Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2019-12-27/Special report
Meet Status Labs
Wiki-PR managed to keep itself out of the public eye after being banned by the English Wikipedia community in 2013 and being involved in a bizarre piñata store demolition in 2015. That changed on 13 December 2019, when The Wall Street Journal published a report titled "How the 1% Scrubs Its Image Online". The story implicated several notable figures, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and billionaire financier Kenneth C. Griffin, as well as the fraudulent blood testing company Theranos.
Former employees of Status Labs, a reputation management firm closely connected to Wiki-PR, shared their insight into the companies' operations with The Wall Street Journal. After establishing Wiki-PR in 2010, two of the co-founders launched Status Labs in 2012 with a third partner. These executives of Status Labs became embroiled in controversy in the company's home city of Austin, Texas: in 2015, they demolished the family-run Jumpolin piñata store – including all of the inventory inside – to the consternation of the local Hispanic community, inflaming tensions related to gentrification. The CEO was subsequently ejected from the company, which led to a round of legal infighting. Despite the conflicts, Wiki-PR and Status Labs continued to operate without attracting the attention of Wikipedia editors; the most recent investigation of the Wiki-PR sockpuppet ring is dated 20 July 2013, but both firms have continued to offer services online for the past six years.
Individual clients and specific tactics are mentioned in The Wall Street Journal's story. Status Labs has a broader scope than Wiki-PR: in addition to whitewashing Wikipedia articles, Status Labs uses search engine poisoning to conceal negative news coverage of their clients. When financier Jacob Gottlieb wanted to hide his connections to Visium Asset Management LP, a hedge fund that was destroyed by an insider trading scandal, Status Labs created a network of fake news websites – including "Medical Daily Times" – to flood search engines with press releases of Gottlieb that were disguised as news articles. When Betsy DeVos wanted to distance herself from Blackwater (now Academi), the military contractor founded by her brother whose employees shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, Status Labs constructed blogs like "Enable Diversity" to bury negative coverage of DeVos under a mountain of puff pieces in search engine results pages.
Status Labs charges substantially higher rates than Wiki-PR, with Gottlieb paying $4,000 to $5,000 monthly. In comparison, Wiki-PR demanded less than $1,000 per month for article "management" in 2013.
Today, we take a deep dive into the editing history of one of the articles mentioned in the Journal's latest report: Theranos.
Theranos was a healthcare company that sold blood tests that it claimed would need only a fraction of the blood volume that was needed in existing lab tests. Following a 2015 Journal exposé which revealed that Theranos' in-house technology simply didn't work, the company faced heavy media scrutiny. Thrust into a crisis, Theranos scrambled to defend its image: the company threatened to sue the Journal's sources, and issued a statement labeling them as "inexperienced and disgruntled former employees and industry incumbents". As part of Theranos' public relations strategy, Status Labs was contracted to alter the Wikipedia article on Theranos; 26 edits were performed by Jppcap, an account operated by Status Labs.
Jppcap's first edit to the Theranos article appeared six months after the Journal story and one month after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it would revoke Theranos' lab certification. The edit notes that the company established a medical advisory board.
The account rested for a month before making a series of six edits that scrubbed a pair of mentions of COO Ramesh Balwani from the article. At the time, Balwani was in a personal relationship with founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes, which was not initially known to the company's investors. According to the Journal, the couple "enforced a corporate culture of secrecy and fear".
The May 2016 edits also added Theranos' then-current board of directors, and removed a sentence that described the company's operations as "secretive".
Jppcap then reorganized the article, moving the "Controversies" subsection into the "Governance" section, which was further down the article. "Controversies" was previously inside the "History" section.
The remaining 19 edits were performed five months after the previous batch. These edits constitute the most blatant neutrality violations, and the sheer volume of removed content speaks for itself. Jppcap tended to use innocuous edit summaries, thinning out embarrassing facts by labeling them as "dupes" and "quotefarms".
During the fallout of the Journal story, Theranos was forced to cancel its test for the Zika virus, the pathogen responsible for an international fever epidemic in 2015–16. Jppcap strongly de-emphasized the Zika test cancellation and removed board member James Mattis's conflict of interest, while reinterpreting mandatory Food and Drug Administration restrictions as "voluntary". The Status Labs editor described the deleted content as a "pov" (point of view).
Theranos eventually became the poster child of "Silicon Valley excess", and the company's notoriety damaged the prospects of female CEOs in the startup sector for years to come. Status Labs decided to remove some financial details from the article, which had the effect of smoothing out the contrast between Theranos at its zenith and its nadir.
The Journal report was too significant for Jppcap to remove at this point, but that did not prevent the editor from massaging the language of the coverage to redirect blame away from Theranos.
Theranos also embarked on an extensive legal campaign that affected former employees, generating a conflict of interest when the company positioned its new general counsel, David Boies, on its board of directors. The legal maneuvers were unpalatable enough for Jppcap to prefer restoring a mention of the Walgreens discontinuation, on balance. In one of the edit summaries, the word "sythn" is presumably a misspelling of "synth", which is an abbreviation for improper "synthesis" of sources.
The word "quotefarm" is a dubious term for the article's coverage on Theranos' failed regulatory inspections. Jppcap removed the auditor's description of the company's questionable operating practices, replacing it with language that incorrectly limited the scope of the failure to a test related to the warfarin anticoagulant. The cited article from The Verge does not mention warfarin.
Jppcap's most significant edit affected the lead section of the article, serving as a smoking gun for the entire whitewashing operation. Virtual assistants such as Alexa quote extensively from the lead section of Wikipedia articles, and the first couple of sentences have an outsized impact on our audience's perception of any given subject. Thus, it is unsurprising to see Status Labs remove the criminal investigation from the beginning of the article.
The editor also sharply reduced coverage of a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigation and removed a lawsuit from a corporate investor, describing the deletions as a "reorg". As a finishing touch, Jppcap included an opinion column from the San Francisco Chronicle that attempts to explain away Theranos' fraudulent operations by pointing the finger at other startups.
Theranos withheld its apology from the article. Sorry, not sorry.
Unfortunately for Theranos, attempting to rewrite history did not compensate for the fundamental deficiencies in the company's product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigated Theranos in late 2015; the Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission followed in 2016. Theranos began laying off employees in late 2016, and was liquidated in late 2018.
The author of the 2015 Journal exposé, John Carreyrou, later documented Theranos' collapse in a book titled Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. Forbes named Holmes as the wealthiest self-made woman in America with a net worth of $4.5 billion in 2015; that figure was revised to $0 in 2016. Holmes and Balwani were indicted for fraud later that year.
The Journal's latest report referenced other articles that were affected by paid editing:
- Omeed Malik was dismissed from his position at Bank of America in January 2018 due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Malik later won an arbitration case against his former employer and received an eight-figure settlement in July 2018. Status Labs created an article for Malik in May 2019, which was later redirected because Mailk was only notable for this one incident.
- Status Labs puffed up articles on assets in the portfolios of hedge fund Citadel LLC and its owner, Kenneth C. Griffin.
Further details are listed in a conflict of interest noticeboard discussion.
Our investigation covered only 26 of Jppcap's 3,000+ edits. The edit counter reveals that the Theranos article received the sixth-highest number of edits from the Status Labs associate. The top five articles edited by Jppcap are:
- 44 edits: List of awards and nominations received by Robin Thicke
- 32 edits: St. Jude Medical
- 32 edits: Ugg boots
- 28 edits: FreedomPop
- 28 edits: MWWPR
To the reader, if you ever encounter undisclosed paid editing – including but not limited to operations associated with Wiki-PR and Status Labs, please report the incident on the conflict of interest noticeboard. Happy editing!