Should paid Wikipedia editors disclose their conflict of interest?


admin - February 16, 2019 - 0 comments

I love being a professional Wikipedia editor. Researching, editing and creating informative encyclopaedia entries on influential businesses and people, stripping away the digital marketing puffery and conveying a brand’s story using clear, neutral, verifiable language can sometimes be challenging but it is enjoyable. There is, however, one aspect of the job that isn’t so enjoyable. Wikipedia regards accepting remuneration for creating or editing a page and not declaring it to be a violation of their terms and conditions. This policy poses a problem for brands. Granted there are plenty of dishonest people and businesses who attempt to dress up the facts or use Wikipedia as a premium source of link juice, but most brands simply want their encyclopaedic content to accurately reflect who they are and what they do.

How does disclosed conflict of interest editing work?

Individuals or business owners who want to update their Wikipedia entries are strongly discouraged from doing so. This policy exists because writing about oneself in a neutral, objective tone is not something that comes naturally to most of us. Businesses tend to embellish facts or adopt a hyperbolic tone akin to advertising copy and individuals tend to overstate the magnitude their achievements. This type of writing sticks out like a sore thumb. Furthermore, it steers the Wikipedia project away from its goal of building a free online encyclopaedia that functions as a neutral source of information. Would you want to read an encyclopaedia full of advertisements for hair loss treatments or cryptocurrencies? Savvy internet users judge companies by how they act in online spaces, therefore placing an advert for your company on an educational resource is a potential public relations disaster and may soon breach native advertising laws. Wikipedia does have a system in place for businesses wishing to update their pages, but is it practical?

Wikipedia’s policy requires editors with a conflict of interest (COI) to disclose this on their user page and the talk page of the article they wish to make changes too. Wikipedia discourages editors with a conflict of interest from editing pages that they are connected. Instead, it asks COI editors to make edit requests from the talk page of the article they wish to update. This policy seems fair in principle. However, my website, WikiNative.com receives upwards of twenty enquiries per month from people who have tried to play by the rules only to have their edit requests ignored by Wikipedia’s community.

Why can’t businesses count on Wikipedia’s volunteers manage their content for them?

If a Wikipedian is a fan of your company, or if your company is in the public eye then yes, there will most likely be an army of willing volunteers eager to crawl out of the woodwork and respond to your edit request. Unfortunately, most volunteer editors either aren’t interested in business or entrepreneurship or prefer to focus on the negative aspects of these subjects. How do I know this? Each month, Wikipedia issues a series of database reports. These reports give us an insight into the mindset of your average Wikipedia volunteer editor. The top 3 most edited Wikipedia pages of November 2018 were;

  1. Corporation tax in the Republic of Ireland
  2. Dancing with the Stars (U.S. season 27)
  3. The Voice (U.S. season 15)

You can see the full list here.

The database reports tell us a similar picture each month. As well as being preoccupied with US popular culture, Wikipedia’s editors (also known as Wikipedians) generally prefer to focus their energy on un-flattering corporate press, in this instance: corporate tax loopholes. Volunteer editors are less likely to update an article about, for example, the Bemis Company. Since 1858 the Bemis Company has supplied the food and medical industry with reliable, flexible packaging and trade publicly on the New York stock exchange. On November the first 2018 the company announced a regular quarterly cash dividend of 31 cents per share off the back of their strengthened position in the plastic baby food packaging market. However, at the time of writing (February 2019) there has been just one small micro-edit, and much of the information contained in the page is out of date. Why? Well, who is going to give up their spare time to write about a plastics packaging company when instead you could write about Noel Edmond’s performance in I’m a celebrity get me out of here?

Sadly, there is also a darker side to the topics Wikipedians like to document. The category for American female pornographic film actresses has a total of 355 pages; whereas the category for American female company founders has just 43 entries. Wikipedia contains 858 pages for male serial killers, but only 80 pages for philanthropists. Although Wikipedians generally work anonymously, the above facts and figures give a us clue about the types of people who document knowledge in their spare time and the community’s well documented systemic biases.

A 2018 survey conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit that raises funds for Wikipedia) found that 90% of its users identify as male.

GEalvez (WMF) – Own work

While these findings go some way towards explaining Wikipedia’s preference for documenting female porn stars over female entrepreneurs, it doesn’t explain the community’s ambivalence towards business, entrepreneurship and paid-editing.

Since its inception, public relations professionals have had a tempestuous relationship with Wikipedia, culminating in the 2013 Wiki PR sock puppet investigation. In the wake of the scandal, Wikipedia implemented the paid editing policy explained in the latter paragraph. Wikipedia lambasted the practice of paid editing, referring to it as a “black hat” practice and many Wikipedians embarked on a crusade to purge the encyclopaedia of commercial influence. Nevertheless, in the years following the investigation and the subsequent change of policy, demand for business-related Wikipedia content has increased. As the corporate world’s need to establish a presence on Wikipedia has intensified, so too have the reactions of some of its administrators. One notorious rogue administrator who goes by the online persona of BBB23 has become infamous for blocking good faith editors responding to reasonable talk page edit requests. These heavy-handed tactics rarely improve the encyclopaedia and in most cases only furthers hostilities between Wikipedia and the public relations community. The hostile and aggressive tactics employed by a handful of rogue administrators has led to a culture of fear among Wikipedians many of whom are afraid to pick up edit requests or work on commerce-related pages for fear of having their accounts blocked. As a result, many business-related pages languish with out of date information and ugly maintenance tags.

Is it worth playing by Wikipedia’s rules?

In a word: yes. I know this might not be the answer you were expecting and it’s true that Wikipedia’s paid editing policy has had its fair share of teething problems. However, there is a growing sub-community of editors who accept that knowledge and money are symbiotic, and it is better to work with the business community than against it. HousingAnywhereNovica and Katrin Gray are good examples of pages which have been within Wikipedia’s official guidelines with full conflict of interest disclosures on their respective talk pages. Moreover, as online communities evolve, it is imperative for businesses to engage with these communities respectfully and follow their guidelines. There are also legal and ethical considerations around the proliferation of native advertising online, a conversation which has become more apparent in recent weeks with demands for stronger legislation in the wake of the Fyre Festival influencer marketing fiasco. So, if you or your business has a Wikipedia page, or if you want a Wikipedia page for yourself or your business, it may be worth reading up on Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines or speaking to a reputable Wikipedia consultant before diving headfirst into a potential public relations disaster.

If you would like more advice about any of the issues raised in this blog feel free to get in touch with me, either through my Linkedin page or via my website.

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