Conflict-of-interest (COI) editing on Wikipedia occurs when editors use Wikipedia to advance the interests of their external roles or relationships. The type of COI editing of most concern on Wikipedia is paid editing for public relations (PR) purposes. Several Wikipedia policies and guidelines exist to combat conflict of interest editing, including Wikipedia:Conflict of interest and Wikipedia:Paid-contribution disclosure.
Controversies reported by the media include United States congressional staff editing articles about members of Congress in 2006; Microsoft offering a software engineer money to edit articles on competing code standards in 2007; the PR firm Bell Pottinger editing articles about its clients in 2011; and the discovery in 2012 that British MPs or their staff had removed criticism from articles about those MPs. The media has also written about COI editing by BP, the Central Intelligence Agency, Diebold, Portland Communications, Sony, the Vatican, and several others.
In 2012, Wikipedia launched one of its largest sockpuppet investigations, when editors reported suspicious activity suggesting 250 accounts had been used to engage in paid editing. Wikipedia traced the edits to a firm known as Wiki-PR and the accounts were banned. 2015's Operation Orangemoody uncovered another paid-editing scam, in which over 380 accounts were used to extort money from businesses to create and ostensibly protect promotional articles about them.
Wikipedia on conflict-of-interest editing
Wikipedia is edited by volunteer contributors. The conflict-of-interest Wikipedia guideline is a "generally accepted standard that editors should attempt to follow". This guideline strongly discourages COI editing and advises those with a financial conflict of interest, including paid editors, to refrain from direct article editing. The paid-contribution-disclosure policy, which has legal ramifications, requires that editors disclose their "employer, client, and affiliation" with respect to any contribution for which they are paid, including talk-page contributions.
Laws against covert advertising
United States Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission has published a guide to its regulations to implement federal law concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising at Endorsement Guidelines and Dot Com Disclosures.
European fair trading law
In May 2012, the Munich Oberlandesgericht court confirmed a ruling against a company which edited Wikipedia articles with the aim of influencing customers. It viewed the edits as undeclared commercial practice according to The Act against unfair Competition Section 4, 3 as it constituted covert advertising, and as such were a violation of European fair trading law (see the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive). The ruling stated that readers cannot be expected to seek out user and talk pages to find editors' disclosures about their corporate affiliation. The case arose out of a claim against a company by a competitor over edits made to the article Weihrauchpräparat on the German Wikipedia.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK reached a similar decision in June 2012 in relation to material about Nike on Twitter. The ASA found that the content of certain tweets from two footballers had been "agreed with the help of a member of the Nike marketing team." The tweets were not clearly identified as Nike marketing communications, and were therefore in breach of the ASA's code.
In December 2005, it was noticed that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales had edited his own Wikipedia entry. According to public logs, he has edited his biography 19 times, as of 9 September 2013, seven times altering information about whether Larry Sanger was a co-founder of Wikipedia. It was also revealed that Wales had edited the Wikipedia article of his former company, Bomis. "Bomis Babes", a section of the Bomis website, had been characterized in the article as "soft-core pornography", but Wales revised this to "adult content section" and deleted mentions of pornography. He said he was fixing an error, and did not agree with calling Bomis Babes soft porn. Wales conceded that he had made the changes, but maintained that they were technical corrections.
United States Congressional staffers
In 2006, it was discovered that more than 1,000 changes had been made to Wikipedia articles originating from United States government IP addresses. Changes had been made to articles about Representative Marty Meehan, Senator Tom Coburn, Senator Norm Coleman, Representative Gil Gutknecht, Senator Joe Biden, Senator Conrad Burns, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Tom Harkin, Representative David Davis, Tennessee state representative Matthew Hill and then-Representative Mike Pence. The edits removed accurate but critical information and embellished positive descriptions. In response to the controversy, certain affected IP addresses were temporarily blocked.
In August 2006, Gregory Kohs, a market researcher from Pennsylvania, founded MyWikiBiz, a company offering to write inexpensive Wikipedia entries for businesses. In January 2007, Kohs said that in his view Wikipedia's coverage of major corporations was deficient, stating that "It is strange that a minor Pokémon character will get a 1,200-word article, but a Fortune 500 company will get ... maybe 100 words". A few days after issuing a press release about his business, Kohs' Wikipedia account was blocked. Kohs later recalled a phone call with Jimmy Wales who told him MyWikiBiz was "antithetical" to the mission of the encyclopedia. Kohs said it surprised him that PR agencies were discouraged from editing articles: "There are around 130 'Fortune 1,000' companies absent from Wikipedia's pages ... How could they not benefit from a little PR help?"
In January 2007, Australian software engineer Rick Jelliffe revealed that Microsoft had offered to pay him to edit Wikipedia articles on two competing code standards, OpenDocumentFormat and Microsoft Office Open XML. Jelliffe, who described himself as a technical expert and not an advocate for Microsoft, said he accepted the offer because he wanted the information on technical standards to be accurate. Microsoft subsequently confirmed that it had offered to pay Jelliffe to edit the articles, stating that they were seeking "more balance" in the entries, that articles contained inaccuracies, that prior efforts to get attention from Wikipedia volunteers had failed, and that Microsoft had agreed that the company would not review Jelliffe's suggested changes. Microsoft also said they had not previously hired anyone to edit Wikipedia.
Heated debate resulted after the revelation over whether such practices called Wikipedia's credibility into question. In response to the incident, Jimmy Wales said paying for edits to Wikipedia was against the encyclopedia's spirit. Wales said the better, more transparent choice would have been for Microsoft to produce a white paper on the subject, post it online, and link to it from Wikipedia. He also stated "Although agencies and employees should not edit our pages, they do – but perhaps less than you would expect."
Volunteer Wikipedia spokesperson David Gerard said, "[Wikipedia] tends not to look favorably in terms of conflict of interest, and paying someone is a conflict." Gerard added that public relations representatives commonly get blocked from editing by Wikipedia administrators.
In the same month that had seen conflict of interest issues raised by both Microsoft and MyWikiBiz, Wales stated that editors should not be paid to edit, and PR agencies would be banned if they persisted.
In 2007, Virgil Griffith created a searchable database that linked changes made by anonymous Wikipedia editors to companies and organizations from which the changes were made. The database cross-referenced logs of Wikipedia edits with publicly available records pertaining to the internet IP addresses edits were made from.
Griffith was motivated by the edits from the United States Congress, and wanted to see if others were similarly promoting themselves. He was particularly interested in finding scandals, especially at large and controversial corporations. He said he wanted to "create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike (and) to see what 'interesting organizations' (which I am neutral towards) are up to." He also wanted to give Wikipedia readers a tool to check edits for accuracy and allow the automation and indexing of edits.
Most of the edits Wikiscanner found were minor or harmless, but the site was mined[further explanation needed] to detect the most controversial and embarrassing instance of conflict of interest edits. These instances received media coverage worldwide. Included among the accused were the Vatican, the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Democratic Party's Congressional Campaign Committee, the US Republican Party, Britain's Labour Party, Britain's Conservative Party, the Canadian government, Industry Canada, the Department of Prime Minister, Cabinet, and Defence in Australia, the United Nations, the US Senate, the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Montana Senator Conrad Burns, Ohio Governor Bob Taft, the Israeli government, Exxon Mobil, Walmart, AstraZeneca, Diebold, Dow Chemical, Disney, Dell, Anheuser-Busch, Nestlé, Pepsi, Boeing, Sony Computer Entertainment, EA, SCO Group, MySpace, Pfizer, Raytheon, DuPont, Anglican and Catholic[failed verification] churches, the Church of Scientology, the World Harvest Church, Amnesty International, the Discovery Channel, Fox News, CBS, The Washington Post, the National Rifle Association, News International, Al Jazeera, Bob Jones University, and Ohio State University.
Although the edits correlated with known IP addresses, there was no proof that the changes actually came from a member of the organization or employee of the company, only that someone had access to their network.
Wikipedia spokespersons received WikiScanner positively, noting that it helped prevent conflicts of interest from influencing articles as well as increasing transparency and mitigating attempts to remove or distort relevant facts.
In 2008, Griffith released an updated version of WikiScanner called WikiWatcher, which also exploited a common mistake made by users with registered accounts who accidentally forget to log in, revealing their IP address and subsequently their affiliations. As of March 2012 WikiScanner's website was online, but not functioning.
In 2008, the pro-Israel activist group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) launched a campaign to alter Wikipedia articles to support the Israeli side of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The campaign suggested that pro-Israeli editors should pretend to be interested in other topics until elected as administrators. Once administrators they were to misuse their administrative powers to suppress pro-Palestinian editors and support pro-Israel editors. Some participants in the project were banned by Wikipedia administrators.
In 2010, two pro-settler Israeli groups, Yesha Council and Israel Sheli, launched courses to instruct pro-Israel editors on how to use Wikipedia to promote Israel's point of view. A prize was to be given to the editor who inserted the most pro-Israel changes.
Church of Scientology
In 2008, a long-running dispute between members of the Church of Scientology and Wikipedia editors reached Wikipedia's arbitration committee. The church members were accused of attempting to sway articles in the church's interest, while other editors were accused of the opposite. The arbitration committee unanimously voted to block all edits from the IP addresses associated with the church; several Scientology critics were also banned.
2008 U.S. presidential campaign
During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, changes made by both Barack Obama's and John McCain's campaigns made news. A user who later claimed to work for the McCain campaign made changes to Sarah Palin's article just before the announcement that she would run for vice-president.
Koch brothers use of PR firm
In 2010, Koch Industries began employing New Media Strategies (NMS), an internet PR firm specializing in "word-of-mouth marketing". Shortly afterwards, it was discovered that employees of the company, editing from IPs controlled by NMS, were editing the Wikipedia articles for Charles Koch, David Koch, Political activities of the Koch brothers, and The Science of Success (a book written by Charles). Under numerous usernames, NMS employees edited Wikipedia articles "to distance the Koch family from the Tea Party movement, to provide baseless comparisons between Koch and conspiracy theories surrounding George Soros, and to generally delete citations to liberal news outlets." These activities were exposed at Wikipedia and described in the press. A large group of editors who were editing from NMS IPs became the subject of a sockpuppet investigation, were blocked, and later unblocked.
London-based "PR fixer"
In June 2011, PR Week reported on a "fixer", a known but unnamed London-based figure in the PR industry, who offered services to "cleanse" articles. Wikipedia entries this person was accused of changing included Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, Von Essen Group chairman Andrew Davis, British property developer David Rowland, billionaire Saudi tycoon Maan Al-Sanea, and Edward Stanley, 19th Earl of Derby. According to PR Week, 42 edits were made from the same IP address, most of them removing negative or controversial information, or adding positive information.
In December 2011, blogger Tim Ireland, The Independent, and the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) discovered that Bell Pottinger, one of the UK's largest public relations companies, had manipulated articles on behalf of its clients. Wikipedians discovered up to 19 accounts, 10 of which had over 100 edits each, which traced back to Bell Pottinger's offices; as a result of the investigation 10 of the accounts were blocked. Bell Pottinger was accused of using sock or meatpuppets to edit pages to create the appearance of support for changes in articles. One of the most noted accounts was registered under the name "Biggleswiki" (an internal Wikipedia investigation resulted in several such cases). Bell Pottinger admitted that its employees had used several accounts, but said that the company had not done anything illegal. Analysis of the edits demonstrated that the changes had both added positive information and removed negative content, including the removal of information regarding the drug conviction of a businessman and Bell Pottinger client, and changing information about the arrest of a man convicted for commercial bribery.
Undercover BIJ reporters made inquiries while posing as members of the Uzbek government; Bell Pottinger told them that the company offered "sorting" of negative information and criticism on Wikipedia articles, as well as other "dark arts".
Jimmy Wales called Bell Pottinger's actions "ethical blindness." Timothy Bell, the chairman, launched an internal review, but disagreed with Wales's view. He said, "You can destroy someone's reputation in one minute and it will take years to rebuild," and continued: "It's important for Wikipedia to recognise we are a valuable source for accurate information," and "apparently if you are not-for-profit what you say is true but that if you are a paid-for advocate you are lying." The head of digital at Bell Pottinger blamed the incident on Wikipedia's "confusing" editing system and "the pressure put on us by clients to remove potentially defamatory or libellous statements very quickly, because Wikipedia is so authoritative."
In 2016, Bell Pottinger staff were reported to have edited Wikipedia articles relating to South African individuals and companies, while the agency was working for the Gupta family. Substantial editing of the Wikipedia page about the Guptas was also reported; a Bell Pottinger employee was said to have emailed much of the content to a Gupta account for it to be uploaded. In December 2016, South African billionaire Johann Rupert dropped Bell Pottinger as the PR agency of Richemont, accusing Bell Pottinger of running a social media campaign against him, to divert attention away from persistent 'state capture' allegations leveled at the Gupta family. In February 2017, Rupert alleged that Bell Pottinger had maliciously altered his Wikipedia page.
In January 2012, British MP Tom Watson discovered that Portland Communications had been removing the nickname of one of its clients' products ("Wife Beater", referring to Anheuser-Busch InBev's Stella Artois beer) from Wikipedia. Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) CEO Jane Wilson noted, "Stella Artois is on the 'wife-beater' page because it is a nick-name in common currency for that brand of strong continental lager. The brand managers who want to change this have a wider reputational issue to address, editing the term from a Wikipedia page will not get rid of this association." Other edits from Portland's offices included changes to articles about another Portland client, the Kazakhstan's BTA Bank, and its former head Mukhtar Ablyazov. Portland did not deny making the changes, arguing they had been done transparently and in accordance with Wikipedia's policies. Portland Communications welcomed CIPR's subsequent announcement of a collaboration with Wikipedia and invited Jimmy Wales to speak to their company, as he did at Bell Pottinger. Tom Watson was optimistic about the collaboration: "PR professionals need clear guidelines in this new world of online-information-sharing. That's why I am delighted that interested parties are coming together to establish a clear code of conduct."
Around the beginning of 2012, Joe DeSantis, the campaign communications director for American presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, argued for and made changes to Gingrich's Wikipedia article. Some changes which DeSantis requested were minor, but his initial efforts tried to remove negative details which he thought unduly biased the articles, including details about Gingrich's extramarital affairs, information about his financial expenditure, ethics charges against him, and his political positions on controversial issues.
The incident was notable for DeSantis' switch from editing articles about the politician and his wife directly, to following Wikipedia' conflict of interest guideline by using the linked discussion pages for each article to suggest edits rather than make them himself. He said, "I stopped making direct edits in May 2011 because I was alerted to the COI rules...Earlier I thought that simply disclosing my affiliation was enough but it wasn't. So I started posting requests on the Talk page. This has been far more successful and the other editors on Wikipedia have largely received this very positively." He told the political journalism organization Politico that his approach of working with the Wikipedia community by discussing edits on talk pages to be more successful than making the changes himself. Wikipedia editor Tvoz was quoted as critical of the practice; she wrote: "... I have to say this micro-managing by a Gingrich campaign director is a matter of concern to me even though you now are identifying yourself. Pointing out factual errors is one thing, but your input should not go beyond that, even [on a Talk page]."
United Kingdom Parliament
In March 2012, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism uncovered that UK MPs or their staff had made almost 10,000 edits to the encyclopedia, and that almost one in six MPs had their Wikipedia articles edited from within Parliament. Many of the changes dealt with removing unflattering details from during the 2009 expenses scandal, as well as other controversial issues. Former MP Joan Ryan admitted to changing her entry "whenever there's misleading or untruthful information [that has] been placed on it." Clare Short said her staff were "angry and protective" over mistakes and criticisms in her Wikipedia article and acknowledged they might have made changes to it. Labour MP Fabian Hamilton also reported having one of his assistants edit a page to make it more accurate, in his view. MP Philip Davies denied making changes about removing controversial comments related to Muslims from 2006 and 2007.
The Sun newspaper alleged that in 2007, Labour MP Chuka Umunna, under the name Socialdemocrat, created and repeatedly edited his own Wikipedia page. The newspaper highlighted edits such as those describing Umunna as the British Barack Obama. Umunna told the Daily Telegraph that he did not alter his own Wikipedia page, but the paper quoted what they called "sources close to Umunna" as having told the newspaper that "it was possible that one of his campaign team in 2007, when he was trying to be selected to be Labour's candidate for Streatham in the 2010 general election, set up the page."
In September 2012, controversy surrounded Wikimedia UK trustee Roger Bamkin, who along with OCLC Wikipedian in Residence Maximillian Klein, had been organizing an effort named Gibraltarpedia to create articles about Gibraltar in partnership with the Gibraltar Tourism Board. Articles written under this program were featured on the Wikipedia mainpage an unusually high 17 times in the course of a few weeks. This issue brought attention to organizational conflicts of interest regarding Wikimedia Movement partners, leading to an investigation of WMUK. Bamkin stepped down as trustee following the media response. Jimmy Wales commented, "It is wildly inappropriate for a board member of a chapter, or anyone else in an official role of any kind in a charity associated with Wikipedia, to take payment from customers in exchange for securing favorable placement on the front page of Wikimedia or anywhere else."
In February 2013, for-profit prison company GEO Group received major media coverage when a Wikipedia user under the name Abraham Cohen edited the entry on the company regarding naming rights to Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Stadium. GEO Group's Manager of Corporate Relations at the time was named Abraham Cohen, who is an FAU alumnus, former FAU student body president, and former ex-officio member of the FAU board of trustees. Eleven edits constituting the majority of all those changes had been made in a single day under a Wikipedia account named "Abraham Cohen", the only day on which that account has ever been used.
In March 2013, it was reported that a member of BP's press office had submitted drafts to rewrite the company's article, including sections dealing with its environmental record; the drafts were reviewed and added by other editors. Estimates of the size of the contributions were as high as 44 percent of the article. The BP press officer, who called himself "Arturo at BP," said he had chosen that name to make his affiliation clear, and noted that he had not directly edited the page. The development caused concern because the content was being produced by an employee, while "readers would be none the wiser." Jimmy Wales was quoted in Salon.com, saying "I think that accusing [BP employee] Arturo of 'skirting' Wikipedia's rules in this case is fairly ludicrous – unless 'skirting' means 'going above and beyond what is required in order to be very clearly in compliance with best practice.' So, I would consider that a blatant factual misrepresentation." The Wikipedia community intensely debated the ethics of the incident and how to handle it and other similar cases.
This company affirms that "WikiExperts employees do not directly edit Wikipedia. Instead, we act as a consulting company which outsources such editing to most suitable affiliated experts."
In 2012, Wikipedia volunteers launched possibly one of the largest sockpuppet investigations in its history after editors on its website reported suspicious activity suggesting a number of accounts were used to subvert Wikipedia's policies. After almost a year of investigation, over 250 sockpuppet accounts were allegedly found, operated by two independent networks of users. Wikipedia editors traced the edits and sockpuppetry back to a firm known as Wiki-PR, leading to a cease and desist letter by Sue Gardner issued to the founders of the organization. The accounts were banned. On 25 October 2013, a community ban was further placed on Wiki-PR and any of its contractors.
At a December 2015 Peking Duk show in Melbourne, a fan (David Spargo) accessed the backstage area by editing the band's Wikipedia article page and inserting himself as a family member. Upon showing the article and his ID to the security guards, he was granted access to the band with whom he shared a beer. The band reacted positively to this scheme, stating: "He explained to us his amazing tactic to get past security to hang with us and we immediately cracked him a beer. This dude is the definition of a legend." However, Hyde did add: "It goes to show, never trust Wikipedia".
In 2015, the Wikipedia community blocked 381 accounts, many of them suspected sock puppets of the same people, after a two-month investigation called Operation Orangemoody revealed that the accounts had been used to blackmail firms "struggling to get pages about their businesses on Wikipedia." These businesses had been told by Wikipedia users that articles about them had been "rejected due to concerns of excessive promotional content." In a few cases, the users asking for money were the same accounts that had earlier rejected the articles for publication.
The scammers asked for hundreds of pounds to "protect or promote" the firms' interests. Wikipedia deleted 210 articles related to UK businesses, most of them of middle size. Individuals were also targeted. The investigation was named OrangeMoody by Wikipedia editors after the name of the first identified account. An unnamed Wikipedia spokesperson[dubious ] stated that "undisclosed paid advocacy editing may represent a serious conflict of interest and could compromise the quality of content on Wikipedia."
Irish former Senator Jim Walsh
In September 2015, former senator Jim Walsh admitted editing his own Wikipedia entry, claiming it had been edited by "a person from the gay lobby groups". He said that he had removed "certain erroneous comments" but did not say which edits he made. T.J. McIntyre, a law lecturer at University College Dublin, drew attention to edits made from an IP address belonging to the Oireachtas. Edits made from that address included removal of controversial comments made by the former senator about gay people or the Marriage Equality referendum.
On 12 April 2017, Burger King released a commercial in which an employee states that he could not explain a Whopper in 15 seconds, after which he states "OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?" The dialogue was designed to trigger voice searches on Android devices and Google Home smart speakers configured to automatically respond to the phrase "OK Google". The specific query causes the device to read out a snippet sourced from Wikipedia's article on the Whopper. However, prior to the ad's premiere, the article had been edited by users, including one named "Burger King Corporation", so that Google's automatically generated response to the query (via the Google Knowledge Graph) would be a detailed description of the Whopper burger that utilized promotional language. The edits were reverted for violating Wikipedia's policies against blatant promotion.
Furthermore, the snippet became the target of vandals, who edited the article to claim that the sandwich contained such ingredients as "cyanide", "a medium-sized child", "rat meat" and "toenail clippings", while some users reported that Google Home had relayed information from these vandalized revisions. Soon after the release of the commercial, Google blacklisted its audio so that it would not trigger the always-on voice detection. Wikipedia also protected the Whopper article to prevent the promotional descriptions or vandalism from being re-inserted. Burger King claimed to have released a modified version of the commercial later that evening which evaded Google's block.
The North Face
In May 2019, marketing agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made revealed they had been hired by outdoor clothing company The North Face to replace images of outdoor destinations with photos containing the company's apparel, in an attempt to get its apparel to appear at the top of Google results through search engine optimization. Following media coverage, the photos were all removed from articles and some modified by Wikimedia Commons users to remove or obscure the branding. The Wikimedia Foundation condemned the stunt, stating in a press release: "when The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry. Adding content that is solely for commercial promotion goes directly against the policies, purpose and mission of Wikipedia".
After Wikipedia volunteers blocked the accounts involved for breaches of Wikipedia policies on paid editing, The North Face posted a response as a reply on Twitter, stating that they had ended the campaign and that "We believe deeply in Wikipedia's mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles." Leo Burnett Tailor Made also issued a statement, stating that they "found a unique way to contribute photography of adventure destinations to their respective Wikipedia articles while achieving the goal of elevating those images in search rankings" and that they had "since learned that this effort worked counter to Wikipedia’s community guidelines." The community of Wikimedia Commons started a process to delete the images. After half a month of discussion, all the images were deleted on copyright grounds.
The campaign was described as "wildly misguided" and as having "egregiously violated just about every principle you can think about with respect to trying to maintain consumer trust" by Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania in an interview to The New York Times.
In October 2019, the BBC reported that there were indications that tendentious edits on 22 politically sensitive articles (such as those related to the 2019 Hong Kong Protests or Taiwan) were not all "necessarily organic, nor random." The BBC quoted an academic article published in the Journal of Social Sciences called Opportunities And Challenges Of China's Foreign Communication in the Wikipedia as saying "due to the influence by foreign media, Wikipedia entries have a large number of prejudiced words against the Chinese government" and continues "We must develop a targeted external communication strategy, which includes not only rebuilding a set of external communication discourse systems, but also cultivating influential editors on the wiki platform." before concluding "China urgently needs to encourage and train Chinese netizens to become Wikipedia platform opinion leaders and administrators… [who] can adhere to socialist values and form some core editorial teams." Not all edits made by Chinese state actors are vandalism, many are related to asserting one disputed claim over others or pruning language to make a political point. The BBC reported that attacks have been made not just against Wikipedia's content but also against individual editors.
In January 2006, a change was made to the article Princess Mabel of Orange-Nassau, removing the words "and false" from the characterization "incomplete and false" of information given by the princess regarding her relationship with slain drug lord Klaas Bruinsma. The changes were traced back to a royal palace used by the princess.
In September 2012, there was media attention surrounding two Wikipedia employees who were running a PR business on the side and editing Wikipedia on behalf of their clients.
Edits involving Daimler AG were reported in March 2012. In August that year, the communications director for Idaho's Department of Education, Melissa McGrath, edited the article on her boss, Tom Luna. In September it was revealed that Tory Party charmain Grant Shapps had changed the information about his academic record as well as donor information. Also in September, writer Philip Roth wrote a piece in The New Yorker chronicling his difficulty changing information about one of his novels.
In October 2012, the Occupy Melbourne article was edited from a City of Melbourne IP address to alter language about recent protests, in the week leading up to the election of lord mayor Robert Doyle. Doyle denied any involvement or motive.
In January 2014, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that Sarah Stierch was "no longer an employee of the Wikimedia Foundation", after evidence was presented on a Wikimedia mailing list that she had "been editing Wikipedia on behalf of paying clients" – a practice the Wikimedia Foundation said was "frowned upon by many in the editing community and by the Wikimedia Foundation".
In June 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that Banc de Binary, which had been cited for unregistered options trading by U.S. regulators, posted an advertisement on a freelancing bulletin board "offering more than $10,000 for 'crisis management'" of its Wikipedia page.
In March 2015, The Washington Post reported that The New York Police Department had confirmed that at least some edits to Wikipedia entries about people who died following confrontations with NYPD officers were made from computers on the department's servers.
In March 2019, HuffPost reported that Facebook, Axios, NBC News, and Nextdoor had paid lawyer Ed Sussman to lobby for changes to their Wikipedia articles, as well as the articles on Sheryl Sandberg, Jonathan Swan, Chuck Todd, Andy Lack, and Noah Oppenheim.
In his October 2019 book New Yorker, reporter Ronan Farrow reported that NBC News hired a "Wikipedia whitewasher" who removed references to NBC's role in the Weinstein case from several Wikipedia articles. NBC does not dispute the allegation.
In December 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported on paid conflict-of-interest editing by the reputation management company Status Labs regarding several of their clients, including former Bank of America executive Omeed Malik and the health technology corporation Theranos.
Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement
Phil Gomes, senior vice-president of a PR firm named Edelman Digital, created a Facebook group called "Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement" (CREWE) in January 2012. According to Gerard F. Corbett, CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, CREWE is based on four principles: 1) Corporate communicators want to do the right thing; 2) communicators engaged in ethical practice have a lot to contribute; 3) current Wikipedia policy does not fully understand numbers 1 and 2, because of the activities of some bad actors and a misunderstanding of public relations; and 4) accurate Wikipedia entries are in the public interest.
CREWE lobbies for greater involvement by PR professionals on the site, with the stated goal of maintaining accurate articles about corporations. Some Wikipedia editors, including Jimmy Wales, joined the group to discuss these issues. In an open letter to Wales, Gomes argued that Wikipedia's prominence as a top search result adds a level of responsibility to be accurate. Gomes also criticized allegedly inaccurate or outdated articles and the lack of timely response to issues raised in existing channels. He further argued that allowing PR representatives to fix minor errors such as spelling, grammar, and facts leaves too much ambiguity about what are acceptable changes to make. He made the comparison between PR editors and activists, challenging that activists seem to enjoy "much more latitude," and argued that in certain situations direct editing of articles by PR reps was called for.
CIPR and PRSA
In January 2012, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK began to collaborate with the regional Wikimedia UK chapter (WMUK) to provide guidance for CIPR members on how to interact with the Wikipedia community. Jane Wilson, CIPR CEO, said in February 2012: "For the time being, we may have to start with an acceptance that Wikipedians have a problem with our profession and this reputation has unfortunately been earned. We can't change this overnight but by working in partnership with Wikimedia UK and Wikipedians, through outreach, diplomacy and dialogue, we can make a difference."
In January 2012, Gerald Corbett, head of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), said "We believe there is a case to be made for PR professionals to responsibly edit client Wikipedia entries in an ethical and transparent manner." In June, he commended CIPR for reaching a point of agreement with Wikipedia, but said "... nothing has changed at all".
International Association of Business Communicators
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) devoted their September 2012 CW Bulletin to paid editing on Wikipedia. PR pro Mark Estes said that: "As an advocate, a public relations professional is accountable to his or her client or organization. As a voice of social conscience, however, a public relations professional is accountable to the public at large. Thus, the innate conflict between the two identities. The theory of responsible advocacy attempts to reconcile that conflict and provide guidance to achieve common ground. PR professional David King recommended "collaborating with nothing to hide," emphasizing transparency and the importance of not editing articles directly. He explained: "When legal and marketing departments establish their corporate Wikipedia strategy or policy, they often feel they are faced with only two choices: Ignore one of the world’s most influential websites with a hands-off policy or engage in the risky, controversial and ethically ambiguous practice of direct editing. In some circumstances these are both good strategies, but most companies can find more effective middle ground by engaging in PR or content marketing with Wikipedia’s citizen journalists—a safe and ethical way to make improvements that is valuable both for the organization and Wikipedia.
WikiProject Cooperation and WikiProject Integrity
On 6 January 2012, a Wikipedian created WikiProject Integrity (formerly WikiProject Paid Advocacy Watch). The goal of this Wikiproject is to "discuss, raise awareness of, and hopefully address issues regarding paid editing on Wikipedia, in which people are compensated to create and edit Wikipedia articles."
Days later, on 10 January, another editor created WikiProject Cooperation but it's been defunct since April 2019. The project page says that it "facilitates collaboration with editors paid to edit Wikipedia." The group is made up of both paid and volunteer Wikipedia editors. The group provides "education and outreach to public relations and marketing professionals, freelance editors, and employees working on assignments from their employers" with the goal of "support[ing] ethical, transparent paid editors that opt-in to collaborative efforts to meet Wikipedia's encyclopedic goals, serve the public's interest and avoid even the perception of impropriety." The main avenue for accomplishing its goals is a paid editor help page, where paid editors and representatives can requests changes to an article and have it reviewed by an experienced editor. WikiProject Cooperation echoes the COI guideline in strongly discouraging paid editors from making direct edits to articles.
2014 statement by 11 PR firms
In June 2014, 11 major public relations companies signed a statement agreeing to comply with Wikipedia's policies on conflict-of-interest editing.
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- Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner’s response to paid advocacy editing and sockpuppetry
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