When you hear the phrase sockpuppetry your first instinct may be to think of Lamb Chop, the sock puppet sheep first debuted in 1957 by the late comedienne and ventriloquist Shari Lewis.
Full disclosure: I lifted the information about Shari from Wikipedia, the “collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.”
Now normally the phrase “Yes, I know it's true, I checked it on Wikipedia” fills any editor with dread and results in a great dollop of opprobrium being heaped upon the reporter who dares utter such nonsense. But the fact remains that Wikipedia entries tend to be top of the pile in most searches on Google and, hence, it has become a de facto resource for settling disputes about the “truth” of an almost-unlimited array of topics.
Another meaning of the phrase sockpuppetry is “using an online identity to deceive others”, and Wikipedia, or the foundation that owns it, is accusing an agency set up with the primary purpose of editing Wikipedia pages, Wiki-PR, of just such activity, as well as paid advocacy editing – in other words, being paid to edit pages on Wikipedia to paint the subject in a favorable light.
I won't get into the minutiae of this case, as it is purely a jumping-off point to the wider issue, though I do wonder if editing Wikipedia pages is a wide enough foundation on which to build a substantial business…
However, I completely accept the Wikimedia Foundation's concern that there is a thin line between a concern for accuracy and paid advocacy, which is why it takes such a wary view of the PR industry. But if we accept that, like it or not, Wikipedia is going to be a universal source of information, then any brand, company, organization, or agency responsible for brand reputation has a right to be concerned that articles published on the online encyclopedia are accurate and fair.
It's a tricky issue for Wikipedia, in that it doesn't write or edit the site itself: it relies on a vast army of contributors and tens of thousands of volunteer editors who review the quality and sourcing of the information on the site.
Wikipedia's Jay Walsh told PRWeek in March that “Wikipedians want to make sure everyone in the world, particularly in the PR and communications industry, understands first and foremost that if you have a conflict, you should not be editing pages. They want everyone to respect the neutrality.”
The subject came up when Arturo Silva, a member of BP's corporate communications department, sent in suggested revisions of the company's page to Wikipedia's editors for consideration. He says he did not directly edit pages – he merely made suggestions, which were subsequently incorporated into the site, in large part unchanged.
He stayed within the site's guidelines and appeared to act perfectly correctly in terms of the way company representatives should engage with site editors, but he still came under fire from some Wikipedia editors who accused him of “rewriting” about 44% of BP's main page.
Of course, one person's truth is another's propaganda or outright lie – the list of most-edited pages makes interesting reading in this respect, with George Bush, Jesus, the US, Michael Jackson, Wikipedia itself (should it be italicized or not), and the WWE Foundation at the top of the tree for divergent views on the “facts”.
This is another of the essential conundrums of a community-operated site, and some editors believe anyone with a conflict of interest should be forbidden from even drafting content.
But a piece in New York magazine this week, which said Wikipedia was the sixth-most-used site on the Web, suggested it was in crisis because of the number of volunteer editors it was losing: a third since 2007 according to MIT's Technology Review.
PR people are not sock puppets - and it's up to both parties to make sure they can work together to the long-term benefit of the accuracy and credibility of the site, especially if the number of volunteer editors is declining so alarmingly.
A responsible and proactive PR industry that respects Wikipedia's guidelines can be a benefit to the site, and we at PRWeek would be happy to play any role necessary in bringing the two parties closer together to establish a closer working relationship that will be to their mutual benefit.
Because if we're not careful this debate could go on as long as “The Song That Never Ends”, our favorite sock puppet Lamb Chop's intensely annoying signature tune.