Q&A: Virgil Griffith

PRWeek recently reported on the WikiScanner, which tracks anonymous edits and is able to link them to certain organizations through IP addresses. I...

PRWeek recently reported on the WikiScanner, which tracks anonymous edits and is able to link them to certain organizations through IP addresses. I recently interviewed the site’s creator, Virgil Griffith about using the WikiScanner, amusing PR gaffes, and making the industry more mindful of shameless spin.

Q: You have said you started the WikiScanner in part "to create a fireworks display of PR disasters in which everyone brings their own fireworks and enjoys." What did you mean by this?

Griffith: I like catching people making false statements, and that’s a good thing because these are bad people who should be caught. And I think the WikiScanner does a really good job of that. That was one goal. The other was sheer amusement. A lot of people think I had big altruistic goals and things like that - but no, not really. The majority of this was primarily for my own entertainment and amusement. And the world’s amusement.

Q: Have PR professionals or companies contacted you about their entries?

Griffith: They haven’t. They must be too scared to. Although I have noticed that there are PR agencies appearing on Wired’s ["most shameful edits" blog].

Q: Do you think this is a pervasive practice within the PR industry?

Griffith: I was surprised at how little use there was with PR companies. Obviously there was some and they’ve been caught, and they’ll be more and they’ll still be caught. But I was expecting there to be huge amounts, overwhelming amounts.

Q: Do you think this is just going to encourage people to make changes from home rather than at work?

Griffith: The answer is largely yes. But the WikiScanner can catch people editing entries from their homes if, for example, they live somewhere like Redmond, Washington where there is only one company that really matters. In this case, the WikiScanner can search IP addresses by region.

Furthermore, WikiScanner is not the only technique one can use to detect misinformation. And if it’s true information, then it’s fine. They can send it into the Wikipedia community, just like anyone else.

Q: Is there a way around the WikiScanner?

Griffith: If there is a professional PR company, they can still make edits from their network, they just have to create a [Wikipedia] account. Stopping the WikiScanner is very, very simple – you just make an account.

Q: Has Wikipedia contacted you about using this internally?

Griffith: Of course they have. Wikipedia is considering using the WikiScanner internally, and I hope they will be inspired to explore similar techniques.

Q: You said you were surprised there weren't more edits from the PR industry. What other changes surprised you?

Griffith: It could be that the PR industry is doing this really egregiously, but they’re doing it smartly behind accounts where I can’t see them. So that’s possible.

But I was surprised by offensive changes. For example, Apple would edit Microsoft’s page – and vice versa. The offensive editing was not what I expected.

Q: Any other words of advice for PR professionals?

Griffith: I have nothing against PR professionals, I just don’t like it when they say things that aren’t true. As long as you don’t say false things and don’t spin things that are ridiculous – you’re welcome to contribute on the page. And I think that’s fair.

Q: Isn’t spin subjective?

Griffith: Yeah, but you know it when you see it.

Q: Do you think the public ultimately cares who is altering the entries? Do you think the consequences for changing an entry is worse than leaving a negative entry as it is?

Griffith: I have no idea what the average person thinks about these matters, but I can definitely say the PR departments [of companies that made edits] are really unhappy because the edits have been all over national TV. And if a change makes it onto a list of salacious edits, that PR department must be really unhappy.

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