|This essay contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. Essays are not Wikipedia policies or guidelines. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.|
Ghostwriting on Wikipedia involves organizations or individuals bypassing the project's guideline against conflict-of-interest editing by supplying approved drafts of articles about themselves to other Wikipedians. The latter then copy and paste the text into the encyclopaedia as though it had been written independently, or submit the text to Wikipedia via the Articles for Creation process, thereby creating an article about themselves or their clients. Wikipedia currently has no mechanism for signalling to its readers that an article has been ghostwritten.
The practice is not against Wikipedia's rules, but is controversial. Sections of the community regard it as unethical and a violation of the spirit of the rules. Others defend it, arguing that what matters is content, not authorship. Editors who add this material to articles are expected to check it first for neutrality, accuracy and good sourcing, but because of scarce volunteer time, a lack of expertise, and a desire on the part of editors to be helpful, copy may be carried over into articles with few checks, if any.
Public relations vs. the Wikipedia culture
Wikipedia seeks to provide an atmosphere of positive collaboration for its contributors, especially new ones, through policies such as "assume good faith". Thus a contributor is assumed to be well-intentioned, and here to help Wikipedia. Unfortunately, that culture of acceptance leaves Wikipedia at a disadvantage in dealing with public relations personnel and corporate employees intent on spinning articles about their employees and clients.
Volunteer editors, even those with a strong point of view on a particular subject, are by their natures amateurs. Many are dilettantes in the most favorable sense of the word, flitting from article to article. Wikipedia is a hobby for them. Often it is a distraction from paying work. For public relations persons and corporate officials assigned to edit Wikipedia, working on articles is their paying work. They have expert knowledge of their companies and an often impressive command of the facts. But they deploy that knowledge for the purpose of advancing the interests of their employers and not to improve Wikipedia, unless doing so also advances their employers' interests.
Public relations persons are, by the nature of their jobs, required to advance the point of view of their employers. While they frequently protest that they are only interested in making the articles about their clients and employers "more accurate," their concept of "accurate" and "fair" will inevitably diverge from that of a disinterested party. It is their job to advance their clients' and employers' interests, and to downplay adverse facts.
Therefore, volunteer editors have a built-in disadvantage in dealing with corporate ghostwriters. In order to vet the accuracy and completeness of material provided by corporate editors, they must sacrifice their valuable spare time to work, without pay, to counter the efforts of editors who are paid well, and often lauded by other editors.
Wikipedia also takes a relaxed and forgiving view of conflicts of interests, and has few safeguards against COIs that are openly disclosed. Corporate officials and public relations representatives who disclose their conflicts find that they are not shunned but welcomed, and their invariable courtesy makes them treasured members of the Wikipedia community. They are viewed not as persons who have absolutely zero interest in improving Wikipedia, or as professionals who are employed for the purpose of exploiting the Wikipedia process for their own ends, but as good-faith editors whose contributions are valued.
One PR consultant who openly edits Wikipedia said Wikipedia's general lack of authorship is the reason PR reps might offer approved drafts to Wikipedia, but not to other media. He added: "[I]t is not practical to deny PRs from offering drafts, even in controversial areas, because often this is the only practical way to proceed if the current content is horrendous."
The PR rep of a large company, or an employee tasked with interacting with Wikipedia, may create an account identifying himself, then post on the article's talk page to say he wants to abide by the rules, but that the article is full of errors. When asked to supply a list of these errors, he declines, offering instead to write drafts in his user space. The aim is to insert company-approved language into the article, which will downplay the negative, highlight the positive, and will use secondary sources the company has chosen and may have helped to structure through earlier PR efforts.
The rep may ask editors to make suggestions by editing his drafts, so that the default position is that the draft will be added in some form, and that the job of helpful Wikipedians is to supply the company with suggestions.
He may identify Wikipedians who he believes will support him, and will introduce himself to those editors separately on their talk pages. This can serve to make them feel important, or beholden to him. He is usually at pains to present himself as an editor like any other, one of the group. He is extremely polite and friendly to editors he deems potentially helpful, but is slow to respond to others, and may ignore them entirely. This approach exacerbates existing tensions on the talk page, and alienates editors deemed unhelpful by the group, which by now consists of the PR rep and editors willing to assist him. Editors who object to the dynamics are told by other Wikipedians to "assume good faith," and "comment on content, not the contributor."
The PR rep may make multiple requests for edits to the article, which has the effect of overwhelming the volunteers who watch the page. If editors are not responsive to requests on the article's talk page, the rep may ask on noticeboards that the edits be inserted, or will approach individual editors on their user talk pages. Any editor who has offered support may be approached: "You seemed to agree with my suggestions last month. Would you mind making the edit? I want to abide by Wikipedia's rules and best practice, so I am unable to do it myself." This process can continue for months until someone gives in and adds the material.
PR reps, companies and others with a COI regularly contact OTRS (short for Open-source Ticket Request System, the Wikimedia Foundation's volunteer complaints system), for advice. OTRS volunteers may advise them to produce a draft article (or draft sections) for Wikipedians to add to the encyclopaedia, though one OTRS volunteer, JzG, said that Wikipedians were expected to edit any such suggestions, not copy and paste them into the article. Conflicted editors may also be introduced to the talk page by OTRS volunteers. One editor who experienced this said he felt pressured into agreeing with the conflicted editor: "the very procedure creates an awkward situation in which you feel you're helping a bashful editor, through an official wikipedia policy, by arguing on their behalf and against yourself as an editor."
In June 2011 Ocaasi created the Plain and simple conflict of interest guide, labelled as an "information page" that described community consensus. The page advised editors with a financial COI to declare their COI, explained Wikipedia's policies about sourcing and neutrality, and advised them how to edit affected articles themselves and how to create drafts for others to add. The advice to edit affected articles contradicted the conflict of interest guideline, which at that time "very strongly encouraged" editors with a financial COI to avoid editing affected articles. The new guide was promoted as the "go to" page for paid editors.
On 5 January 2012, following a series of media reports about conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia – and in particular stories in December 2011 involving the British PR company Bell Pottinger's use of sockpuppet accounts – Phil Gomes, senior vice-president of the PR firm Edelman Digital, created a Facebook group to explore closer relations between PR professionals and Wikipedians. The aim of the group, Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE), is to lobby for the greater, and more transparent, involvement of PR firms in creating content on Wikipedia.
On 6 January 2012 Herostratus created WikiProject Integrity to counter this, and on 10 January Silver seren created WikiProject Cooperation to help paid editors. WikiProject Cooperation runs a paid editor help page, where companies and individuals with a financial conflict of interest can request edits and ask that approved drafts be inserted. The page was on 57 watchlists as of 31 March 2013; Silver seren was the editor most active on the page as of that date.
In May 2012 Stevie Benton, the communications organizer for Wikimedia UK (the British chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation) created the Draft best practice guidelines for PR on the Wikimedia UK website. According to Stuart Bruce, a PR consultant, the guide was created by Wikimedia UK in collaboration with the British PR group, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Benton wrote that the guideline was written after a presentation to Wikimedia UK by Neville Hobson and Philip Sheldrake, British PR consultants. The Wikimedia UK guide advised PR reps to declare their COI, introduce themselves on the article talk page, identify Wikipedians who might help them by looking through the article history, and to approach those editors on their user talk pages. It also advised PR reps to submit drafts to Wikipedians for publication: "A successful draft may be copied as is or in part into an article by someone else; and it is an ideal way to display alternative wording and better references."
In July 2012 Ocaasi created Wikipedia:COI+, labelled as an information page that described consensus, to promote a timetable for PR reps to wait before engaging in direct-article editing, and a paid-editor certification scheme to encourage transparency. He asked the Wikimedia Foundation for a grant to use the guide to produce outreach tools to PR consultants and to encourage them to sign up for COI+.
Editors have expressed concern about the PR initiatives and the degree to which they have been welcomed and encouraged by Wikipedians. Concerns include:
- in general, the potential for Wikipedia content being unduly influenced by corporate and government participation - even when not directly writing the article, corporate editors can become dominant influences on article talk pages, and become part of the consensus that determines article content;
- that PR reps of controversial companies, by being so active on the talk page, are positioned to engage in damage control as future controversies arise, skewing articles to downplay or eliminate references to negative media coverage;
- that PR reps provide selective or misleading information, and omit unfavorable facts from their talk page comments;
- that PR reps scold and otherwise attempt to intimidate editors not viewed as sympathetic to their interests;
- that despite their professed interest in "improving Wikipedia" and "correcting errors," PR reps do not correct factual errors when doing so would reflect negatively on their employers.
- a feeling that PR reps are condescending toward Wikipedia, and take a cynical attitude toward the project;
- the absence of a disclosure mechanism to inform readers that the article they are reading was shaped by, and perhaps sections written by, employees of the article subject;
- adverse publicity caused by public revelation of corporate involvement in the shaping of Wikipedia articles, notwithstanding the fact – and perhaps even exacerbated by it – that the PR reps have played strictly by the rules and established alliances within the Wikipedia community;
- a feeling that open corporate participation in the editing of Wikipedia articles is antithetical to the basic purpose of Wikipedia;
- the potentially corrosive and demoralizing effect on independent editors, not paid for their contributions, especially when they need to volunteer their unpaid time to supervise the work of paid editors, and when their work is not appreciated or even results in criticism;
- potential exploitation of Wikipedia mechanisms such as the "do you know" and Feature Article process, to gain visibility for Wikipedia articles created or influenced by PR reps;
- the potential for corporate editors and PR reps influencing policies, or becoming administrators, for the benefit of their clients;
- other than the edit history, which the average reader knows nothing about, there is no talk page notation (the use of Done, for instance) of the implementation of a ghostwriter. (There is no paper trail to follow for the average reader)
- the inability of volunteer editors to match the firepower of paid advocates or what sometimes seems like teams of paid advocates (freetime v paid to do a job time)
- corporate editors engaging in "Wikipolitics," encouraging participation by editors they like and cynically invoking WP:AGF against editors who question their efforts to spin articles in their employers' favor
- corporate reps canvassing veteran, semi-retired administrators to intercede on behalf of the corporation.
- the soliciting of proxy editors (ghostwriters) in advance of actually making requests at the talk page. This advance thankfulness creates a subtle bond between the Rep and his ghostwriter: a committment to act and to fight to support the request. This pre-arrangement and pre-gratiousness subverts the editing process. Neither readers nor fellow editors are aware of the working arrangement and automatically assume good faith (in error).
Special concerns during litigation
Large companies and prominent individuals frequently become involved in litigation, sometimes with large amounts of money and even criminal penalties at stake. Courts have been known to cite Wikipedia in their decisions, and jurors will sometimes read Wikipedia articles even though they are admonished not to do so. Thus the exploitation of Wikipedia editing mechanisms by COI editors, representing the subject of the article or its critics, is of special concern when the litigation is ongoing. An innocuous-sounding request from a corporate editor for additional information added to an article, or utilization of sources favoring the narrative of the subject of the article, could have an impact on the outcome of litigation.
Supporters of talk-page involvement by corporations involved in litigation argue that such persons and corporations have the right to voice their concerns about the direction and accuracy of articles, much the way they might write letters to the editor of a newspaper. But what has happened, critics of such practices contend, is more analogous to parties to litigation participating in the daily editorial meetings of the Business and Environment Desks of the New York Times or Washington Post, injecting their opinions concerning the placement, composition and direction of coverage of articles about their own companies. When challenged over this practice, and when their motives are questioned, they behave indignantly and demand that their contributions to the editorial process be viewed as having been made in "good faith." All they want, they say, is to "improve" the articles, and to restore "balance," but they become silent, citing the press of other business, when asked to provide specifics of the alleged imbalance. When not participating in Wikipedia's version of editorial conferences, they can be found giving encouragement to friendly editors and snubbing or chastising editors who are not overtly friendly to them.
Wikimedia Foundation study
- Conflict of interest
- Conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia
- Legal ghostwriting
- Medical ghostwriter
- User:CorporateM, "Comments", en.wikipedia.org, 1 April 2013.
- OTRS users, Wikimedia, accessed 1 April 2013.
- User:JzG, "BP and Wikipedia redux - looking more closely at the content", en.wikipedia.org, 28 March 2013.
- User:Darouet, "Direct COI representatives to talk pages", Wikipedia:Conflict of interest noticeboard, 22 March 2013.
- User:Ocaasi, Wikipedia:Plain and simple conflict of interest guide, en.wikipedia.org, 13 June 2011.
- "Financial", Wikipedia:Conflict of interest, en.wikipedia.org, 8 June 2011.
- Phil Gomes, CREWE, Facebook, 5 January 2012.
- Peter Himler, "Wikipedia & the PR Pro: Friend or Foe?", Forbes, 10 January 2012.
- User:Herostratus, Wikipedia:WikiProject Integrity, en.wikipedia.org, 6 January 2012.
- User:Silver seren, Wikipedia:WikiProject Cooperation, en.wikipedia.org, 10 January 2012.
- Stuart Bruce, "PR, Wikipedia and BP–a sorry tale", stuartbruce.biz, 28 March 2013.
- Stevie Benton, "Draft best practice guidelines for PR", Wikimedia UK, 14 May 2012.
- User:Ocaasi, COI+, en.wikipedia.org, 28 July 2012.
- User:Ocaasi, "Grants:IEG/Wikipedia and Public Relations: Instructional Video and Webinar Series", Wikimedia Foundation, 15 February 2013.
- User:Dirk Franke, "The Limits of Writing Articles for Financial Gain", de.wikipedia.org, 23 December 2012.
- Dirk Franke, "German Community Project about paid editing starts", Wikimedia Foundation, 23 January 2013.
- Wikipedia:WikiProject Cooperation/Paid editor help, en.wikipedia.org.
- "Does Wikipedia Pay?", Wikipedia Signpost, April–October 2012.
- Neville Hobson and Philip Sheldrake, "Wikipedia and Public Relations", WikiConference UK, 12 May 2012.
- Patricia Parsons, "Truth, trust and the virtue of being 'good'", Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice, Kogan Page Publishers, 2008.