News and notes
Wiki-PR defends itself, condemns Wikipedia's actions
Wiki-PR, a public relations agency whose employees used a sophisticated array of concealed user accounts to create, edit, and maintain several thousand Wikipedia articles for paying clients, has told Business Insider that it was demonized by the online encyclopedia.
In an interview with the prominent business and technology news website, Jordan French, Wiki-PR's CEO, said he believes the Wikimedia Foundation "painted" his company to look like an "evil entity" that is "scrubbing truths from Wikipedia":
||What are we actually doing? We’re starting with legally actionable libel. People call us. They’re upset. They’re crying. They're pissed. They typically have a lot of money. They are one hair trigger away from suing the Wikimedia Foundation and/or trying to subpoena to find out who the editors are who smeared them, whether it is an anonymous IP [address], which is almost always the case, or an actual editor.
Yet many of French's new claims appear to be in conflict with the evidence. At least three questions are raised:
Were the allegations and community investigation all a mistake? The long-term abuse file shows that Wiki-PR used remote employees, IP address-hopping, and technical loopholes to maintain up to 12,000 English Wikipedia articles. The aftermath included a community ban for being "repeatedly unable or unwilling to adhere to [Wikipedia's] basic community standards." The Wikimedia Foundation's legal assessment of the allegations was strong enough to elicit a cease-and-desist order in November 2013.
The full text agreed to by French is reproduced here.
Does Wiki-PR protect the Foundation from being sued for libel?
In general, as the Foundation only provides an interactive computer service, according to the US federal Communications Decency Act, Section 230
it cannot be held legally responsible in the US for defamatory content published on its sites: the responsibility lies with the individual who added the material. A recent German court's ruling
on the matter was called a "legal victory
" by the Foundation, though this has been disputed
Furthermore, the number of articles Wiki-PR created from scratch belies the assertion that it was primarily combating libel. Seven examples of their article creations have been uploaded and are open for viewing. Sources in these new Wiki-PR articles typically include Yahoo! Voices and CNN iReport, which despite the well-known brand attachments can be published by anyone, with little to no moderation—or by the US website Vatalyst, which appears to have been offline for six months but was operated by Wiki-PR and similarly lacked editorial oversight. In many articles in which Wiki-PR was involved, these and similar sites gave the articles "references sections [that] always have a surfeit of citations, with the clients' press releases and web sites balanced by passing mentions in seemingly independent publications." French's claim in the interview that Wiki-PR has about 45 people directly conflicts with his earlier assertion to the Wall Street Journal that they have "hundreds" of editors on staff. Wiki-PR's site even includes solicitations that attempt to interest companies in Wiki-PR's article-creating experience. Such pages were lampooned in a 31 January Wikipediocracy blog post ("Extra Creamy Wikipedia – adventures in advertising").
Wiki-PR's actions were sufficiently extensive that their online identities are still being discovered more than three months after the original revelations. Eleven additional accounts are now suspected to be editing on behalf of Wiki-PR; one, CitizenNeutral, was blocked as recently as 27 January. Before CitizenNeutral suddenly stopped editing at the end of September 2013—barely a week before the Daily Dot named Wiki-PR in an article titled "The battle to destroy Wikipedia's largest sockpuppet army"—the account had a contribution history that was characteristic of Wiki-PR employees.
Much of CitizenNeutral's early editing was filled with tagging articles for conflict of interest and puffery, which Wiki-PR commonly did prior to contacting the article's subject. A later focus was on recreating deleted articles, nearly all of which had been deleted for being authored by Wiki-PR. These 33 new articles were short, one-line stubs, with no relation to the previous iteration, which fits into Wiki-PR's typical practice. Vice's Martin Robbins profiled one Wiki-PR client in October 2013, detailing the experiences of academic Emad Rahim. His article was deleted over notability concerns. When a Wiki-PR employee recreated the page, "it contained only one sentence. Rather than apologizing, French told [the subject] he should raise his media profile, and connected [him] to Scarsdale Media, who offered 30 days of 'media relations efforts' for another $800." Rahim had already paid Wiki-PR $1500.
- Tony1 and Kevin Gorman contributed writing and research for this story.
A meeting as part of the project "The boundaries of editing"
on the German Wikipedia, supported by Wikimedia Germany. This was a precursor to the OBS study that was published a short time ago.
- Paid editing study: The German Otto Brenner Foundation (OBS) has published a study by freelance journalist Marvin Oppong into covert operations of public relations agencies on Wikipedia. He is quoted in an OBS press release as saying "The longer I dealt with the subject of Wikipedia, the more I got the impression that PR is widely used in Wikipedia. There is a real market in it." Oppong finds that Wikipedia's internal structures have been unable to prevent the manipulation of the site by public relations agencies. However, his conclusions—and essentially the entire book—have been skewered by German-language Wikipedians. A PDF document of the publication is available for gratis, in German. The Signpost has written to OBS asking whether, and if so when, an English-language version will be published.
- Core Contest: The English Wikipedia's Core Contest, which aims to kindle development of vital articles, is preparing to launch its fifth event. The competition will run from 10 February to 9 March; the winners will receive prizes courtesy of a Wikimedia UK microgrant.
- GLAM interviews: Dorothy Howard's (OR drohowa) interview series with librarians in the New York area continued this week with Bob Kosovsky (kosboot).
- New user groups: The Foundation's Affiliations Committee has recognized two new user groups: Wikimedia Brasil and the New England Wikimedians. Both groups hope to eventually attain chapter status.
- Board minutes: The minutes for the Foundation's November 2013 Board of Trustees meeting have been published, nine weeks after the meeting. The agenda for the current Board meeting has been posted on Meta, and comments are being made on the Foundation Board's Meta noticeboard.
- WikiConference USA: The first national Wikimedia conference in the United States will be held at the New York Law School from 30 May to 1 June. Jointly hosted by the New York and DC chapters, the official press release states that the conference will "concentrate on the future of Wikimedia and will include workshops, panels, and presentations on Wikimedia’s outreach to cultural institutions, community building, technology development, and Wikimedia's role in education."
- Program evaluations: The Foundation has published the latest of its program evaluations, focusing on the worldwide photographic initiative Wiki Loves Monuments. The key points concerning WLM were: more money spent implementing a WLM event doesn't equate with higher participant counts or uploads; only eight in a thousand uploads from WLM in 2012 were rated as quality, valued and/or featured pictures, and about 17% of uploads are currently used on WMF sites; the survival rate of new users brought in by WLM is about 1.7%; it is unclear whether WLM successfully educates new participants about open knowledge and free licensing.
- Ukrainian developments: The Ukrainian Wikipedia has decided to block access to the site for a half hour each day to protest new laws being passed by the country's government, which the community says could cause users to "avoid editing and writing articles about living people for fear of criminal liability through slander, or would copy only official information that does not comply with a neutral point of view." Such a scenario might "create a situation where there will be thousands of articles about people with irrelevant or biased information". A screenshot of the accompanying protest banner can be seen on Kyivpost. Meanwhile, the Georgian Wikipedia community has changed its logo for one week to show support for the ongoing protests in Ukraine. The new logo, seen at right, has had its puzzle colors changed to blue and yellow, the colors of the flag of Ukraine. Wikimedia Ukraine has published a blog post in support of the change.
- Signpost changes: The Signpost welcomes Kirill Lokshin, who will be the new editor of the arbitration report, and Gamaliel, who is joining our "In the media" team.