William Beutler on Wikipedia

How to Stop the Next Bell Pottinger

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on December 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm by William Beutler

I’m somewhat late by now to one of the bigger Wikipedia-related stories to come along in recent months: the revelation of secretive Wikipedia edits by a London-based PR firm called Bell Pottinger. As reported by the BBC and The Independent and others, Bell Pottinger was caught airbrushing client entries, adding promotional material and removing critical information. Of course, the company’s own Wikipedia profile is now disproportionately about this incident, at least for the time being.

In a swift and thorough investigation, Wikipedia’s volunteers determined that Bell Pottinger employed at least ten accounts, and probably more, to edit more than 100 separate pages. These changes included adding “promotional/excessive language”, including “puffery” and in some cases “unambiguous advertising” by accounts with such innocuous-sounding names as “Biggleswiki”. (Ask not for whom the Bell Pottinger tolls, it tolls for Biggleswiki.)

In spite of myself, I was amused: why is it that supposedly smart, sophisticated PR professionals seem to think the best approach to Wikipedia is duplicity?

Problem is, I think that narrative may be driving the response a bit too much. While the coverage has been mostly responsible, noting that Bell Pottinger committed “possible breaches of conflict of interest guidelines”, it is easy to come away with the impression that any interaction with Wikipedia articles by interested parties is inherently illegitimate. Not unlike the widely-reported incidence of U.S. congressional staff edits to Wikipedia in 2006, or similar incidents uncovered with a tool called WikiScanner in 2007, it ends up stigmatizing editors who would make legitimate edits.

The BBC writes: “While anyone is free to edit the encyclopaedia, the site’s guidelines urge users to steer clear of topics in which they have a personal or business interest.” This is not true for personal interests, and while true for business interests, anyone who knows the site well also knows that it is not the full picture. At least the BBC also quoted Wikipedian David Gerard, noting the investigation would focus on whether the edits were carried out in “bad faith”. More Gerard: “We’re having a close look. What the team is going to do is look at Bell Pottinger’s clients and see what edits have been made.” It so happens these details actually do matter. And even Jimmy Wales, amid more forceful denunciations of the bad actors, told The Independent: “There are ethical PR companies out there.” Not that you ever hear about them.

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As some readers will know, I’ve long been interested in the topic of COI (“Conflict of interest”) editing at Wikipedia. I don’t spend a great deal of time dwelling on the topic here, but indeed it has been a professional focus as well. Over the past few years I have developed best practices for clients, mostly large companies and organizations with existing articles, to facilitate the improvement of those Wikipedia articles in a constructive manner, following Wikipedia’s rules. As noted on the About page of this blog: “My goal has been and will always be to improve such articles while working within consensus.” I’ve carried many of these on my back—these projects are not difficult to find—and helped clients engage under their own name as well. I’m proud of all these, not least because so many find it so surprising.

It shouldn’t be this way. Earlier this year, I teamed up with creative agency JESS3 and marketing automation firm Eloqua to produce a “white hat” guide for marketers and business professionals titled “The Grande Guide to Wikipedia”—a how-to for constructive interaction with the Wikipedia community. The feedback was positive, but I heard more from Wikipedians than from marketing professionals. I have no doubt that furtive, undisclosed edits are common at most firms, not because they seek to do harm (like Bell Pottinger), but because editing transparently seems like too much trouble.

Another reason, and I want to be careful here, is because statements by Jimmy Wales have created the impression that anyone who works for a marketing firm is unwelcome. This goes back to the business involving Gregory Kohs and the MyWikiBiz controversy, where Wales’ “shoot on sight” comments remained effectively the only quote on the matter for a long time. Kohs, openly hostile to Wikipedia and vocal about his intent to subvert Wikipedia was, for a long time, the only model. No doubt this unfortunate turn of history kept well-meaning COI editors in the shadows.

But I’m not alone in thinking that this needs to change. Recently, a social media marketer named David King wrote a very good blog post titled “Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers”, which included this astute observation:

The volume of [Wikipedia] content is growing, but the active contributors to maintain, update and police those articles is shrinking. As this trend continues, vandalism, bias, outdated information and blatant factual errors will run even more rampant.

Marketers are the most motivated to maintain Wikis on subjects important to them and invest the time in providing quality, well-verified content. We can fill this gap if we can learn to support Wikipedia’ s encyclopedic goals and follow the rules.

The response to his post was, perhaps surprisingly, very positive—with encouraging replies in the comments from respected editors including Lori Phillips, FT2 and Wikimedia Foundation reader relations head Philippe Beaudette. King was subsequently invited to expand on the theme at The Wikipedia Signpost, where he continued:

COI contributors introduce bias, but I’m also concerned of the bias without them. Some of our most knowledgeable and motivated contributors are COIs. Does that mean we open the doors wide? Absolutely not. COIs are like political lobbyists. We’re needed but our participation needs to be a delicate and well regulated one. But through teamwork, education, awareness, process, a better ecosystem we could change the tides.

I half-agree with this. I think the analogy of lobbyists is incorrect; “COI editors” should self-regulate their own contributions, as Wikipedia’s Conflict of interest guideline itself says: “Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.” Conflict of interest is not fait accompli; a conscientious editor can and should acknowledge the potential for conflict of interest, and take steps to mitigate that. This should include seeking consensus for making edits outside of what the COI guideline describes as patently “non-controversial edits”.

But he’s right that such edits should also be well-regulated, although they are not now. In practice, following the advice of the Paid editing essay and seeking consensus at the Conflict of interest/Noticeboard (COI/N) or at various WikiProjects can present significant delays, another non-trivial obstacle for marketing and PR professionals who might then choose to just edit without providing adequate disclosure.

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David King is also right that there needs to be a better ecosystem, both to support and to regulate such editing activity. But such a system is unlikely to happen on its own. The answer may lie in an accommodation not unlike the one that accepts the role of ethical PR professionals on Wikipedia. To wit: although the spirit of Wikipedia is for it to be volunteer-edited, there are cases where COI editors, whether paid representatives or smart employees, can help address problem areas with certain articles. Likewise, the Wikimedia Foundation plays no role in setting editorial policy, but it can and should play a role in facilitating responsible COI activity.

There are good, active editors at COI/N who frequently catch bad actors (and infrequently help good ones) but unless their ranks are expanded significantly, they would have a difficult time handling the volume, were marketers to wise up and learn to follow Wikipedia’s rules. Why not help them out?

I suggest that a model already exists: through outreach efforts described in the Wikimedia Foundation’s Strategic Plan (PDF) and embodied in the Wikimedia Ambassador Program, resources could be put toward meeting PR professionals halfway. I don’t think the Foundation needs to seek more such editors, in part because they are already here. But it can provide a safe harbor for assistance requests and advice to ensure COI compliance, and make it safe to follow the rules. Yes, there are plenty of how-tos on pages scattered around the website, but if Danny Sullivan is right about one thing, it’s that Wikipedia is confounding to the uninitiated.

Five years ago, Wikipedia was definitely not ready for this. Today I think it is. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it traditional public relations, and certainly not marketing, because Wikipedia is a unique medium with its own rules. I suggest thinking of it as Wikipedia relations, or wiki relations for short. Hesitant Wikipedians should see it as a mark of how far the project has come: while volunteers remain the core of Wikipedia’s community, there is room for professional representatives of outside interests to work constructively in this space.

Returning to Jimmy Wales’ comments above, ethical PR firms and COI editors do exist. With some effort by the Wikipedia community and the Wikimedia Foundation, more can be encouraged, and Wikipedia would be better for it.

  1. It is difficult to achieve a professional level of knowledge about any subject without also developing an economic conflict of interest. For example, a professor of pharmacology who is a world expert on a certain drug class is likely to attract funding from pharmaceutical companies interested in marketing drugs from that class. Per se, I would argue that this is not a problem **providing the conflict of interest is transparently stated.**
    Having briefly reviewed the antics of “Biggleswiki,” the problem here is the fundamental dishonesty in creating “ordinary” wikipedia editors who are in fact shills for a PR agency. **If** Bell Pottinger had created a wikipedia editor profile fully declaring their interests, then surely their contributions should be regarded as welcome, and could be subject to the keenest scrutiny by other editors fully cognizant of the potential for conflicts of interest. The resulting synthesis would be more valuable for everybody.
    Bell Pottinger have acted dishonestly in the complete opposite of good faith. Hopefully the fact that their entire clientele is smeared by association will deal them appropriate economic consequences.

  2. Hey William. I’ve shared your grande guide prolifically with marketers. I like this one as well http://enwp.org/WP:PSCOI.

    Ethics is my key differentiator as a paid consultant, but I feel like the system makes a lack of ethics cheaper and more effective. With a better carrot & stick program, we can do a better job distinguishing between good & bad COI editors and motivating COIs to follow the rules.

    Wikipedians complain that corporations lack ethics, but we should never expect them to. We should expect them to do what’s in their own best interest, but salvaged advert, an overly friendly community, inadequate punishments, etc. encourage bad behavior. Today corporations are more motivated to break the rules than follow them.

    One of the things no one seems to realize is that the FTC forbids marketers to take on the identity of a disinterested volunteer (See the Reverb Communications case last year). I’m no lawyer, but I believe disclosure isn’t just a Wikipedia policy, but a basic legal requirement of online marketing.

    I’d like to encourage anyone who finds bad faith anonymous COI editor on Wikipedia to report it to the FTC, until they take a stance on this and our legal requirement to disclose becomes common knowledge.

    -David King

  3. Bill… first, your comment system is awful, in that I typed in a
    thoughtful, multi-paragraph response, but when I logged in via Facebook, my comment was erased, with no way to retrieve it. So, I then typed it over again, only to find that it still wouldn’t post, so I signed out of Facebook. However, your site would then not recognize that I was signed out of Facebook. In short, your comment system is probably driving away many displeased readers.

    My note about this article was that I am a bit confused why you would prominently mention both me and my enterprise by name in your blog post, but you did so without contacting me for comment, nor did you notify me as a courtesy upon publication. Perhaps one of the reasons why the “subversion” technique of dealing with Wikipedia remains prevalent is just this issue — Wikipedians cannot even properly document what happened with MyWikiBiz in 2006, and they’re not interested in hearing the truth.

    I founded a paid editing service that operated under two key tenets:

    1. That all the edits would be fully disclosed, and
    2. that I welcomed heightened review and critique of my edits, being that they were paid for and could be susceptible to bias.

    Jimmy Wales agreed to this in August 2006, and he publicly announced the accord.

    However, because Jimmy Wales is an untrustworthy hypocrite (if you
    look at the public evidence, you’ll see this is not really subject to argument), he betrayed that agreement in October 2006. Somehow, I emerged the “bad guy”, even though everything I did was part of an earnest attempt to comply with the Wikipedia community, of which I had been a participant for over a year.

    Anyway, Wales did teach me one important lesson — don’t believe one iota of the PR prattle that the Wikipedia faithful and the Wikimedia Foundation churn out about the “nature” of their “community”. Wikipedia is not the “assume good faith” love fest that they like to imagine it being.

    Also, I believe King (above) is wrong about the FTC’s “Reverb” position applying to earnest professional editing of Wikipedia. The FTC issue applies to endorsements and advertising, neither of which Wikipedia even allows.

    Really, enough is enough. Let’s drop the phony frame-up of how PR
    firms ought to acquiesce all control to Wikipedia, and let’s roll back the clock and re-examine how Wikipedians ruined the framework in the first place. Are you willing to have that discussion? Maybe we could put it on YouTube.

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