Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2019-10-31/Special report

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“Catch and Kill” on Wikipedia: Paid editing and the suppression of material on alleged sexual abuse: "It's time for Wikipedia to grow up."


In his new bestseller, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, US journalist Ronan Farrow describes how NBC News, his former employer, tried to shut down his reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other alleged sexual predators, which is credited with helping to kickstart the MeToo movement.[1] The book discusses Farrow's struggle to publish stories on Weinstein, Matt Lauer and others, while allegedly being spied on by Black Cube, a private Israeli intelligence service.[2]

Farrow's book includes allegations that NBC hired a paid editor to whitewash Wikipedia articles, and this article focuses on this set of accusations. Farrow stated, "NBC also hired Ed Sussman, a 'Wikipedia whitewasher', to unbraid references to Oppenheim, Weinstein, and Lauer on the crowdsourced encyclopedia. ... He spun the material in NBC’s favor, sometimes weaving in errors ... Other times, he simply removed all mention of the controversies."[3][4]

NBC has called Farrow’s accusations against the company a "smear"; NBC employees have called, on air, for an independent investigation.[5][6]

Farrow has a reputation as a reliable source. In May 2018, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, along with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey from The New York Times, for stories exposing the alleged behavior of Weinstein and others.[7] Further, The New Yorker, where he works, has famously good fact checkers.[8] The book itself "was exhaustively vetted by Sean Lavery, a senior fact checker at The New Yorker".[9]


Sussman's work

Ed Sussman has also had an interesting career as a journalist, lawyer, and entrepreneur.[10] He worked at The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. He graduated first in his class from Duke Law School and served as a law clerk for two US federal judges. His managerial and entrepreneurial experience includes roles at Inc. (magazine), Mansueto Ventures, Fast Company, Buzzr.com and he now works for a paid editing company called WhiteHatWiki.

"Paid editors must respect the volunteer nature of the project and keep discussions concise. When proposing changes to an article, they should describe the suggested modifications and explain why the changes should be made … No editor should be expected to engage in long or repetitive discussions with someone who is being paid to argue with them."

WP:PAYTALK

Sussman edits now as BC1278 and earlier as Edsussman. He openly acknowledges that he was paid to edit Wikipedia by NBC News and about 50 other companies.[11][12][13] He declares that he is a paid editor on his user pages and generally only edits talk pages where he again declares his paid status. He says that he strictly follows all conflict of interest and paid editing rules, though at Administrator’s Noticeboards he has been accused of violating WP:PAYTALK.[14][15]

Noam Cohen, a journalist with extensive experience covering Wikipedia for The New York Times and other publications, has called Sussman’s approach “paid advocacy” rather than “paid editing.”[16] If Sussman is advocating for his clients, he is violating Wikipedia's rule WP:NOTADVOCACY.

"Content hosted in Wikipedia is not for:
Advocacy, propaganda, or recruitment of any kind: commercial, political, scientific, religious, national, sports-related, or otherwise."

WP:NOTADVOCACY

Sussman’s talkpage approach has, at times, included lengthy and even tendentious discussions. Kashmiri summed up Sussman’s talk page style by asking, “may I kindly ask you to be more concise? I agree English is a beautiful language, but requiring other editors to read walls of text from you on every single issue is tad daunting, sorry.”[17]

Sussman addressed the issue of being concise in an interview with The Signpost, saying "I almost always get a way better result when I am concise, and I think I succeed in that in the overwhelming majority of Requested Edits for independent review that I make. In a contentious situation, where there's a lot of back and forth, it's harder to do, although I try. I'm always working on it."[18]

The effects of Sussman’s editing can be seen on the talk page of the article on Noah Oppenheim, the President of NBC News. Sussman contributed almost half the total content (48%) to the talk page in 59 edits made over less than three months.[19] The article itself was largely unchanged during that period. One sentence was added about a promotion. A small section headed Allegation of Misconduct was removed and a sentence was added that said that NBC News had no knowledge of misconduct by Lauer until shortly before his firing.

The WhiteHatWiki website describes a case study of an unnamed media executive, showing how Sussman manages disputes on Wikipedia:

Article about a very prominent media executive misrepresented his involvement in a high-profile controversy.
The Wikipedia editor who wrote the section would not agree to an accurate, neutral statement, so we brought in more independent Wikipedia editors into the discussion. Consensus decision agreed with our position and the language was changed. The hostile editor persisted, however, with other unjustified changes, so we began 24×7 monitoring of the article. We wrote extensive explanations of the relevant Wikipedia standards to judge the misleading and biased statements. A full-blown Wikipedia dispute process, involving 10 editors, commenced, and after a vote, the language/incident was removed entirely from the article and an administrator closed the dispute permanently.[20][21]

Sussman declined to name the "very prominent media executive".[22]

Sussman started the article on NBC CEO Andrew Lack via Articles for Creation. He’s written 75% of the current content.[23] Until October 9, when the first reviews of Catch and Kill were coming out, there was no mention of Weinstein or Lauer in the article.[3]

The article for creation was reviewed and approved within five hours without any change in the text.[24] Sussman also wrote 48% of the content on the talk page.[25] On the talk page of another article of interest, NBC News, he was the most active contributor both in edits (10) and for 38% of the total content in just 32 days.[26]

There have been several long discussions about his paid editing at administrators noticeboards including these two. At the Conflict of Interest Noticeboard he's been involved in three long discussions.

Other journalists have reported on Sussman’s editing, including a March 2019 article by Ashley Feinberg. The Signpost covered that controversy with

Ashley Feinberg at the Huffington Post reports that "Facebook, Axios and NBC" used a declared paid editor, Ed Sussman (BC1278) from the firm WhiteHatWiki, to 'whitewash' their pages. Nevertheless she appeared to stop short of claiming that Sussman broke any Wikipedia rules, except perhaps that he badgered volunteer editors with "walls of text."

Sussman dismisses Feinberg's article as the product of a journalist who knows little of Wikipedia or its rules. He says that Farrow based his reporting on ‘’Wikipedia whitewashing’’ on the article, telling The Signpost "Farrow did not contact me and the allegation in his book mirrors the HuffPo story, almost point for point … - he shouldn't just be summarizing another article. He should have done his own reporting, including contacting me."[27]

Beyond the articles mentioned by Farrow, Sussman has an extensive portfolio of about 50 clients on Wikipedia. He states on his user page "You can presume any edits I have made for any article are on behalf of the article-subject or their employer, unless I specify otherwise."[12] Relying on that statement, his clients in the last three months have included: Exelon, and related companies, Commonwealth Edison, Baltimore Gas and Electric and PECO Energy Company, as well as Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen (in conjunction with Squirrel678), Judith Genshaft, Noah Kraft, Infront Sports & Media (in conjunction with Tennisstar1995), Alec Oxenford, Robinhood (company), Andrew Lack, and Axios (website).

He has made 114 edits at Articles for Deletion. Recent examples include Ale Resnik (3rd nomination) (see also the first nomination) and Meyer Malka (2nd nomination).

Sussman's view

Sussman says that Farrow's allegations are "just a retread of the thoroughly investigated and discredited smear in the Huffington Post".[28] He says he didn't initiate the removal of information in the Noah Oppenheim article and he does not have any connection to the administrator or other editors who did remove the information. "Farrow picked up on Ashley Feinberg's B.S. accusations about 'networks of friends' to secretly bypass COI -- it's just garbage".[29]

He wishes that the Wikimedia Foundation would protect the system now in place where declared paid editors submit proposed changes on article talk pages, which are implemented only after review by independent editors.[28] Some paid editors, according to Sussman, improve Wikipedia by offering help to paying individuals and corporations who believe they are being mistreated.

I'm helping a client now who has been targeted for attack on Wikipedia by sympathizers of a U.S. designated terrorist organization. The attack has been live for more than two years. I've helped the subjects of articles falsely accused of hate crimes, murder, and corporate malfeasance. Why am I being criticized for transparently assisting clients combat severe biased direct editing?[28]

But he goes beyond just wanting to protect the current system, proposing fundamental changes to the way Wikipedia works.

I'm calling on Wikipedia to freeze direct public editing of all articles. Every edit should be reviewed by experienced editors prior to publication, just as every edit I propose is. It's time for Wikipedia to grow up. Allowing anyone to publish anything, without any prior review, is an open invitation for information warfare.[28]

This proposed system, according to Sussman, would solve some of Wikipedia's most pressing problems.

When it comes to undisclosed editing by subjects of articles, their paid reps, or by editors with agendas and biases, I think Wikipedia has already lost that battle. The only way to remedy it is for every edit by every editor to go through screening before publication -- the same process declared COI editors abide by now. And that's what I think Wikipedia needs to do to take care of the severe problems with disinformation campaigns by governments, companies, terrorist sympathizers, litigants and others - which I get called on to assist with all the time, by the victims, who feel powerless. Why can't all these very effective Talk discussions about policy happen before misinformation is published?[30]

The Signpost asked both Sussman and representatives of Little, Brown and Co. the publisher of Catch and Kill, for comments on the final draft of this article. Sussman's has been edited for length.

Statement from Edward Sussman

Ronan Farrow hasn’t done basic fact checking about his Wikipedia accusations. Most tellingly, he didn’t even contact me, despite the seriousness of the claims.

Farrow’s mistakes are so glaring and the accusations so easy to disprove, that it seems very likely he didn’t even read the entirety of the Wikipedia article discussions at the center of the accusations.

I did not direct a “network of friendly accounts” to “launder” changes.

A representative of the publisher stated:

"The discussion of Sussman’s Wikipedia whitewashing in Catch and Kill was based on public material including Wikipedia edit records, and on existing reporting from multiple publications including the Huffington Post, which is cited in the book. It was also, like all of the reporting in Catch and Kill, fact checked, in this case with Sussman’s employers at NBC. If Mr. Sussman has an issue with his Wikipedia whitewashing activities being disclosed to the press, he should take it up with those who have hired him."


References

  1. ^ Szalai, Jennifer (14 October 2019). "In 'Catch and Kill,' Ronan Farrow Recounts Chasing Harvey Weinstein Story". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 October 2019.
  2. ^ Thomas-Corr, Johanna (25 October 2019). "Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow review — the bigwigs who backed Harvey Weinstein". The Times. Retrieved 29 October 2019.
  3. ^ a b "Ronan Farrow overcame spies and intimidation to break some of the biggest stories of the #MeToo era".
  4. ^ Farrow, Ronan (October 2019). Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators. Little, Brown and Company. pp. 399–400, 408.
  5. ^ Farhi, Paul (14 October 2019). "NBC News chief calls Ronan Farrow's book 'a smear' in lengthy new rebuttal". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  6. ^ Ellison, Sarah; Farhi, Paul (27 October 2019). "NBC News can't seem to shake Ronan Farrow and the scandal he uncovered". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  7. ^ "2018 Pulitzer Prizes". The Pulitzer Prizes.
  8. ^ Hepworth, Shelley (March 8, 2017). "The New Yorker’s chief fact-checker on how to get things right in the era of ‘post-truth’". Columbia Journalism Review.
  9. ^ Farrow, Ronan (October 2019). Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators. Little, Brown and Company. p. 415.
  10. ^ "About Us". WhiteHatWiki.com. Retrieved 29 October 2019.
  11. ^ Talk:NBC News Paid editor disclosure
  12. ^ a b User:BC1278 quote:"My name is Ed Sussman... You can presume any edits I have made for any article are on behalf of the article-subject or their employer, unless I specify otherwise."
  13. ^ User Contributions for BC1278
  14. ^ Wikipedia:Administrators'_noticeboard/Archive308#HuffPost_article_on_WP_COI_editing (March 2019)
  15. ^ Wikipedia:Administrators'_noticeboard/IncidentArchive1018#Removal of an RfC on a Talk Page (September 2019)
  16. ^ Want to Know How to Build a Better Democracy? Ask Wikipedia, Noam Cohen, July 4, 2019
  17. ^ Caryn Marooney talkpage
  18. ^ via email, October 24, 2019
  19. ^ Xtools Talk:Noah Oppenheim
  20. ^ WhiteHatWiki
  21. ^ archive
  22. ^ via email, October 29, 2019
  23. ^ Xtools Andrew Lack (executive))
  24. ^ promotion to article
  25. ^ Xtools Talk:Andrew Lack (executive)
  26. ^ Xtools Talk:NBC News
  27. ^ via email October 18, 2019
  28. ^ a b c d via email, October 16, 2019
  29. ^ via email, October 18, 2019
  30. ^ via email, October 24, 2019