||"Wikimedia is a global movement whose mission is to bring free educational content to the world." (wikimedia.org front page)
Most of this "free educational content" that we proudly announce on the front page has been added, a few bits at a time, by countless volunteers who just want to share their knowledge and are gratified to take part in the largest encyclopedia project ever. Sadly, this wonderful online world risks being overrun by all sorts of commercial interests and government controls. If Wikipedia is to continue as a free and participatory movement we must continually do more to constrain undisclosed paid editing.
The Swiss chapter (WMCH) is going through some rough spots right now, as described in the Signpost's piece on May 2, "Wikimedia Switzerland's board and paid-editing firm". Contrary to what readers of the previous piece may believe, the chapter has not yet engaged in substantial deliberations around paid editing or whether it is acceptable for a Board member to do paid editing. Nor was the disclosure of the paid-editing activities of the board members "spontaneous".
A number of reasons lie behind this apparent lag. The Swiss chapter was made aware of this issue at its General Assembly only very recently, on April 2. People need time to form their opinion in a complicated linguistic, cultural, and social environment. Switzerland has three language-communities (German, French and Italian), and there are also significant contributions to the English Wikipedia. Chapter members contribute on their respective language-Wikipedias, according to those sites' different rules, sensibilities, and cultural traditions. The official communication language used in the chapter is English. The current paid-editing issue came up in the French-speaking community, but that doesn't mean that there are not similar issues in the German- or Italian-speaking communities, or among English-language contributors. A further complication is that quite a few Swiss Wikipedians belong to Wikimedia France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, but not to the Swiss chapter. We therefore tend to let each language community operate with relative independence.
I repeatedly added an initiative to the board meeting agenda that formal research on paid editing in Switzerland should be carried out, taking advantage of the Swiss federal election in 2015 to do an in-depth study of the edits on the candidates' Wikipedia pages across all Swiss languages. This had the potential to determine whether paid editing is being conducted on behalf of politicians, or even directly by them. Now that two board members have admitted their involvement in paid editing, we can understand why these repeated proposals received a lukewarm reception.
The Swiss board's reluctance to address the issue of paid editing is just an indicator of deeper problems in the chapter. Lack of transparency, confusion of roles, and conflicts of interest have all contributed to shifting the focus of the chapter's activities away from its core mission, which should be to support local volunteer editors. If editors start being paid instead of doing volunteer work, will that not affect how volunteer work is perceived? This attitude goes directly against Wikipedia's values and culture.
Out of the woodwork
Two new contributors, "Nattes à chat" and "LaMèreVeille", set up a gender gap workshop to write and improve articles on notable Swiss women. They sought support for their project, being relatively new in the movement. It was in Paris that Nattes à chat was informed about the August 2015 Festicabales event in Geneva. The theme of their future workshop was well received by Wikipedians from France, whereas some of the Swiss-based Wikipedians were uncomfortable with what they saw as the "feminisation" of the encyclopedia. Once the workshop started, the participants started to receive a lot of negative feedback from a very active Swiss contributor, and this got them looking into his background.
Their sleuthing first turned up the name of Racosch Sàrl, a PR firm that advertises "Wikipedia by Wikipedians"; then they discovered that two chapter board members were partners in this company, and finally that the third partner was precisely the contributor who was giving their project such a hard time. When asked about how they manage to separate volunteer and paid activities, one of these board members said that he just switches hats depending on whom he is talking to. That answer was very unsettling for Nattes à chat and LaMèreVeille, and both contributors also felt that there was a definite conflict of interest (COI).
Nattes à chat then asked a contributor to the French Wikipedia, Jules78120, for advice. She attended the chapter's general assembly along with LaMèreVeille to get answers concerning the undisclosed paid-editing activities and COI of certain board members. Two of the three partners of the Racosch PR company, vice-president Frédéric Schütz and former interim executive director Stéphane Coillet-Matillon, acknowledged their involvement. The third partner, Nicolas Ray, was also mentioned but was not present. In spite of this coming out, their paid-editing activities were not fully disclosed and transparent on Wikipedia, and this prompted Jules to publish a piece on the French Wikipedia's Bistro (analogous to en.WP's Village Pump), on April 6.
I commend Nattes à chat and LaMèreVeille for their dogged investigation, which flushed some of the paid contributors out of the woodwork. Part of the board was unaware of either these paid-editing activities or the potential COI of the other board members until it struck them in the face during the April 2 general assembly.
During the general assembly, paid editing and the need for the chapter to investigate the issue were brought up several times. Once the board elections were over, a chapter member present extracted a promise from the new board that they would seriously look into this paid-editing issue, even if the person proposing these investigations is no longer on the board (documented in the draft assembly minutes, but available only to chapter members). Frédéric was re-elected by a comfortable margin, and Stéphane would have been re-elected as well had he not withdrawn, nevertheless this should not be construed as an approval of their paid-editing activities.
What is disturbing is that two chapter officials and the spouse of a staffer they oversee had absolutely no qualms about violating the TOU and were prompted to become more transparent only when the pressure was turned up. The TOU are a good start, but after seeing what's been going on in Switzerland, in my view those terms need to be expressed in greater detail, and I strongly believe that the Foundation should devote more resources to help affiliates to tackle this problem.
What future for Wikimedia Switzerland?
Quite a few chapter members, and even a few board members, complain that their local community is not receiving the support they need for their programmatic work. The feeling is that the chapter spends a lot of its staff resources raising funds to pay for the staff itself, for independent external consultants and project managers. It has now gone so far as to hire a freelance project manager of fundraising! Increasingly, paid staff have been doing the work in such offline activities as photo competitions, wiki expeditions, GLAM, and the main focus of the chapter activities appears to have no need of a local community.
Volunteers from Wikimedia France, Austria, Germany, and Italy sometimes provide much-needed support to local projects in Switzerland, and there's a strong temptation for some communities to abandon WMCH and join forces with a neighbouring chapter. Swiss organisations operating at national level often have to fight against similar temptations. I don't yet see attempts to rebuild the mutual trust and confidence which are necessary for the smooth functioning of our multicultural Swiss chapter.
Let's just hope that our new board will take the hard road and steer WMCH in the right direction, providing the help and support that the Swiss communities need.
Gabriel Thullen is a Swiss Wikipedian and a board member of Wikimedia Switzerland. Pete Forsyth, Nattes à chat, and LaMèreVeille assisted in the preparation of this story.
- ^ English-language Wikipedian Pete Forsyth noted, in his February 2014 Signpost op-ed, that confusion between what is necessary and what is sufficient could lead to this kind of problem.