Gall Pharma, a German nutritional supplements company, was fined €250,000 by the Munich High Regional Court for edits made to Wikipedia, according to the German Wikipedia's newsletter. The company's edits highlighted that their incense products were available in German pharmacies and elaborated on why their competitor's products were not, a contested claim that could influence buying decisons.
The German court found that:
- The company's disclosure on the Wikipedia article's Talk page did not suffice, because readers can't be expected to see it
- Readers have an expectation that Wikipedia is written by objective and neutral editors
- Wikipedia is a form of advertising and content on the site may constitute an "endorsement" of a product
- These edits constituted a form of covert advertising
The ruling may set a precedence on how the European Unfair Practices Directive is interpreted regarding the legality of Wikipedia astroturfing and it will be interesting to see if the US-based Federal Trade Commission has a similar interpretation of its own Endorsement Guides, which require marketing professionals to disclose their affiliation in online communications:
"When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed."
Many Fortune 500 companies have - perhaps without considering the legal and ethical ramifications - written glowing product reviews on Wikipedia that are not far afield from Gall Pharma's editing. Additionally, huge swaths of Wikipedia's English articles on companies are written by the company's representatives anonymously. Are all these edits unlawful?
What it means for marketing
The news reinforces what EthicalWiki's position has been all along, that directly editing Wikipedia is - at the very least - ethically and legally ambiguous. Many PR professionals have been advocating against Jimmy Wales' "Bright Line" rule that public relations pros not directly edit Wikipedia. It turns out it may not just be his rule, it may also be the law.
That being said, like many of Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, the FTC's regulations have language that encourages common sense. I don't forecast companies will get fined for correcting grammar, removing vandalism or offering content for consideration. Rather the ruling re-affirms that Wikipedia is an atonomous site; that PR professionals are not correct to portray ourselves as just another member of the public editing; and that there are some disclaimers in Wikipedia being the site "that anyone can edit."
Marketing is not without recourse for improving our Wikipedia articles. According to Jimmy Wales, "using the talk pages, wikiprojects, notifying other editors on notice boards, coming to my talk page, emailing OTRS - these are all valid options that work successfully. Editing directly is extremely likely to prove embarrassing for your client."
Any contribution to Wikipedia of any size that is genuinely valuable to the site can be made in a format that leaves content decisions in the hands of impartial editors where they belong. EthicalWiki has overhauled controversies, re-written articles and made 5,000+ word contributions without ever touching the page.
The take-home message? Stop editing Wikipedia and start doing quality public relations and content marketing with the site's editors.
Wikipedia's openly editable model and a history of misbehavior on the site creates radical attitudes about what constitutes astrotrufing on the online encyclopedia. According to the FTC, astroturfing occurs when someone intentionally gives the appearance of an organic, grass-roots source by not disclosing they were re-imbursed for their statements.
I would like to set the record straight in particular with regards to what is or isn't astroturfing on Wikipedia.
In 1980 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published "the Guides," a set of guidelines that establish what is and isn't astroturfing. The guides were updated in 2009 and demonstrated in the Reverb Communications case. It's simple, individuals that work for the company are expected to disclose that affiliation in online communications.
In 2011, The Bell Pottinger Group created a fake identity as a retired stock broker in order to pretend they were a disinterested volunteer editor on Wikipedia. This kind of intentional deceit to mimic a grassroots effort may have legal repercussions. Astroturfing laws have led most legal departments to establish policies - as recommended by the FTC - to identify ourselves online and ask bloggers that have received gifts or reimbursement to disclose it. When companies edit Wikipedia anonymously, but are not specifically deceitful, they are not following legal best practices, but it would likely be seen as a good-faith mistake by Wikipedians and in the eyes of the law.
There are ways to participate on Wikipedia that are controversial (and risky), but not necessarily illegal. They are not unethical, nor are they ethical, rather there are areas where there is disagreement and varying points of view, among the Wikipedia community, the media and the public at-large. "It depends" is the mantra of conflict of interest on Wikipedia. While the FTC has not set a precedence or provided guidance for Wikipedia, we can assume that corporate participants that disclose their affiliation with the company on their user page and on the Talk page of the article have fulfilled their obligation to the FTC. Wikipedia's policies and guidelines also allow an editor with a conflict of interest to edit the page, it merely urges caution and warns of "real-world consequences."
EthicalWiki called our latest report "Finding Safety in Ethics," because the business value of ethics is a welcomed collaboration with the editorial community and avoiding the risk associated with mediocre ethics. Companies with a hands-off policy can request factual corrections, discuss controversial issues and offer contributed content to the site's editors through Talk pages.
When companies ignore that Wikipedia is openly editable, our relationship becomes the same as how we work with any other website, because we work collaboratively with the site's editors. Wikipedia's openly editable model gives marketing professionals a feeling of entitlement, but if we humble ourselves and treat Wikipedia with autonomy and respect, any contribution that is valuable to Wikipedia can be made without the controversy.
Within the clearly ethical band, companies still have options. Some choose to pro-actively cover controversies, while others cross their fingers that they won't be covered. One rarely used, but very effective and efficient approach, is a sponsored Wikipedian. This is when an experienced Wikipedia editor is sponsored, but the company grants them editorial freedom, realizing encyclopedic content is difficult to pass through corporate approval cycles.
Most companies can improve their Wikipedia articles by preparing excellent draft articles, genuinely collaborating with other Wikipedia editors and requesting a move to article-space when it's ready. Just like any other website, final editorial decisions are left in the hands of editors who only have the reader's interest at heart.