On Oct. 21, the non-profit Wikimedia issued a statement from Executive Director Sue Gardner condemning the black-hat practice of "paid advocacy editing and sockpuppeting" on Wikipedia. The rebuke came after press coverage of an internal investigation into more than 300 sockpuppet accounts that allegedly belong to a PR firm.
Wikimedia retained Cooley LLP to review and investigate allegations that Wiki-PR was behind the edited posts. During the investigation, the Wikimedia community banned Wiki-PR and anyone financially associated with the firm until certain conditions were met. Then, on Tuesday, the law firm sent the cease and desist letter to the public relation company's CEO, Jordan French.
Wikipedia Is Not for Promotion
Wiki-PR bills itself as a consultant for "thousands of people and companies on how to interact with the Wikipedia community." The company offers a cadre of services, including page creation and editing, page monitoring, page translation, crisis editing, and concept development. Wiki-PR isn't the only company to offer these types of services, but it is perhaps the most widely known.
Wiki-PR could not immediately be reached for comment, but its site makes claims such as, "the easy way to accurately tell your story on Wikipedia" and offers to "help you claim your top spot in Google search results."
"When outside publicity firms and their agents conceal or misrepresent their identity by creating or allowing false, unauthorized, or misleading user accounts, Wikipedia's reputation is harmed," wrote the Wikimedia Foundation's lawyer, Patrick P. Gunn of law office Cooley. "Sockpuppetry and meatpuppetry are especially harmful when used to disguise secret works of advocacy purchased by clients to promote a particular product, idea or agenda."
For a public relations perspective on the Wiki-PR drama, we turned to Aaron Gordon, a partner at Schwartz Media Strategies in Miami. He told us Wiki-PR seems to have crossed the line from a consultancy that can point out inaccuracies and correct them as part of other media relations services to a firm whose business model is cashing in on the Wikipedia platform.
"When you do this type of work, you are leaving the gray area and moving into a danger zone. They even named their firm Wiki-PR. Creating a Wikipedia page is a very tedious process with lots of controls," Gordon said.
"These people were clearly very skilled at gaming the system. Any time you create the opportunity for somebody to exploit the system there's going to be some bad actors. Even Wikipedia knows that. I am glad they are trying to put a stop to it because Wikipedia is the gold standard for online reference and it's critical that they maintain their credibility."
Posted: 2013-11-27 @ 8:51am PT
Uploading false info on Wikipedia or elsewhere is bad, but it shall not be confused with legitimate Wikipedia visibility services.
If some lawyer were caught committing fraud on the court, nobody would argue that all legal services shall be prohibited nationwide. Similarly, sockpuppeting and faking sources is NOT what legitimate Wikipedia visibility services are about.
Wikipedia traffic is commerce-dominated nowadays. 21 out of the 25 highest-traffic articles on Wikipedia are related to commercial subjects: corporations, movies, books, TV series, etc. A Wikipedia profile can add or detract tens of millions of dollars from the value of a brand or market cap of a company, so it’s to be expected that companies seek to participate in shaping their Wikipedia profiles.
It comes as a surprise to many, but: paid editing is NOT prohibited on Wikipedia; all efforts to ban it have failed: (see the FAILED policy proposal at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Paid_editing_%28policy%29)
Not only it’s not prohibited, it’s massive: in a recent study conducted by the Public Relations Society of America, 40% of PR professionals admitted to having edited Wikipedia.(http://www.mediabistro.com/prnewser/study-wikipedia-errors-damage-brands-reputations_b73200) In other words, hundreds of thousands of PR pros do Wikipedia visibility work.
The study also showed that "24% of company pages were created by a PR team". I suspect that the true percentage is much higher, as many companies and PR pros do not admit editing Wikipedia fearing the backlash from those who equate PR with spreading lies. At WikiExperts, we have done ethical Wikipedia visibility work for some of the largest corporations in the world, never violating any Wikipedia rule.
Posted: 2013-11-21 @ 7:16am PT
@Chris: Thanks for the correction. Sue Gardner's title has been updated in the story.
Posted: 2013-11-21 @ 5:54am PT
Sue Gardner is the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation not its founder.