Conflict-of-interest editing on Wikipedia
Conflict-of-interest editing on Wikipedia occurs when edits are made to advance the personal interests of an editor rather than the interests and aims of the Wikipedia project. Such editing has occurred with groups and individuals contributing to Wikipedia articles about themselves, their company or organization, or their clients or employers. Conflict of interest (COI) is governed on Wikipedia by a guideline, which strongly discourages editing with a conflict of interest,[dubious ] and very strongly discourages it when editors with a COI are being paid. Advocacy for any particular point of view on Wikipedia is against Wikipedia policy.
Controversies that have come to public attention include United States Congressional staff editing articles about members of Congress in 2006, Microsoft offering a software engineer money to edit articles on two competing code standards in 2007, the British public-relations (PR) firm Bell Pottinger editing articles about its clients in 2011, and the discovery in 2012 that British MPs or their staff had removed criticism from articles about the MPs. The media has also written about COI editing by the Central Intelligence Agency, Diebold, Portland Communications, Sony, the Vatican, and several others.
Both the public relations industry and the Wikipedia community have responded to these incidents. PR professionals and Wikipedia editors formed a group called Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement to work on the issue together. The Public Relations Society of America argued for greater editing permissions for PR professionals. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations reasoned for a cautious collaborative approach. The International Association of Business Communicators shared a variety of views on the subject. The Wikipedia Community formed two separate projects, WikiProject Cooperation and WikiProject Integrity—the first took a cooperative approach to the problem while the second sought to minimize damaging influence from paid advocates.
- 1 Wikipedia policy
- 2 Incidents
- 2.1 Jimmy Wales
- 2.2 United States Congressional staffers
- 2.3 MyWikiBiz
- 2.4 Microsoft
- 2.5 WikiScanner
- 2.6 Israel
- 2.7 Church of Scientology
- 2.8 2008 US presidential campaign
- 2.9 London-based "PR fixer"
- 2.10 Bell Pottinger
- 2.11 Portland Communications
- 2.12 Newt Gingrich
- 2.13 United Kingdom Parliament
- 2.14 Gibraltarpedia
- 2.15 GEO Group
- 2.16 BP
- 2.17 Wiki-PR
- 2.18 Miscellaneous
- 3 Reception
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
Wikipedia's conflict of interest guideline states as of 2013 that COI editing "involves contributing to Wikipedia in order to promote your own interests or those of other individuals, companies, or groups. Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest."
The Wikipedia community regards some forms of paid editing as acceptable. One is the "reward board", which lets editors trade tasks with each other, sometimes for monetary compensation. At one point Wikipedia's parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation, agreed to pay illustrators to create images for articles. There are also partnerships between Wikipedia editors and galleries, libraries, archives and museums (known as GLAM), with some of the editors being paid for their work.
In December 2005, it was noticed that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales had edited his own Wikipedia entry. According to public logs, he has edited his biography 19 times, as of September 9, 2013, seven times altering information about whether Larry Sanger was a co-founder of Wikipedia. It was also revealed that Wales had edited the Wikipedia article of his former company, Bomis. "Bomis Babes", a section of the Bomis website, had been characterized in the article as "soft-core pornography," but Wales revised this to "adult content section" and deleted mentions of pornography. He said he was fixing an error, and didn't agree with calling Bomis Babes soft porn. Wales conceded that he had made the changes, but maintained that they were technical corrections.
United States Congressional staffers
In 2006, it was discovered that more than 1,000 changes had been made to Wikipedia articles originating from United States government IP addresses. Changes had been made to articles about Representative Marty Meehan,  Senator Tom Coburn, Senator Norm Coleman, Representative Gil Gutknecht, Senator Joe Biden, Senator Conrad Burns, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Tom Harkin, Representative David Davis, Tennessee state representative Matthew Hill and Representative Mike Pence. The edits removed accurate but critical information and embellished positive descriptions. In response to the controversy, certain affected IP addresses were temporarily blocked.
In August 2006 Gregory Kohs, a market researcher from Pennsylvania, founded MyWikiBiz, a company offering to write inexpensive Wikipedia entries for businesses. In January 2007, Kohs said that in his view Wikipedia's coverage of major corporations was deficient, stating that "It is strange that a minor Pokemon character will get a 1,200-word article, but a Fortune 500 company will get ... maybe 100 words". A few days after issuing a press release about his business, Kohs' Wikipedia account was blocked. Kohs later recalled a phone call with Jimmy Wales who told him MyWikiBiz was "antithetical" to the mission of the encyclopedia. Kohs said it surprised him that PR agencies were discouraged from editing articles: "There are around 130 'Fortune 1,000' companies absent from Wikipedia's pages ... How could they not benefit from a little PR help?"
In January 2007, Australian software engineer Rick Jelliffe revealed that Microsoft had offered to pay him to edit Wikipedia articles on two competing code standards, OpenDocumentFormat and Microsoft Office Open XML. Jelliffe, who described himself as a technical expert and not an advocate for Microsoft, said he accepted the offer because he wanted the information on technical standards to be accurate. Microsoft subsequently confirmed that it had offered to pay Jelliffe to edit the articles, stating that they were seeking "more balance" in the entries, that articles contained inaccuracies, that prior efforts to get attention from Wikipedia volunteers had failed, and that Microsoft had agreed that the company would not review Jelliffe's suggested changes. Microsoft also said they had not previously hired anyone to edit Wikipedia.
Heated debate resulted after the revelation over whether such practices called Wikipedia's credibility into question. In response to the incident, Jimmy Wales said paying for edits to Wikipedia was against the encyclopedia's spirit. Wales said the better, more transparent choice would have been for Microsoft to produce a white paper on the subject, post it online, and link to it from Wikipedia. He also stated "Although agencies and employees should not edit our pages, they do – but perhaps less than you would expect."
Volunteer Wikipedia spokesperson David Gerard said, "[Wikipedia] tends not to look favorably in terms of conflict of interest, and paying someone is a conflict." Gerard added that public relations representatives commonly get blocked from editing by Wikipedia administrators.
In the same month that had seen conflict of interest issues raised by both Microsoft and MyWikiBiz, Wales stated that editors should not be paid to edit, and PR agencies would be banned if they persisted.
In 2007 Virgil Griffith, a Caltech computation and neural-systems graduate student, created a searchable database that linked changes made by anonymous Wikipedia editors to companies and organizations from which the changes were made. The database cross-referenced logs of Wikipedia edits with publicly available records pertaining to the internet IP addresses edits were made from.
Griffith was motivated by the edits from the United States Congress, and wanted to see if others were similarly promoting themselves. He was particularly interested in finding scandals, especially at large and controversial corporations. He said he wanted to, "create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike (and) to see what 'interesting organizations' (which I am neutral towards) are up to." He also wanted to give Wikipedia readers a tool to check edits for accuracy and allow the automation and indexing of edits.
Most of the edits Wikiscanner found were minor or harmless, but the site was mined to detect the most controversial and embarrassing instance of conflict of interest edits. These instances received media coverage worldwide. Included among the accused were the Vatican, the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Democratic Party's Congressional Campaign Committee, the US Republican Party, Britain's Labour Party, Britain's Conservative Party, the Canadian government, Industry Canada, the Department of Prime Minister, Cabinet, and Defence in Australia, the United Nations, the US Senate, the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Montana Senator Conrad Burns, Ohio Governor Bob Taft, the Israeli government, Exxon Mobil, Walmart, AstraZeneca, Diebold, Dow Chemical, Disney, Dell, Anheuser-Busch, Nestlé, Pepsi, Boeing, Sony Computer Entertainment, EA, SCO Group, MySpace, Pfizer, Raytheon, DuPont, Anglican and Catholic churches, the Church of Scientology, the World Harvest Church, Amnesty International, the Discovery Channel, Fox News, CBS, The Washington Post, the National Rifle Association, News International, Al Jazeera, Bob Jones University, and Ohio State University.
Although the edits correlated with known IP addresses, there was no proof that the changes actually came from a member of the organization or employee of the company, only that someone had access to their network.
Wikipedia spokespersons received WikiScanner positively, noting that it helped prevent conflicts of interest from influencing articles as well as increasing transparency and mitigating attempts to remove or distort relevant facts.
In 2008 Griffith released an updated version of WikiScanner called WikiWatcher, which also exploited a common mistake made by users with registered accounts who accidentally forget to log in, revealing their IP address and subsequently their affiliations. As of March 2012 WikiScanner's website was online, but not functioning.
In 2008 the pro-Israel activist group CAMERA launched a campaign to alter Wikipedia articles to support the Israeli side of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The campaign suggested that pro-Israeli editors should pretend to be interested in other topics until elected as administrators. Once administrators they were to misuse their administrative powers to suppress pro-Palestinian editors and support pro-Israel editors. Some members of this conspiracy were banned by Wikipedia administrators.
In 2010 two pro-settler Israeli groups, Yesha Council and Israel Sheli, launched courses to instruct pro-Israel editors on how to use Wikipedia to promote Israel's point of view. A prize was to be given to the editor who inserted the most pro-Israel changes.
Church of Scientology
In 2008 a long-running dispute between members of the Church of Scientology and Wikipedia editors reached Wikipedia's arbitration committee. The church members were accused of attempting to sway articles in the church's interests, while other editors were accused of the opposite. The arbitration committee unanimously voted to block all edits from the IP addresses associated with the church; several Scientology critics were banned too.
2008 US presidential campaign
During the 2008 US presidential election, changes made by both Barack Obama and John McCain's campaigns made the news and there were suspicious updates to Sarah Palin's biography after the announcement that she would run for the vice-presidency.
London-based "PR fixer"
In June 2011 PR Week reported on a "fixer", a known but unnamed London-based figure in the PR industry who offered services to "cleanse" articles. Wikipedia entries this person was accused of changing included Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, Von Essen Group chairman Andrew Davis, British property developer David Rowland, billionaire Saudi tycoon Maan Al-Sanea, and Edward Stanley, 19th Earl of Derby. According to PR Week, 42 edits were made from the same IP address, most of them removing negative or controversial information, or adding positive information.
In December 2011, blogger Tim Ireland, The Independent, and the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) discovered that Bell Pottinger, one of the UK's largest public relations companies, had manipulated articles on behalf of its clients. Wikipedians discovered up to 19 accounts, 10 of which had over 100 edits each, which traced back to Bell Pottinger's offices; as a result of the investigation 10 of the accounts were blocked. Bell Pottinger was accused of using sock or meatpuppets to edit pages to create the appearance of support for changes in articles. One of the most noted accounts was registered under the name "Biggleswiki" (an internal Wikipedia investigation resulted in several such cases). Bell Pottinger admitted that its employees had used several accounts, but said that the company had not done anything illegal. Analysis of the edits demonstrated that the changes had both added positive information and removed negative content, including the removal of information regarding the drug conviction of a businessman and Bell Pottinger client, and changing information about the arrest of a man convicted for commercial bribery.
Undercover BIJ reporters made inquiries while posing as members of the Uzbek government; Bell Pottinger told them that the company offered "sorting" of negative information and criticism on Wikipedia articles, as well as other "dark arts."
Jimmy Wales called Bell Pottinger's actions "ethical blindness." Lord Bell launched an internal review, but disagreed with Wales's view. He said, "You can destroy someone's reputation in one minute and it will take years to rebuild," and continued: "It's important for Wikipedia to recognise we are a valuable source for accurate information," and "apparently if you are not-for-profit what you say is true but that if you are a paid-for advocate you are lying." The head of digital at Bell Pottinger blamed the incident on Wikipedia's "confusing" editing system and "the pressure put on us by clients to remove potentially defamatory or libellous statements very quickly, because Wikipedia is so authoritative."
In January 2012, British MP Tom Watson discovered that Portland Communications had been removing the nickname of one of its clients' products ("Wife Beater", referring to Anheuser-Busch InBev's Stella Artois beer) from Wikipedia. Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) CEO Jane Wilson noted, "Stella Artois is on the 'wife-beater' page because it is a nick-name in common currency for that brand of strong continental lager. The brand managers who want to change this have a wider reputational issue to address, editing the term from a Wikipedia page will not get rid of this association." Other edits from Portland's offices included changes to articles about another Portland client, the Kazakhstan's BTA Bank, and its former head Mukhtar Ablyazov. Portland did not deny making the changes, arguing they had been done transparently and in accordance with Wikipedia's policies. Portland Communications welcomed CIPR's subsequent announcement of a collaboration with Wikipedia and invited Jimmy Wales to speak to their company, as he did at Bell Pottinger. Tom Watson was optimistic about the collaboration: "PR professionals need clear guidelines in this new world of online-information-sharing. That's why I am delighted that interested parties are coming together to establish a clear code of conduct."
Around the beginning of 2012, Joe DeSantis, the campaign communications director for American presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, argued for and made changes to Gingrich's Wikipedia article. Some of the changes which DeSantis requested were minor, but his initial efforts tried to remove negative details which he thought unduly biased the articles, including details about Gingrich's extramarital affairs, information about his financial expenditure, ethics charges against him, and his political positions on controversial issues. The incident was notable for DeSantis' switch from editing articles about the politician and his wife directly, to following Wikipedia' conflict of interest policy by using the linked discussion pages for each articles to suggest edits rather than make them himself. He said, "I stopped making direct edits in May 2011 because I was alerted to the COI rules...Earlier I thought that simply disclosing my affiliation was enough but it wasn't. So I started posting requests on the Talk page. This has been far more successful and the other editors on Wikipedia have largely received this very positively." He told the political journalism organization Politico that his approach of working with the Wikipedia community by discussing edits on talk pages to be more successful than making the changes himself. Wikipedia editor Tvoz was quoted as critical of the practice; she wrote: "... I have to say this micro-managing by a Gingrich campaign director is a matter of concern to me even though you now are identifying yourself. Pointing out factual errors is one thing, but your input should not go beyond that, even [on a Talk page]."
United Kingdom Parliament
In March 2012, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism uncovered that UK MPs or their staff had made almost 10,000 edits to the encyclopedia, and that almost one in six MPs had had their Wikipedia article edited from within Parliament. Many of the changes dealt with removing unflattering details from during the 2009 expenses scandal, as well as other controversial issues. Former MP Joan Ryan admitted to changing her entry "whenever there's misleading or untruthful information [that has] been placed on it." Clare Short said her staff were "angry and protective" over mistakes and criticisms in her Wikipedia article and acknowledged they might have made changes to it. Labour MP Fabian Hamilton also reported having one of his assistants edit a page to make it more accurate in his view. MP Philip Davies denied making changes about removing controversial comments related to Muslims from 2006 and 2007.
The Sun newspaper alleged that in 2007 Labour MP Chuka Umunna, under the name Socialdemocrat created and repeatedly edited his own Wikipedia page. The newspaper highlighted edits such as those describing Umunna as the British Barack Obama. Umunna told the Daily Telegraph that he did not alter his own Wikipedia page, but the paper quoted what they called "sources close to Umunna" as having told the newspaper that "it was possible that one of his campaign team in 2007, when he was trying to be selected to be Labour's candidate for Streatham in the 2010 general election, set up the page."
In September 2012, controversy surrounded Wikimedia UK trustee Roger Bamkin, who along with OCLC Wikipedian in Residence Maximillian Klein, had been organizing an effort named Gibraltarpedia to create articles about Gibraltar in partnership with the Gibraltar Tourism Board. Articles written under this program were featured on the Wikipedia mainpage an unusually high 17 times in the course of a few weeks. This issue brought attention to organizational conflicts of interest regarding Wikimedia Movement partners, leading to an investigation of WMUK. Bamkin stepped down as trustee following the media response. Jimmy Wales commented, "It is wildly inappropriate for a board member of a chapter, or anyone else in an official role of any kind in a charity associated with Wikipedia, to take payment from customers in exchange for securing favorable placement on the front page of Wikimedia or anywhere else."
In February 2013, for-profit prison company GEO Group received major media coverage when a Wikipedia user under the name Abraham Cohen edited the entry on the company regarding naming rights to Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Stadium. GEO Group's Manager of Corporate Relations at the time was named Abraham Cohen, who is an FAU alumnus, former FAU student body president and former ex-officio member of the FAU board of trustees. Eleven edits constituting the majority of all those changes had been made in a single day under a Wikipedia account named "Abraham Cohen", the only day on which that account has ever been used.
In March 2013, it was reported that BP had encouraged substantial changes to its Wikipedia entry through a member of its press office. According to the reports, Wikipedia editor "Arturo at BP" submitted drafts for rewriting parts of the company's article that were then reviewed and added by other editors, including sections dealing with its environmental record. Estimates of the size of the contributions were as high as 44% of the article. Arturo at BP had stated on his user page "In the interest of full transparency, I chose 'Arturo at BP' as my username so that my affiliation with BP is abundantly clear to all parties I may interact with on Wikipedia," and noted that he has not directly edited the page, but has only suggested text to other editors on the article's "talk page." The development caused concern among some users as the content was being produced by an employee, while "readers would be none the wiser." Jimmy Wales was quoted in Salon.com, saying "I think that accusing [BP employee] Arturo of 'skirting' Wikipedia's rules in this case is fairly ludicrous – unless 'skirting' means 'going above and beyond what is required in order to be very clearly in compliance with best practice.' So, I would consider that a blatant factual misrepresentation." The Wikipedia community intensely debated the ethics of the incident and how to handle it and other similar cases.
Starting in 2012, a sockpuppet investigation noticed scores of accounts working together. In July 2013 another few hundred sockpuppets were noticed, and two large networks linked together. These were traced to a PR firm namd Wiki-PR, which claimed that it would edit client's articles directly, and that it 'maintained' articles for clients. The accounts were banned. On October 25, 2013, a community ban was further placed on Wiki-PR and any of its contractors.
In September 2007 changes were made about Prince Johan Friso and his wife Princess Mabel of the Netherlands, which were traced back to their palace. In April 2008 Phorm deleted material related to a controversy over its advertising deals.
Edits involving Daimler AG were reported in March 2012. In August that year, the communications director for Idaho's Department of Education, Melissa McGrath, edited the article on her boss, Tom Luna. In September it was revealed that Tory Party charmain Grant Shapps had changed the information about his academic record as well as donor information. Also in September, writer Phillip Roth wrote a piece in the New Yorker chronicling his difficulty changing information about one of his novels.
In October 2012, the Occupy Melbourne article was edited from a City of Melbourne IP address to alter language about recent protests, in the week leading up to the election of lord mayor Robert Doyle. Doyle denied any involvement or motive.
In July 2013, it emerged that an IP address originating from Digicel's Jamaica offices had been making edits to the company's Wikipedia page, removing an entire section on a court battle involving the firm.
Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement
Phil Gomes, senior vice-president of Edelman Digital, a PR firm, created a Facebook group, Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE), in January 2012. According to Gerard F. Corbett, CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, CREWE is based on four principles: 1) Corporate communicators want to do the right thing; 2) communicators engaged in ethical practice have a lot to contribute; 3) current Wikipedia policy does not fully understand numbers 1 and 2, because of the activities of some bad actors and a misunderstanding of public relations; and 4) accurate Wikipedia entries are in the public interest.
CREWE lobbies for greater involvement by PR professionals on the site, with the stated goal of maintaining accurate articles about corporations. Some Wikipedia editors, including Jimmy Wales, joined the group to discuss these issues. In an open letter to Wales, Gomes argued that Wikipedia's prominence as a top search result adds a level of responsibility to be accurate. Gomes also criticized alleged inaccurate or outdated articles and the lack of timely response to issues raised in existing channels. He further argued that allowing PR representatives to fix minor errors, such as spelling, grammar and facts, leaves too much ambiguity about what are acceptable changes to make. He made the comparison between PR editors and activists, challenging that activists seem to enjoy "much more latitude," and argued that in certain situations direct editing of articles by PR reps was called for.
PRSA and CIPR
Gerald Corbett, head of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) argued in June 2012 for greater access to Wikipedia for PR reps. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK began to collaborate with the regional Wikimedia UK chapter (WMUK) to provide guidance for CIPR members on how to interact with the Wikipedia community. Jane Wilson, CIPR CEO, said: "For the time being, we may have to start with an acceptance that Wikipedians have a problem with our profession and this reputation has unfortunately been earned. We can't change this overnight but by working in partnership with Wikimedia UK and Wikipedians, through outreach, diplomacy and dialogue, we can make a difference.
International Association of Business Communicators
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) devoted their September 2012 CW Bulletin to paid editing on Wikipedia. PR pro Mark Estes said that: "As an advocate, a public relations professional is accountable to his or her client or organization. As a voice of social conscience, however, a public relations professional is accountable to the public at large. Thus, the innate conflict between the two identities. The theory of responsible advocacy attempts to reconcile that conflict and provide guidance to achieve common ground. PR professional David King recommended "collaborating with nothing to hide," emphasizing transparency and the importance of not editing articles directly. He explained: "When legal and marketing departments establish their corporate Wikipedia strategy or policy, they often feel they are faced with only two choices: Ignore one of the world’s most influential websites with a hands-off policy or engage in the risky, controversial and ethically ambiguous practice of direct editing. In some circumstances these are both good strategies, but most companies can find more effective middle ground by engaging in PR or content marketing with Wikipedia’s citizen journalists—a safe and ethical way to make improvements that is valuable both for the organization and Wikipedia.
WikiProject Cooperation and WikiProject Integrity
On 6 January 2012 a Wikipedian created WikiProject Integrity (formerly Wikiproject Paid Advocacy Watch). The goal of this Wikiproject is to "discuss, raise awareness of, and hopefully address issues regarding paid editing on Wikipedia, in which people are compensated to create and edit Wikipedia articles."
Days later, on 10 January, another editor created WikiProject Cooperation; the project page says that it "facilitates collaboration with editors paid to edit Wikipedia." The group is made up of both paid and volunteer Wikipedia editors. The group provides "education and outreach to public relations and marketing professionals, freelance editors, and employees working on assignments from their employers" with the goal of "support[ing] ethical, transparent paid editors that opt-in to collaborative efforts to meet Wikipedia's encyclopedic goals, serve the public's interest and avoid even the perception of impropriety." The main avenue for accomplishing its goals is a paid editor help page, where paid editors and representatives can requests changes to an article and have it reviewed by an experienced editor. WikiProject Cooperation echoes the COI guideline in strongly discouraging paid editors from making direct edits to articles.
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- Wikipedia:WikiProject Cooperation
- "My WikiBiz", Wikipedia Signpost, 9 October 2006.
- "Paid editing", Wikipedia Signpost, 15 June 2009.
- "Does Wikipedia Pay?", Wikipedia Signpost series, 2012.
- Wikipedia community discussion on paid editing, 2009.
- Wikipedia community discussion on conflict of interest, 2012.
- No paid advocacy (talk) Failed policy proposal, November 2013
- Paid editing policy proposal(talk) Failed policy proposal, November 2013
- Commercial editing essay(talk) Failed policy proposal turned into an essay, November 2013
- Conflict of interest limit (talk) Policy proposal ongoing as of November 2013