Sometimes Wikipedia’s reliance on volunteers to craft its online content comes back to bite them. Case in point: this morning, the organization announced that editors on the English version of Wikipedia have banned 381 user accounts that were engaging in “undisclosed paid advocacy.” In other words, they were posting promotional articles to the user-editable online encyclopedia, without revealing that they were paid to do so.
According to the editor community discussion on the matter, these “sockpuppet” accounts, as they’re called, have been active on Wikipedia for some time. The investigation (dubbed “Orangemoody” after the first sockpuppet account identified) into the suspicious activity began in July and reviewed edits from the end of April to early August. But the nature and the quality of the edits suggest the paid editing scheme began before that.
The articles being posted were related to businesses, business people or artists, and they often included biased or skewed information alongside unattributed material and potential copyright violations, an announcement on Wikipedia parent organization Wikimedia’s blog this morning explains.
As a result of the investigation, editors on the site have also deleted 210 articles that were created by these accounts, the post says, but from the sounds of things, there could be many more still out there.
Explains the discussion page: “This list is not considered complete; due to time constraints, there may be additional articles created by these socks that are not included here.”
This is not the first time Wikipedia has faced problems with paid advocacy on its site, which aims to be an unbiased, accurate and trusted resource. As you may recall, back in October 2013, the organization’s volunteers blocked hundreds of accounts associated with the consulting firm Wiki-PR. The organization at the time sent a cease-and-desist letter to the firm, which promoted its ability to help article subjects claim their “top spot in Google search results.”
That means that today’s news of the banning of 381 accounts is actually larger than that earlier scandal in terms of the number of “black hat” editors being exposed and banned.
What’s also interesting in this case is that the article subjects were also the victims here. This new group of sockpuppet accounts wasn’t just offering to publish articles for a fee, but were also offering to protect potential clients’ articles from deletion for $30 per month.
“The use of declined drafts (and in some cases deleted articles) to identify and approach potential clients is a new wrinkle in the way paid editing is being conducted,” the discussion page explains. “The return to demand further money to ‘protect’ the article is also significant, and we do have examples of socks proceeding to request deletion of pages.”
Though Wikipedia has yet to say if there’s a specific firm involved this time around, it did note that the edits made by the sockpuppets were similar enough that the community believes they are associated with one coordinated group.
It’s also worth noting that paid editing, in and of itself, is not the issue. It’s that there are guidelines that must be followed when that’s the case. For instance, many museum and university employees disclose their affiliations, and several PR firms who maintain pages for their clients have signed Wikipedia’s paid editing guidelines. Those guidelines, developed after the fallout from the Wiki-PR scandal, basically detail how PR firms are to behave ethically when needing to make changes about people or organizations they represent.
Firms have to disclose their involvement with the article subject and work with editors about any changes. The new group of banned accounts did not make any disclosures, which is the larger issue at hand.