If you’re reading this, there’s a high chance that you know Wikipedia and have used many times over the years. You may even be aware that one of its core principles is that its articles are meant to be written from a Neutral Point of View, representing all arguments and facts in a fair way.
But this is not Wikipedia and what I’m writing here is obviously biased in favor of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), the parent company to Wikipedia.
Yesterday, the WMF sent a cease-and-desist letter to Wiki-PR, an unrelated company that “consults thousands of people and companies on how to interact with the Wikipedia community” (source) Why the cease-and-desist? According to this blog post by WMF, because the Wikipedia community discovered several sockpuppet accounts allegedly belonging to a PR firm, namely Wiki-PR.
When you have something that everyone wants, there’s a good chance that someone will try to cheat to get it. The resource in question in this matter is readers: millions of readers every day. When you’re the sixth most visited website of the internet, the stakes are high: everyone goes to Wikipedia to get information on almost every subject and only a foolish company would not want that kind of attention on the internet.
So how does Wiki-PR fit in this story? They claim to be a research firm that aims to improve Wikipedia. Yet, their practices seem to be against some of the core principles and practices of the encyclopedia. This is what they claim to do:
Page creation and editing
According to Wiki-PR, they:
…help you abide by Wikipedia’s community rules and guidelines. (…) We never directly edit Wikipedia ourselves. We’ll help you draft a Wikipedia page…
OK, consulting in the community’s rules and guidelines is fine. After all, the guidelines are a massive corpus and following them all is really difficult. I know few people who know them by heart and only after years of trial-and-error practice. Private consulting may even be a good thing considering recent reports of old users being rather unfriendly to new editors.
But there’s something funny going about. First of all, the community itself is the one responsible for guiding new users through the (duh) guidelines. Breaking in is a difficult but rewarding path.
Then, there’s the part that says they never directly edit Wikipedia. Funny, just when Wikipedia closed down 250 accounts in October they advertised themselves with a staff of Wikipedia editors and admins. I don’t have access to The Wayback Machine right now, but CNET quotes their page as it was then (emphasis mine):
…has Wikipedia created a page that you want edited? We can help. Our staff of 45 Wikipedia editors and admins helps you build a page that stands up to the scrutiny of Wikipedia’s community rules and guidelines.
In other words, people with admin rights within Wikipedia were being paid to edit pages—on behalf and request of a third party—in an encyclopedia meant to host unbiased information. Is it just me or does it smell of conflict of interest here?
Once more, a quote from Wiki-PR’s site:
Let’s face it: you can’t monitor every edit made to your Wikipedia page. that’s why we created Page Monitoring service. We’ve built technology to monitor your page 24 hours a day. 365 days a year…
Actually, you can monitor any page in Wikipedia 24/7. When I say any page I mean any page: articles, discussions on articles, image logs, news bulletins, community projects… You don’t even need sophisticated tools, they’re built right in Wikipedia—all you need is an email-verified account and the ability to click on the little star on the top right corner. BOOM! E-mail alerts of every single edit done to your page.
If this was all they do, it would just be an unfortunate case of charging users for a free service. It’s not bad per se, just an unlucky or uninformed decision by the client, not the firm.
However, they also advertise that…
…you need not worry about anyone vandalizing your Wikipedia page—be it personal, political or corporate.
I’ll give them credit and assume that when they say “vandalism” they mean “Wikipedia’s guidelines on what vandalism is” and not “an edit the client doesn’t agree with”.
In the first case it’s just a firm charging for a service that the community does for free: there’s a small army of editors dedicated to patrolling the list of recent changes and most vandalism dies in a matter of minutes.
But if it was a case of following the second definition I wrote, then there’s a big problem of bias: a group of people editing content based not on fact but on opinion.
But what if there was someone truly engaging in libel? Someone actively trying to discredit “your company” through your Wikipedia page? That leads us to…
Are you being unfairly treated on Wikipedia? Our Crisis Editing team helps you navigate contentious situations. (…) so you never have to worry about being libeled on Wikipedia.
a crime very serious business, that’s why Wikipedia needs every article to cite credible sources. Yes, you may go and edit the article on sheep and write that they have purple wool, but without citations of a credible and reputable source, your edit will die a swift death.
When it comes to corporations and public figures, strong accusations are a very sensitive subject and will be heavily scrutinized for credible sources, make no mistake about that. If this service is about fact-checking, it’s another case of charging for a free service.
But what if this isn’t about that? What’s a “contentious situation”? I hope it’s not a situation when your brand is on the public eye for bad reasons. Gee, if it was about that, then it would mean that Wiki-PR is there to somehow “manage” a page while something interesting is happening out there.
An earlier version of their site claimed, as reported by CNET (emphasis mine):
(…)That means you need not worry about anyone tarnishing your image?—be it personal, political, or corporate.
One more thought
Let’s say that every single edit made by Wiki-PR and its accounts abides by Wikipedia’s guidelines and it’s fair and NPOV (although that doesn’t seem to be the case which is how it all began). I find it morally wrong to charge someone for the services that a community does for free (namely: article creation, fact-checking, counter-vandalism, among others) but hey, it’s a free market. There are people paying for a physical copy of Alice in Wonderland even though it’s on the Public Domain and can be legally downloaded for free. That’s not the point at hand.
The big problem here is that a “research firm” seems to have been altering the world’s biggest encyclopedia for the benefit of a few (Wiki-PR claimed to have a profile of 12,000 clients, which pales in comparison to the millions of users who use Wikipedia every day). With all its troubles, Wikipedia has been through many efforts and incalculable man-hours—most of them voluntary and without pay—to make an honest effort towards knowledge democratization. To get people on it just to benefit the highest bidder is a moral abomination.
Do you want an honest representation on Wikipedia? I suggest this:
- If there’s no Wikipedia page about you or your company, ask your local geek/nerd/IT guy to help you start it. You only need to sign up for an account and have a reliable e-mail address. Cost so far: $0
- If there’s a Wiki page about you and it’s incorrect, you can leave a message about it on the relevant Help Page or write to a mailing list that will reach many experienced editors. Cost so far: $0
- Is there content that tarnishes your public image based on true events? Bad luck, chap. You did it, live with the consequences. Cost so far: $0 minus a tarnished reputation.
- Are you truly evil? Then go and ask the Wikipedia volunteers directly to make an article about you. They already know what to do, what to include and are self-organized. You don’t have to arrange meetings, demand updates (everything is recorded) or even nag about grammar and punctuation. If you deserve an article on Wikipedia, they’ll make a good and fair article about you and you won’t even have to move a finger. Then, make a nice donation as a way of saying “Thank you, Wikipedia!” and leave the article alone. Voilà! You have your article with minimal work, excellent depiction and no paperwork. Cost so far: Whatever you decide to donate plus good standing before the Internet.
Also, before anyone asks: yes, this was also published to Medium by yours truly
: I'm not versed in law. Andrew Aguecheek
notes that: Great writeup, tiny thing, libel isn't a crime, it's a tort (at least in most Common Law jurisdictions)