Wikipedia sockpuppet saga threatens users' trust of the service

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Sock puppet. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.Vice.com's Martin Robbins summed it up well: Wikipedia, he said, is "the world’s go-to resource for information on everything from the Boer War to fifth-season episodes of Buffy."

Although some internet cognoscenti cast a skeptical eye at Wikipedia, the service still garners a vast amount of trust.

That trust is based on an assumption that, ideally, Wikipedia's content is edited, vetted, and can be reasonably relied on to be more than a collection of marketing puff pieces.

PR firms willing to make a buck out of paying clients by gaming Wikipedia's editing processes are now threatening that trust, to the extent that alarmed watchers are predicting that, in a few years, a significant portion of the service's content could well be spam.

Earlier in October, the Daily Dot detailed one of the most extensive sockpuppet investigations ever to be undertaken at Wikipedia, if not the largest ever.

As Wikipedia itself defines it, a sockpuppet is a false online identity assumed by a member of an internet community in order to praise, defend or support a person or organization, or to circumvent a suspension or ban from a website.

As the Daily Dot reported, nearly all of the hundreds of sock accounts uncovered by Wikipedia's investigation shared a few traits:

Most of the pages created were about companies and living persons; the pages were generally positive and promotional in nature; they often cited articles that were written on websites that anybody could contribute to.

One of the accounts associated with what turned out to be a vast sockpuppet network was called Morning277 and had been active since November 2008.

Morning277 proved to be one busy Wikipedia beaver, logging more than 6,000 edits by the time it was investigated.

On a talk page detailing the long-term history of Morning277's abuse of the service, Wikipedia editors say that Morning277 is associated with a group of hired writers who collaborate without ever using the talk pages to communicate with each other - a red flag for sockpuppetry.

As of September, Wikipedia had confirmed 323 sockpuppet accounts identified by the investigation, which dates to 2008, with another 84 suspected.

Wikipedia's editors have tracked most of the entries to a US company called Wiki-PR, a firm that specializes in editing Wikipedia on behalf of paying clients.

The firm offers "Wikipedia Writers For Hire" and claims to "build, manage, and translate Wikipedia pages for over 12,000 people and companies."

Robbins, reporting last week, noted that Wiki-PR's promise on its Twitter profile at the time baldly stated the matter:

“We write it. We manage it. You never worry about Wikipedia again.“

Wiki-PR is unapologetic about its business model of charging for Wikipedia editing.

CEO and co-founder Jordan French said in an emailed statement that Wikipedia most certainly does allow paid editing, pointing to a policy proposal to limit paid editing on Wikipedia that had, in fact, failed to pass, given that consensus wasn't reached in a reasonable amount of time.

In a Wikipedia entry on Wiki-PR's editing of its pages, Wikipedia editors say that the practices of the public relations firm have contradicted the encyclopedia's practices, including those of conflict-of-interest editing.

WikipediaThe firm claims to have administrator access that enables it to manage its clients' Wikipedia presence.

Part of the duties of Wikipedia administrators are, of course, sockpuppet investigations.

In fact, as the Daily Dot described, the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia and its sister sites, entrusts only a small team of vetted admins with the responsibility.

If Wiki-PR’s claims to have administrator access are true, the Daily Dot suggested, it would mean that the firm has planted "sleeper agents" among Wikipedia’s most powerful users - "a revelation that would likely send chills down the spine of any devoted Wikipedian."

The investigation concluded that Morning277 wasn't behind a sockpuppet network, per se.

Rather, it was "primarily a case of meatpuppetry" - i.e., when individuals promote their causes by bringing like-minded editors into a dispute.

As far as whether Morning277 is connected to Wiki-PR, French said he couldn't really comment, given that it's "unclear whether there is private litigation (or forthcoming private litigation) between the admin who blocked Wikipedia user Morning277 and the actual person" behind the Morning277 account.

Are you confused yet? I'm confused. Wikipedia has madly intricate editing and investigative processes, along with nomenclature to match.

Is Morning277 a sockpuppet? A meatpuppet?

The difference, to my outsider's perspective, doesn't amount to much. Either term refers to those with an agenda to push in the pages of Wikipedia, and that seems to be an inarguably anti-Wikipedian situation.

And again, from this outsider's perspective, it does strike me that Wikipedia's "bright lines" with regard to paid editing are too fuzzy and permeable for the long-term good of the service.

What do you think? Are businesses justified in hiring firms like Wiki-PR to massage their message? Or should Wikipedia firm up its bright line to resolutely disallow paid editing?

Let us know your take in the comments section below.

Image of sock puppet courtesy of Shutterstock.

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7 Responses to Wikipedia sockpuppet saga threatens users' trust of the service

  1. Just don't use Wikipedia as a scholarly source. Use it as a hub for finding the scholarly spokes that feed into the page. The sources at the bottom of a wiki page are often peer reviewed, scholarly, and considered valid sources of information. Wikipedia is most definitely a necessary technology.

  2. Since almost all college professors will reject any paper that relies on Wikipedia as valid reference material, it has no real credibility at this point anyway. So itt doesn't come as a surprise to me that someone at the top sold them out.

  3. Machin Shin · 364 days ago

    I don't think paid editing by itself is a problem. There is actually I think a big market for just that. Just imagine that you have a business that is not listed in Wikipedia but you would like it to be. You could go through the process and become editor and add it and so on. On the other hand it is probably easier to hire someone who has experience and knows the system to go in for you and build a page.

    Now that does not mean you should be allowed to have a PR firm go and white wash your company for you. There needs to be strict rules against posting false information. One way to handle this would be to give these firms special accounts so their edits are subject to little extra review and if abused their editing rights get revoked.

  4. Techno_M · 364 days ago

    Unfortunately, Wikipedia is way past its best now. Formerly a quite keen editor myself years ago, I recently tried to edit a page and I had to go through so many checks that I gave up. It was inevitable really that as it became more successful it would attract the wrong attention.

    There is at least one Russian tycoon who is suspected of keeping his Wikipedia entry "sanitised".

    It is still pretty good on science and historical subjects though.

  5. Wolf_Star · 363 days ago

    If a fight between truth and financial profit, truth seldom prevails.

    I can see where eventually all of our history being rewritten by whomever wants to buy the privilege of doing so and no one will bother to object. After all, our Congress is controlled by big business and special interest, why not everything else in society.

    We're heading toward a haves/have-nots society where the powerful few will control virtually everything and the rest will be nothing more than expendable, paid labor.

  6. MikeP_UK · 363 days ago

    Wikipedia is not an infallable source and should not be relied upon.
    I have had to attempt several corrections covering areas in which I work or volunteer, all in the UK. But often the 'editors' don't appear to understand that many things in the UK are different from in the US or many other places. One example is a claim that the UK use the spelling 'sulfur' when the preferred UK English spelling is Sulphur. Another is that Radio Rentals (a former UK TV rental company) was started in Australia in the 1960s, when it was actually started by Perring-Thoms in Brighton, Sussex in 1930 renting out battery powered radio sets. The Australian company was started as a 'sister' company to bring the rental market to the Antipodeans.
    I can quote several other 'mistakes' that I know of professionally, but that they don't appear willing to accept as being errors of fact because what counts as correct in some countries does not necessarily apply to all.

  7. Gavin · 363 days ago

    I think Wikipedia either has to go the way of every other money-focused product or draw a very solid line in the sand against that and make a stand. To allow paid editing and expect the integrity of the material not be spun is just foolhardy.

    Machin Shin commented above that paid editing is not altogether a bad thing. I would counter it by suggesting that the true Wikipedia-ish approach would be for a business to only get a page when it was well-known enough that people entirely unconnected to the company felt compelled to write something about it. A start-up that wants a leg-up is not really the kind of content I'm interested in.

    Obviously companies are going to use every avenue of marketing open to them -- and so they should; that's business -- so it's up to Wikipedia to set a clear policy first, and then its administrators will be able to enforce it as needed.

    Banning Wiki-PR style practices seems like a necessary and obvious first step to me.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.