

Following the statement issued by the PR firms in June of this year, Wikipedia issued new rules that require editors who have a conflict of interest to disclose that fact.

If you are being paid by someone to write or edit information about that individual or organization, that is considered a conflict of interest. Wikipedia’s policy, in that instance, is that the party with the conflict of interest, that is the paid promoter, cannot edit Wikipedia entries directly but rather must use the service’s “talk” pages to recommend changes that will be considered by the Wikipedia editors.

For PR people the stakes are pretty high. Do a search for just about anything and the Wikipedia page is likely to show up as the first or second result. So you can be sure that an agency’s perceived ability to improve a company, organization or individual’s appearance and reputation on Wikipedia may be a key decision making point in determining who gets the job.

From the perspective of the PR community, Wikipedia’s rules are confusing and their responsiveness is slow. A survey taken by Penn State Assistant Professor of Public Relations Marcia DiStaso in 2012 found that only 21% of PR people were aware of and understood Wikipedia’s policies. While the survey didn’t ask why, I would suggest that the results may have more to do with inexperience than with lack of understanding. It’s not that hard to figure out.

You can make the case that no one knows more about a company or organization than that entity itself (and its paid communications contractors). That no doubt is true. But that hardly means they are going to take an even-handed approach to self description. As a pretty frequent user of Wikipedia do I trust PR people as a source? I think I’d prefer my sources to be a bit more unbiased.

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23 Responses to Digital Deception: Wikipedia’s PR Problem

  1. Fascinating post. I had no idea there was so much intrigue in the writing and editing of Wikipedia entries!

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  2. Hi Ken, this is my maiden visit to Off The Leash. When researching a company, concept, software, I often visit Wikipedia to see what’s been said. A lot of times, if the subject is about a company or product, the writing is indeed overly promotional and seemingly scrubbed. It never occured to me that company’s hire someone to “fix” Wikipedia entries. Thanks for highlighting this. (Nice writing, too!) Shared on Twitter (@CoachNotesBlog)

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  3. jacquiegum says:

    Excellent article Ken! But the question that I would pose is…do we know that the Wikipeda folks are unbiased? I don’t think that they always contact companies or let’s say the Koch brothers or individuals as part of their vetting process. I use them…I think most folks have at one time or another, but I certainly only ever consider then as a sole source. The reason that these PR companies have made an industry of this…or companies have sprouted like Reputation defender is because anyone can print anything they want about you…present it as fact…and have it widely circulated without any consequence.

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      The Wikipedia folks undoubtedly have their biases as well. The difference, at least on the surface, is they are not paid representatives of the individuals or organizations they are handling the content about.

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  4. I had no idea there were so many offshoots that tag onto Wikipedia’s shirttails. I don’t envy them the task of distancing themselves. I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.

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  5. DC says:

    Shocking! I use Wikipedia as a resource for my writing but I always back it up with another reliable resource. Excellent article Ken!

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  6. andleeb says:

    This is very interesting post. I use to rely much on wikipedia for information then my husband told me this information is not reliable as everyone can edit and add in topic.
    Few times I also added information in few posts related to Kashmir.
    But I do not know about this on such level.

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  7. My first thought about Wikipedia is how some of the articles say that “the articles need some work” (or something like that) at the top of the entries. At other times, I wonder about the objectivity of the writer, based on the wording. Again and again, I’ve heard how unreliable Wikipedia is. I only use it for trivial subjects if it appears in a search.

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  8. Beth Niebuhr says:

    Good grief! Intrigue in the word of Wiki. I suppose it is not surprising but it is disappointing. I’ve always taken W with a grain of salt but I do use it.

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  9. I am amazed at how many people consult Wikipedia to educate themselves on just about everything, particularly when it is so biased. I think Wikipedia is fine as a jumping off point, as long as real research is done to follow it up.

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  10. Tim says:

    Always interesting and always thought provoking. Every week it amazes me the lengths people and organizations go to to circumvent an honest system. I am a big wikipedia user but as Beth says, maybe a grain of salt here and there may not be a bad idea.

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  11. So true what you write. Have for years wondered why people trust what they read on Wikipedia. Anyone can add information and editorialize information on that site.

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  12. lenie5860 says:

    Hi Ken – first a question. What is a sockpuppet. Next, anytime I do research for an article I look for 4 reliable sources, Wikipedia being only one of the four. They have a lot of information but they’re not always correct. Having said that, I don’t believe anyone has the right to edit what someone else has written. They could challenge it, but not change it. Interesting what goes on in cyberspace.

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  13. Interesting. I love using Wikipedia for a quick knowledge boost but I take it with a grain of salt.

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  14. Arleen says:

    For years I trusted Wikipedia and then heard about how someone can add information. I no longer trust the site. You can’t stay alive if you are dishonest.

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  15. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting post. We need to exercise caution about everything we find online and consider the validity of the source. Wikipedia information often comes up at the top of the list in searches and therefore is the most ready source. Sometimes Wikipedia articles cite sources and you can follow that chain. I try to validate the information with other sources. On the subject of people editing their own pages, I think if Wikipedia had an article on me, I might be tempted to edit it a little. Which just says that we need to take the information there with a grain of salt.

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  16. Welli says:

    Wake up call there for me. I was not aware of this kind of manipulation of information that people deem reliable and unbiased yet it could actually be the opposite.

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  17. I have always wondered why was it so easy to edit a wikipedia page. There are so many wiki entities that it’s hard to keep up with.

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  18. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia too, however I learned a long time ago to take what I read on there with a grain of salt unless I can back the info up with other reliable sources.

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  19. unveiltheweb says:

    Hi Ken,

    I have to admit that I found your article absolutely fascinating. I never realized the level of complexity involved nor did I have an understanding of how the PR would interact with a Wikipedia article to gain an advantage for their clients.

    As a marketing tool, it’s not something I have given much thought to in ten years of web design, development, social media and content marketing. It really is amazing how much there is to learn and know and I doubt any of us will ever know it all?

    I have used a few PR firms in the past, but my aim was not for them to do anything for me online. It was to introduce me to business journalists and gain opportunities for me to write in respected publications. I learned that if you have enough money you can get access. But, I also learned that if you network online the right way you can get direct access yourself.

    I was shocked to learn how many journalists and publications see PR as a negative industry. It was eye opening. But, like anything else they also recognized there were some really good and hard working PR professionals out there. I just wanted to add some balance.

    Thanks again Ken, what a very informative article!

    ~ Don Purdum

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Pingback: Globalisering – Amerika en de NWO van de Elite! | De Wereld Verandert

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