Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2020-03-01/From the archives

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Is Wikipedia for sale?: How long has Wikipedia been for sale? When will it stop?
Doc James, who is currently a community elected member of the Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees, originally wrote this op-ed in February 2015. The issue of paid editing is as prominent as ever. Some of the company names have changed, some haven't. -S
A user on Elance professing to be a Wikipedia administrator, redacted to comply with Wikipedia policy

A few months ago, now-banned editor FergusM1970 linked to an attack page he had one of his friends write about me. In turn, this page linked to Fergus' Twitter and Elance accounts—the latter a privately owned clearing house for employers to post jobs, search for freelance professionals, and solicit proposals. It was there that I discovered one of the darker sides of Wikipedia.

On Elance, hundreds of posted jobs offer money to edit Wikipedia. Companies like the now-former Wiki-PR, which was involved in a paid advocacy scandal that encompassed hundreds to thousands of Wikipedia accounts and pages, will pay for articles about specific individuals and entities. Others ask to add links to drive traffic to other websites, and yet others are jobs to remove negative content. These jobs appear to be thriving, with tens of thousands of dollars changing hands each month.

With a little bit of looking around, it's fairly easy to determine which account wrote what content and for how much. A number of patterns became clear. Most individuals are undeclared paid editors. Many use a single sockpuppet for one or two jobs and then move on to the next account. One editor stated that they are an experienced Wikipedia administrator. Some were better at hiding their activities than others, with certain editors responsible for a trail of blocked accounts. Elance is just one of many e-commerce sites through which this sort of business is being transacted.

I've been grappling with a couple of questions since:

So what is wrong with paid editing? The first thing we are risking is our reputation. Wikipedia is seen as an independent source. If companies and individuals can pay to have content written about them, their businesses, or their products, we are no longer independent. In October 2013, after the Wiki-PR revelations, the Wikimedia Foundation published a press release stating that undisclosed paid editing "violates numerous site policies and guidelines, including prohibitions against sockpuppetry and undisclosed conflicts of interest" and "is prohibited by our Terms of Use." Jimmy Wales has similarly stated that "he is opposed to allowing paid advocates to edit in article space".

The next and more difficult question is if we disapprove of this activity, can we do anything about it?

The issue of link spamming appears to be fairly straightforward to address. A specific page has been set up to list all edits that remove a dead-link tag. This allows verification that spam-links are not being added as a replacement—a frequent tactic of spammers. Discussions are ongoing with respect to using WebCite to solve the dead-link issue once and for all. The owner is interested in having us take over its management, but I have been unable to determine whether the movement is interested in taking it on. One of the companies involved in adding links to Wikipedia articles, WikiLinkPro, is using the Wikipedia logo to promote itself, so WMF Legal and Community Affairs may consider addressing what appears to be breach of our logo trademark.

The issue of those who are paid to write articles about individuals and companies is harder to address. This editing is usually done through "disposable" accounts, and even if discovered, the content is sometimes kept. Thus we are left to presume that the person behind the account is still paid for their work. Although there has been talk of loosening up our attitudes towards disclosed paid editing, it's likely that for most of those involved, the incentives are less than the hazards of losing their anonymity. It would mostly just expose their work to greater scrutiny, as currently much of the time it goes undetected, which those who are attempting to promote individuals and companies prefer.

One of FergusM1970's last comments on Wikipedia was an offer to detect paid editors for a fee, seemingly oblivious to the irony of this. His suggested method would have been to patrol the major sites and request that they take down Wikipedia-related jobs. The policies of two of the larger websites in question do not allow jobs that violate the terms of service of other websites.[1] I emailed them inquiring about this possibility and they agreed to take down the first user I reported. Now to look at doing this on a larger scale.

Another possible measure would be to keep a list of sockmasters known to be involved in paid editing, regularly run CheckUser on their accounts to identify further socks, and delete their additions. Other methods could comprise posting fake jobs on these sites to identify people offering editing services; however, this could be viewed as dishonest and thus likely not the best idea. How long this approach would be effective is unclear, as those involved would probably figure out ways to avoid detection. We could also look at efforts to generate bad press for the individuals and companies who use these services. The media, however, would likely get bored of this type of story.

So who are their customers? According to FergusM1970, some of his clients included academic Jerome Katz, composer Tony Succar, Derwick Associates, the Institute of Cosmetic and Laser Surgery, and the Ventura Film Festival.[2] About half of the issues I detected had already been dealt with, the accounts either being blocked or the content deleted. Whether that is good or bad I'm unsure. The cases I've picked up are likely the easier ones to detect, such as this obviously promotional addition to the article for the airline SpiceJet: "SpiceJet has overhauled its network starting March 30, 2014. The new Summer Schedule focuses on the most important aspect of travel - you." I have a much longer list; however, I need to first clarify whether providing this evidence on Wikipedia is allowed under the Foundation's terms of use and the English Wikipedia's policies.

This is not the first time that Wikipedia has come across an extensive network of clandestine paid advocacy. The Signpost reported in October 2013 that "An investigation by the English Wikipedia community into suspicious edits and sockpuppet activity has led to astonishing revelations that Wiki-PR, a multi-million-dollar US-based company, has created, edited, or maintained several thousand Wikipedia articles for paying clients using a sophisticated array of concealed user accounts."

A year and a half later, it is clear that neither the Foundation nor the English Wikipedia has worked out how to address this issue. The first account associated with Wiki-PR, Morning277, appeared during my recent investigations, suggesting that they may still be in business.

While disclosed paid editing is a lesser issue, it is not a panacea. The problem I have with disclosed paid editing is that it often turns the attention of the core community from working on articles of higher importance to ones of lower importance. For example, editor BlackCab previously engaged in disclosed paid editing on the article A2 milk, which resulted in much greater involvement than the subject deserves. IMS Health, Alexion Pharmaceuticals via Havas Lynx Medical, GlaxoSmithKline, and others are interested in providing this sort of service for their clients or themselves. While we can handle some, WikiProject Medicine does not have the ability to handle hundreds of daily requests.

Over the last few weeks I have looked for interest in dealing with the dozens of clandestine paid editors I have stumbled on. Is anyone willing to take on the issue of paid editing? Even though the Foundation does not allow undisclosed paid editing, it is unclear who is supposed to enforce this and what mechanisms we have to detect it. The WMF's community advocacy team informed me that they do not have the staff to take this on and hopes the community will become involved in enforcement. The English Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee feels that they have no role in handling paid advocacy at this point in time—paid editing is not prohibited by policy, as they responded to me by email.

On-wiki remedies are hampered by our community policies. It is currently unclear if an editor is allowed to openly discuss specific cases on the encyclopedia. Our conflict of interest guideline may state that editors should "not edit Wikipedia in the interests of your external relationships", but the outing policy takes precedence, and it does not clarify if we are allowed to link to external sites suspected of being involved in paid advocacy. A request for comment seeking to clarify one aspect of this issue is ongoing here.

So is Wikipedia for sale? Unfortunately, the answer currently appears to be yes—but we can and should change this.

The views expressed in these op-eds are those of the authors only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. Editors wishing to submit their own op-ed should email the Signpost's editor.

Notes

  1. ^ For example, the terms of service of oDesk.
  2. ^ FergusM1970 provided a partial client list on his user page and admitted to paid editing for Derwick Associates in a lengthy thread on WP:ANI.