This is a repost of the Wikipedia SignPost article "Extensive Network of Clandenstine Paid Advocacy Exposed" based on the story the Daily Dot broke in "The Battle to Destroy Wikipedia's Biggest Sockpuppet Army." If you are concerned about astroturfing on Wikipedia, please report this and similar incidences to the California and New York attorney generals.
"Let the largest Wikipedia research firm help you claim your top spot in Google search results. ... We build, manage, and translate Wikipedia pages for over 12,000 people and companies." (Wiki-PR's main page)
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. They have managed to do so through violating several Wikipedia policies and guidelines, including those concerning conflict of interest in paid advocacy—when an individual accepts money to promote a person, organization, or product on Wikipedia—and sockpuppetry.
The investigation was likened by one external commentator to the unearthing of a "sockpuppet army"
Wiki-PR was founded in February 2011, with a physical office at 1550 Bryant St, San Francisco; the office has since moved to Texas. According to the company's web pages, it employs around 25 in-house staff, most of them in sales, and contracts remote and freelance employees like Puneet S., through separate online staffing companies such as oDesk and Elance that recruit remote workers. Wiki-PR's site includes an upbeat statement of its wish to hire potential writers, a desire repeated on Twitter by VP of sales—biker and outdoors enthusiast Adam Masonbrink—who also wants to expand his team of sales reps. These contractors are not well paid, given the evidence in an admission of the role played by one and an anonymous $9-an-hour submission for the company on the job and career site Glassdoor.
Wiki-PR's website lists five services, including crisis editing (to help companies "navigate contentious situations" without having to "worry about being libeled on Wikipedia") and page translation (which advertises that they can translate articles into 270 languages, a number possibly based on an outdated version of the list of Wikipedias).
While the company claims that "a professional Wikipedia editor will consult you on Wikipedia standards to ensure your page stands up to the scrutiny of the Wikipedia community", the community has judged many of their articles to be non-notable and deleted. To increase their customer base it has sent thousands of unsolicited emails, one of which was revealed on Wikipedia in September 2012:
- Hi SiteTruth Team,
- Shouldn't SiteTruth have a full-length, professional page on Wikipedia? Wiki-PR.com creates full-length, professional Wikipedia pages. We have software tools to manage your page in real-time.
- Would you like more information? Please reply by email or provide your contact number. It will be worthwhile. A full-length, professionally written Wikipedia page will drive sales and inform your clients about what you do best.
- Your competitors are getting on Wikipedia. Shouldn't you be on Wikipedia, too?
As one disgruntled Wiki-PR employee is reported as writing: "The warning flag was when I was told not to mention Elance or work for hire." Those who work for Wiki-PR have indeed gone to extensive lengths to hide their activities on Wikipedia. This has included altering their habitual behavioral patterns, frequently changing their IP addresses (apparently to avoid being caught by the "checkuser" tool), and bypassing the normal gatekeeping process by which editors police new submissions to the English Wikipedia. One practice appears to exploit a loophole by creating a new page as a user subpage before moving it into the mainspace, where Wikipedia's regular articles are located. This "bug" was actually first reported in 2007 with the prescient warning: "creating articles in userspace before moving them into mainspace seems to me a sneaky way of avoiding scrutiny from newpage patrollers." Checkuser has also been sidestepped through the company's use of remote and freelance employees, who are able to operate from a large number of IP ranges.
Wikipedia's long-term abuse file on Wiki-PR, named Morning277 after the first discovered account, shows that the company's employees have created and used a staggering 323 accounts, with another 84 suspected. Their clients are just as diverse: Wiki-PR's Adam Masonbrink announced on Twitter just weeks ago that the company newest clients included Priceline.com and Viacom, while a source familiar with the Wikipedia investigation told the Signpost that two music bands—Imagine Dragons, of "Radioactive" fame, and Fictionist—have contracted with Wiki-PR to maintain their articles. Our source also claimed that the company has had at least one in-person meeting with the multinational retail corporation Walmart, though we must emphasize that there is no evidence to suggest that Walmart has already used Wiki-PR's services. Other companies, organizations, and people listed in the public file include US Federal Contractor Registration, Inflection, The Wikileaks Party, and Adeyemi Ajao; Silicon Valley companies, their senior employees, and small financial institutions also feature in the file.
When Wiki-PR was in its infancy in 2011, it charged clients around $500 to write a Wikipedia article; today, it charges around $2000 or more per article, depending on the size of the client, with a monthly fee of $99 if the customer wants Wiki-PR to police new edits to an article. The raw arithmetic suggests that this is, or could be, a highly profitable concern: using a degree of speculation, the Signpost calculates that 2000 clients with only one article each at current rates would yield $4M in revenue; similarly, if all clients took up the article-policing service, this would provide a revenue stream of about $200,000 a month. However, the same source close to the community investigation confirmed that upwards of 12,000 articles may be involved; the revenue stream could thus be considerably more than indicated by these calculations.
Wiki-PR did not respond to the Signpost's telephone enquiry.
The first public results of the investigation were reported by Simon Owens of the technology website Daily Dot, who described the investigation by Wikipedia users DocTree, Rybec, and Dennis Brown (among others) as "the battle to destroy Wikipedia's biggest sockpuppet army". Owens emailed a "few dozen" companies who had articles that were created under the sock accounts, and received four replies. All declined to be named directly, but according to Owens told him that "they hired a company called Wiki-PR to make pages for them".
The replies to the Daily Dot, although a small sample, expressed dissatisfaction and surprise at the service. One client told Owens that after they noticed their page was deleted, they emailed Wiki-PR, only to receive a response that was "obviously a lie". These deletions were blamed on notability and activist volunteer administrators; the clients claimed they were never aware that Wiki-PR was breaching Wikipedia's policies to create the articles. Problems with these articles were far from limited to notability—for example, references to external websites were frequently misleadingly labeled to obscure their true origins. Links to CNN's iReport and Yahoo's Voices, their citizen journalism arms, were in at least one case labeled to appear official "CNN" or "Yahoo" sites, revealed as fraudulent only when the targets were directly audited. According to Owens:
||... while reporting this article I couldn’t help comparing the sockpuppet discovery to a large drug bust—perhaps it might take out a major kingpin, but at the end of the day it’s a relatively minor victory in what is an otherwise losing war on drugs. / According to Alexa, Wikipedia is the sixth most trafficked website on the Web. It’s the first listing in a Google search for every topic from major corporations to celebrities to all manner of controversial topics. If biased, for-hire authors have infiltrated the encyclopedia to a broader extent, [and] we should all be worried. Wikipedia is the primary source of knowledge on the Internet.
After being told of the Daily Dot's exposé of Wiki-PR, Jimmy Wales responded on his talk page, "Incredible. I've been hearing rumblings about this for a few days, and I'm very eager that we pursue this with maximum effect."
PR professionals weigh in
Historically, there has been a stormy relationship between PR professionals and Wikipedia editors, with Jimmy Wales being a vocal advocate for a "bright line" to forbid paid editing of Wikipedia. In this case there seems to widespread agreement in professional PR ranks that Wiki-PR stepped over an ethical line.
In reaction to the Daily Dot piece, Phil Gomes, senior vice president for the public relations firm Edelman and founder of CREWE (Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement), expressed his dismay at Wiki-PR’s actions:
||'Wiki PR' using the term 'PR' is kind of like referring to lancing boils as 'surgery' in that one would not claim to be a surgeon based on that skill. The [Daily Dot] article references their 'aggressive email marketing campaign.' Totally true. [I] fought them off of one of our clients last week.
CREWE operates as a Facebook group consisting of PR professionals and Wikipedia editors who discuss critical issues concerning PR and the editing of Wikipedia articles. Gomes has been vocal in the past about avoiding Wiki-PR's strategies, stating that it is imperative the PR industry "demonstrate by cooperation and good behavior that it can work with the Wikipedia community instead of taking the quick, easy-fix route." He was a major contributor to the development of a freely licensed flowchart that teaches PR firms how to avoid direct editing of articles in favor of community engagement.
The prominent British PRs body, CIPR, gave strong guidance in this area in June 2012 when it published a Wikipedia Best Practices Guidance document PDF. This guide warns against clandestine editing by companies (see Signpost coverage): "There is another interpretation of public relations, commonly referred to as "spin". If this is your mode of operation then you are urged to steer clear of Wikipedia altogether in the performance of your job … You are reminded that 'dark arts' are the antithesis of best practice public relations. Intentional deceit and anonymous or incognito activities are breaches of professional codes of conduct."
While PR industry groups like CIPR have put considerable time and effort into developing such guidelines, they have proved to be no match for the desire to harvest big profits from this volunteer site.
Alex Konanykhin of WikiExperts.us rejects not only Jimmy Wales' zero-tolerance "bright-line rule", but does not reveal his relationships with clients on Wikipedia because "that would expose our clients to being unfairly targeted by anti-commerce jihadists." In recent days, he has been an unabashed defender of his firm's editing activities in the CREWE group.
Previous coverage of paid advocacy
Efforts at paid advocacy have been greatly frowned on by the Wikimedia community, but have received support from some editors. The Signpost has reported on the evolution of the phenomenon over the past seven years. The genesis of paid advocacy is usually traced to Gregory Kohs, who founded a company (MyWikiBiz) with the express purpose of creating and editing Wikipedia articles on behalf of paying corporations. As the Signpost reported in 2006, he offered to write articles for between US$49 and $99, assuming the company met his own eligibility guidelines, which were based on those of Wikipedia. Soon after, Kohs was brought before the English Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee and blocked by Jimmy Wales, the site's co-founder.
The Signpost has covered issues such as Microsoft's attempt to monitor articles and "diploma mills" in 2007, the Nichalp/Zithan case in 2009, and a PR firm's edits ("The Bell Pottinger affair") in 2011. Paid advocacy received its most substantial treatment in 2012 with a series of interviews with paid editing supporters, a skeptic, and Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia. On the site itself, a full conflict of interest guideline was developed in response to the perceived threat of paid editing.
The Signpost's "In the media" writer, Jayen466, reports that the story has been picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and the German internet portal gulli.com (gulli.com "Sleepers in Wikipedia: admins on the payroll?")—a tea-leaf-gazing feature that partly translates the Daily Dot coverage and partly provides commentary on what they describe as admins' temptation to make money from their position.
On the German Wikipedia, a major vote has been started as part of a paid €80,000 study on Wikimedia projects by Dirk Franke (Southpark), funded by the German chapter. Many editors of the German Wikipedia have opposed the request because Franke is being paid for it.
- Tony1 and Andrew Lih assisted in the research and writing of this story.
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.