Wikipedia community takes on latest PR gray area

Wikipedia's volunteer editor community is discussing how to handle the emergence of Wiki-PR, an agency whose primary service is editing Wikipedia pages.

NEW YORK: Wikipedia's volunteer editor community is discussing how to handle the emergence of Wiki-PR, an agency whose primary service is editing Wikipedia pages.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that operates Wikipedia, is also speaking with Wiki-PR to determine how to best move forward.

Matthew Roth, global communications manager at the Wikimedia Foundation, said that any solution will include transparency and neutrality.

“Our readers know Wikipedia is not perfect, but they also know that it has their best interests at heart, and is never trying to sell them a product or propagandize them in any way,” he said. “Our goal is to provide neutral, reliable information for our readers, and anything that threatens that is a serious problem.”

Earlier this month, more than 250 user accounts belonging to editors who were being paid to promote products or services were banned from Wikipedia, the Wikimedia Foundation said in a statement.

“[In this case], there has been a manipulation on a scale and a level that we haven't seen before in Wikipedia's history,” Roth said, via email. “As our executive director has said, there has never been an investigation of this scope, scale, duration, and seriousness.”

Wikipedia editors have blamed Wiki-PR, a PR firm that specializes in Wikipedia edits, for the growth in paid editing, according to numerous reports.

Wikipedia does not generally allow paid editing and gives official, explicit permission to do so through its “review board.” Meanwhile, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales supports the “bright line” rule that stipulates PR professionals should not directly edit articles on behalf of employers or clients.

In an email to PRWeek, Wiki-PR CEO Jordan French said he concurs with Wales' rule, adding that large PR agencies in particular have complicated and significant conflicts of interest. He said that editors' suspicions of PR firms are justified, largely because of the incentive to promote.

“In practice, disclaiming that you're a paid advocate or a paid editor puts a big target on your back; other editors presume that you're ‘up to something' mischievous and refuse the edits,” said French. “That's OK and that's their right, however, most of the time our proposed edits remove blatant factual inaccuracies, unsupported statements, and libel that destroys brands and reputations.”

Wiki-PR does paid editing, but not paid advocacy, said French, who called the company's staff “Wikipedia ambassadors.” He said his firm turns down edits that conflict with Wikipedia's best interests.

As for pricing, French said Wiki-PR charges a nominal amount to research, write, and implement accurate edits.

“There's so much work for us to do that it doesn't make any business sense to take on advertising or promotional work that just gets reverted anyway,” French said. “In almost all cases, our clients aren't out to promote themselves; when they want to promote themselves, and we find out their intent, we refuse them as a client.”

PR professionals' editing of Wikipedia pages was a source of controversy last year, after Finsbury reportedly cleaned up the Wikipedia entry of billionaire oligarch Alisher Usmanov, causing a debate about the role of firms that use the site.

This March, Wikipedia said that its editors had not determined a policy for whether PR professionals could submit content on behalf of clients. The issue came to light after a BP spokesperson reportedly rewrote nearly half of the oil giant's Wikipedia page.

Sometimes, clients add promotional material to their own pages. Typically, this results in the material being reverted, the page's deletion, and the blockage of the client's IP. Wikipedia's internal systems “check” on promotions works efficiently, French added.

“Although there was an investigation that questioned whether Wiki-PR used ‘sockpuppets,' it concluded we did not,” said French. “Rather, we were and are paid editors, paying other editors, which is not against the rules. Far from puppets of any type, editors that we pay ultimately have control over what they publish or edit on Wikipedia.”

A sockpuppet is a term for an online identity used to deceive others.

Business has actually improved for Wiki-PR since the story about its activities broke, said French, in that companies that have tried their own hands at self-editing Wikipedia pages are now using Wiki-PR's services. The firm recently brought on Viacom and Priceline as clients. As for pre-existing clients, “most” have been unaffected, according to French. He did not provide further details.

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