Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2020-01-27/From the editor

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Reaching six million articles is great, but we need a moratorium: How long can we ignore Wiki-PR?

Wikipedians should be proud of all our achievements

Wikipedia is the jewel of the internet. We're an educational website, an encyclopedia, designed to be free of advertisements and commercial influence, trying to provide every single person on the planet free access to the sum of all human knowledge. We should celebrate all of our achievements. The English language Wikipedia marked the creation of its six millionth article this week (see News and notes, Community view and Humour) and its 19th birthday this month. Wiki Loves Monuments has announced the winners of one of the world's largest photo competitions (see Gallery). My personal favorite achievement this month is the 15th anniversary of this newspaper, The Signpost.

But we need to stop the spam immediately

Commercial organizations and their undeclared paid editors are overrunning Wikipedia, using our educational content as camouflage for their hidden advertisements. The Wikimedia Foundation seems unable to do anything about it. It's time for the community to take action to protect our encyclopedia. Among other actions we can take is a moratorium on all new articles about businesses until the WMF takes action against the most notorious spammer, Status Labs, or until we can remove all the spam that is most dangerous to our readers.

Unequal financial power

The WMF has a difficult job. It supports the servers that provide over a billion people a month with immediate access to the encyclopedia, maintains and upgrades the software, and provides grants to editors' projects throughout the world. Their budget is about $100 million per year.

Taken together, the hundreds or thousands of businesses who commercially insert advertisements into the encyclopedia likely bring in many times that amount. Just one of the more notorious companies, Wiki-PR – now known as Status Labs – declared operating revenues of over $7 million for 2017, had 200 active clients in August 2018,[1] and currently employs 48 staff members[1]. In 2014 CNBC reported that Status Labs was apparently a "small shop" and that one of CNBC's freelancers was solicited by email for payment by Status Labs to slip “a client's name into copy.”[2] If Status Labs will spam a large national cable news organization, they'll likely spam anywhere they think they can get away with.

Its clients pay high fees for their services. "Fees for reputation management can range from a few thousand dollars a year to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, depending on the clients and his or her needs," according to Status Lab CEO Darius Fisher.[3] One of their clients, Jacob Gottlieb, was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal during a recent investigation, and said he paid $4,000 to $5,000 per month.[4]

Status Labs was contacted for comment for this article but did not respond before publication.

A long-term problem

Paid editing has long been a problem on Wikipedia. The subject even has its own article Paid editing on Wikipedia citing dozens of well documented incidents. The Conflict of interest noticeboard used by Wikipedia editors to report ongoing problems, reports that many incidents per month. Many of the worst offenders have been questionable financial firms such as retail foreign exchange traders, or outright scam artists like binary options traders and some cryptocurrency firms.

Wiki-PR/Status Labs is likely the best known of the commercial paid editing firms among Wikipedians. They first came to light in 2013 when Wikipedias and the WMF blocked 250 accounts in the then-largest paid editing scandal in the history of Wikipedia. The community banned the firm – and not just the firm – in these terms:

Employees, contractors, owners, and anyone who derives financial benefit from editing the English Wikipedia on behalf of Wiki-PR.com or its founders are banned from editing the English Wikipedia. This ban has been enacted because Wiki-PR.com has, as an organization, proven themselves repeatedly unable or unwilling to adhere to our basic community standards.

The WMF later issued a cease-and-desist letter telling them not to edit Wikipedia, using the same language as the first sentence of the community ban. When Wiki-PR started advertising using the Status Labs name, the community ban was extended to Status Labs. When they began advertising under yet another name, that name was included in the ban.

The Wiki-PR scandal was widely covered in the mainstream press, including articles in the Daily Dot, Vice, Verge, the Independent, Ars Technica, AdAge, and many others.

Following Wiki-PR's activities, the WMF changed the Terms of Use stating that every paid editor must declare their paid editing status as well as their employers, clients, and other affiliations. This change was voted on by 1,389 Wikipedians, probably the largest such vote in Wikipedia's history and was supported by 79% of the voters.

You'd think they would have gotten the message

Darius Fisher's firm Status Labs, the successor firm of Wiki-PR, has continued editing for six years after they were all banned by the Wikipedia community. The Wall Street Journal published an in-depth investigation of Status Labs activities and documented their Wikipedia editing in the December 13, 2019 article titled "How the 1% Scrubs Its Image Online".[4]

The WSJ documented Status Labs "reputation management" for five firms and individuals including Jacob Gottlieb, former owner of the defunct hedge fund Visium Asset Management, billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, owner of Citadel LLC, Omeed Malik, Betsy DeVos – before she became U.S. Secretary of Education, and Theranos, a failed blood testing company, whose former CEO is now facing criminal charges.

Citadel LLC admitted Griffin's use of Status Labs to edit Wikipedia, according to the WSJ. Gottlieb and Theranos were directly tied by the WSJ to Wikipedia edits by banned sock puppet jppcap. DeVos's link to Wikipedia was not made explicit. Malik can be tied to editor Stevey7788 who was banned for "excessive involvement in reviewing articles created by" sock puppets. Stevey7788 reviewed the Malik article at WP:Articles for Creation and promoted it to article space. The article was later trimmed and redirected, apparently as part of an investigation by Wikipedia editors requested by the WMF.

An investigation by The Signpost, focusing on the accusations against Theranos, detailed the extensive editing by jppcap to that article.

Other than the redirected article, The Signpost could find no evidence that an investigation by Wikipedia editors had taken place before the WSJ article was published.

WMF response

When contacted by The Signpost this month, the WMF said they would continue to monitor the situation but that they were not planning on taking any action against Status Labs at this time. They received an inquiry from The Wall Street Journal reporter in October and sent that information to the community per the Paid editing policy.

All the information they got from the WSJ reporter was sent to volunteers as soon as they received it. The information was sent to the Arbitration Committee, the OTRS mailing list for monitoring paid editing (paid-en-wp@wikipedia.org), and the volunteers who were speaking with the WSJ. In January they also provided it, when requested, to The Signpost.

This information provided to The Signpost on this particular matter is very short, 120 words long. Two arbitrators contacted by The Signpost did not remember receiving the information. When contacted at short notice, paid-en-wp@wikipedia.org did not respond. Only one of the other volunteers who was sent the information could be identified by The Signpost, and she has not replied to an email request for comment.

The WMF does not expect to issue a report on the investigation.

Any community members who have information on this investigation are requested to contact The Signpost, or include the information in the Comments section below.

The WMF position is that they will only take action, based on requests made by the English Wikipedia community through its usual governing processes.

Proposed moratorium

Please understand that The Signpost is not accusing the WMF or any Wikipedia editor of intentional wrongdoing, but the current systems used to protect the encyclopedia against abusive undeclared paid editors clearly are not working.

Since Wikipedia volunteers are now overwhelmed with advertisements masquerading as encyclopedia articles, and since the WMF seems to be unable to take any action against even the most obvious purveyor of this dangerous material, the responsible path open to Wikipedia editors is to just stop publishing all new articles about businesses.

Make no mistake about it, Wikipedia's business articles are dangerous to the finances of any reader who might be persuaded to invest based on articles written by scam artists like binary options companies or some cryptocurrency companies. Our articles are dangerous to investors who might be persuaded by the unethical executives of companies like Theranos who used Status Labs to manipulate the article on the company. Since Theranos was a medical testing company, the paid edits by Status Labs might have even turned out to be dangerous to people's health. In an everyday sense, our articles are dangerous to readers who might base even a simple decision on article content.

If the WMF does not take swift action to protect Wikipedia from already banned firms like Status Labs, nobody should trust any business article on Wikipedia. I wouldn't base any decision – not even a $3 purchase of canned meat – on a Wikipedia business article. Rather than trust any business article, it would be better to delete them all. But we don't need to go quite that far, I propose that we place a moratorium on all new business-related articles until we have time to clean up the mess we already have.

Formally, a moratorium requires a request for comment that may take a month or more to complete. In the meantime there are actions that any editor can take. Don't promote abusive business articles from Articles for Creation. If you see a new business article, you can remove all of the promotional material, even if that is the entire content of the article. Taking the article to WP:Articles for deletion is the more common practice. And here are 24,164 old articles you can start with right now.

References

  1. ^ Rogers, Patricia (August 2018). "The List: Austin-area public relation firms". Austin Business Journal. Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  2. ^ Wastler, Allen (September 11, 2014). "PR pitch: We'll pay you to mention our clients". CNBC. Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  3. ^ Chambers, Jennifer (June 9, 2018). "Utica school district taps tax funds to manage online reputation". Detroit News. Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  4. ^ a b Levy, Rachael (December 13, 2019). "How the 1% Scrubs Its Image Online". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 25, 2020. (pay wall)