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Corruption in Wikiland? Paid PR scandal erupts at Wikipedia (cnet.com)
144 points by zalew on Sept 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

> Wikipedia and alleged conflicts of interest are not known to be handled with practicality - or clarity.

In a large organization/community, bad apples are unavoidable. What matters is how the organization/community deals with such cases as they come along. If what the article says about this rogue trustee is true, then he needs to be fired, and fired hard, to send a message to the rest of the organization and its many international branches.

I can understand why Wikipedia the project generally does not want to make top-down changes, but Wikimedia the foundation needs strong leadership in order to avoid corruption among its ranks. With great power comes great responsibility, and it cannot be denied that Wiki[pm]edia has gained great power in today's world, whether intended or not. There must be rules. Those rules must be written down and enforced consistently. Yes, that will lead to bureaucracy, but bureaucracy tends to become necessary when your organization reaches a certain level of complexity.

I'm not sure who (if anyone) is in charge of granting and revoking "Residence" status, but that person needs to be dealt with, too, and swiftly, and harshly, if the allegations have merit. "Paid PR" is a vague concept, but openly advertising profit-motivated wiki-editing services is clearly unacceptable by the cultural standards of Wikipedia. If the community can demonstrate that it can enforce discipline even upon its most highly esteemed members, there is no reason to suppose that this incident will be a net loss for Wiki[pm]edia in the long term.

Fortunately, it shouldn't be too difficult to find out who made which edits.

I'm not sure who (if anyone) is in charge of granting and revoking "Residence" status, but that person needs to be dealt with, too, and swiftly, and harshly, if the allegations have merit

So that'd be an employee of the Derby Museum and Art Gallery and of the Online Computer Library Center.

You've been mislead by poor reporting on Violet Blue's part as to the nature of Wikipedians in Residence.

Why would the person responsible for "residence" status need to be punished?

How could they possibly be aware of any surreptitious side-deals that insiders might engage in?

(i.e. untrikiwiki exists in the open, but there is no readily identifiable information as to the persons behind it)

Sorry, that was phrased badly. I meant that the community should punish the person who was granted the Residence status and misused it, not the person (or group) that granted it.

But that is fixing the symptom, not curing the disease. Throwing out the guy that manipulates Wikipedia for personal gains stops him, but not any of his peers that are also subverting the project. It is very unlikely that not a lot of governments and corporations have realized how hugely important Wikipedia has become. Therefore I don't think this guy was alone. In the future, people astro turfing Wikipedia will be more careful to avoid being caught but they wont at all disappear.

When it's unclear how we might even possibly begin to cure the disease, treating the symptom might be the best that we can do in the short term.

Curing the disease on a "not-for profit" enterprise requires not just rules and regulations, but someone responsible for oversight. In effect, more bureaucracy.

Money can only corrupt an organization whose purpose is not to make money.

> Money can only corrupt an organization whose purpose is not to make money.

Money can corrupt any organization. However, lots of things can corrupt any organization.

Money is actually the least worst motivation for corruption. True believers are far worse.

If you throw out all paid edits, the customer might find all that is left of their Wikipedia entry is nasty stuff. That could be a big discouragement right there.

Wikipedia's own transparency is the best cure for corruption. Anyone can run data analysis on contributors to look for suspicious patterns. May be with a high profile "scandal" like this one more people will try it.

There are crazy politics involved in editing Wikipedia articles and it really does take a lot of skill to know how to edit, format, and properly cite an article so that your changes do not get reversed or article deleted. The editors have tons of internal politics and personal reasons for removing articles. You really need someone who knows how to navigate the waters to get things done. People imagine that anyone can add or create articles, and while that's true on the surface, if you aren't a part of the community, it isn't really true.

All communities require skill of an user who wish to make a new contribution.

Suggest an article to hacker news. If the title does not pass spell check, is inconsistent, or is of unreasonable length, it will be rejected by the community. An title out of "style" will not be as successful as one in style with the community.

Suggest a patch to an open source project. If the code is not bug free, documented, and readable, it will be rejected.

Report a software bug. Writing a bug report that will be taken serious is almost an art.

Suggest a answer/question to stackexhange board. If the text is not readable, spam free, or on topic, it will be rejected.

Each community has a unique set of requirements for new contributions. It often takes different skill sets to successful contribute in a meaningful way. Most if not all communities suggest new users to first read and observe before making new contribution. Many forums makes this specific point in FAQ's and user guides.

Wikipedia's requirement on new article is harsh, but I would still put them as less harsh than adding a patch to a open source program or writing a bug report.

Maybe communities like to think of themselves that way, and if it were really just based on "skill" that would be less of an issue. But in reality these things are more often based on who you know. In most open source projects, no matter how good my patch (or bug report) is, if I'm not friends with a maintainer it will be ignored or rejected. Same for Wikipedia. The quality and skill of the actual contribution is practically irrelevant, it's mainly about the pissing matches with other "editors": if you have time to babysit the page and undo reverts, and then navigate their hierarchy and appease the right people before you get banned. Most people won't bother: they will add some information they know, see it get reverted, and never try again.

What page did you edit, land in a pissing match with an editor, babysit reverts on, and then end up getting banned for working on?

In fact, to make it simpler: what page did you edit on Wikipedia in which any of these things happened? The nice thing about Wikipedia strife is that it's all archived, so let's talk about specifics.

This runs contrary to my experience. Could you back this up?

If you want to manipulate articles, you definitely need a lot of knowledge about Wikipedia "rules" which you can cite to constantly revert edits based on some reason: (NPOV, as in maintaining a neutral point of view, WP:RUMOR, WP:BIO).

It's definitely much easier to wear people down if you're someone who is always on Wikipedia. In fact you can further wear them down by getting into a "Revert War" with the conflicting author. Since after 3 reverts you risk getting temporarily banned on Wikipedia for revert warring, after the 3 reverts you have to go to some random committee page on Wikipedia to settle the dispute.

I don't think this is true either. I don't think you need to know WP:RUMOR or WP:BIO (it helps to know what NPOV is, but you don't need to "know" it).

The most important rule of editing Wikipedia is probably unspoken: start small and watch how the community reacts. Adding content and getting it reverted isn't a demerit; it's only painful if you are attached to the content. If you're going to start editing WP by getting involved with high-traffic pages, make your first edits small enough that you won't be upset when they're reverted.

I meant if you want to "control" an article and force other editors to have to fight you to get something put on Wikipedia. You just throw at them a whole bunch of WP (Wikipedia Policies), cite WP:BIO for controversial facts about public figures, or use WP:RUMOR, WP:NOTRS or WP:OR. Most people have no idea about what these mean and just give up.

It's depressingly true. It's also why non-insiders are increasingly not bothering to edit/contribute to Wikipedia (http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2012/07/19/157056...), and the organization now finds itself practically begging people to edit (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/wikipedia_to_add_a_love...).

That's consisitent with my experience. I haven't made edits in years, after each time I tried I was faced with someone who effectively stalked the page and reverted anything contrary to their worldview as "NPOV". After similar experiences on a handful of diverse pages, I gave up.

What pages did you edit?

Yeah. IMO Wikipedia's content policies and guidelines need revisiting and simplification (Yes, this would be hard, but it does need doing). At present they are needlessly complex ('written by committee') and this obstructs non-frequent users from making contributions or feeling like they can justify their edits against someone who can quote more of these rules than they can....

Also, they do tend to play into the hands of misuse by PR companies and the like. Its very easy, for instance, for a PR company to find a few 'reliable' news sources to say something online, then add it to wikipedia (often removing opposing views) under the banner of 'Verifiability'. It doesn't even matter if it is completely untrue.... I'm sure there are ways at stopping this (like being stricter on 'reliability') if Wikimedia were interested in trying.

Which guidelines would you eliminate?

I don't think its about 'eliminating' per se, but simplifying the structure of how it is all written, shortening and removing unnecessary cruft and duplication (which there is tonnes of). For instance the common-sense things that currently have multi-page long guidelines to describe them like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Do_not_create_hoaxes and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Do_not_disrupt_Wikipe.... It would be easy to remove these as separate guidelines and to just include the pertinent text of them (prob. doesnt need to be more than a couple of lines) is a more major policy/guideline.

They could also do with creating a better front-end page for understanding/browsing the various policies and guidelines.

I think that has more to do with perception (particularly among nerds) than reality. There's really only one subtle issue you need to understand to edit Wikipedia: cite non-blog sources. If you're writing new content, that one rule will pretty much get you left alone.

If, on the other hand, you dive in and start editing the main Mac OS_X article, you only need one more rule of thumb: start small and go slow. A lot of Wikipedia-vs-nerd grief arises from people making their first or second "serious" edit, committing themselves to many carefully written paragraphs of text, and finding those grafs shredded by other editors.

Cite sources. On heavily-trafficked articles, start small & go slow. This does not seem like a particularly egregious amount of internal politics to understand.

Your right. I rarely edit Wikipedia pages, but have made small and appropriate edits to somewhat high traffic pages, and they where not reversed or immediately edited over.

For some reason Ulrich Drepper has an article on the German language Wikipedia, but it's strangely missing on the English language version. Other developers notable for similar reasons do have articles (Theo de Raadt comes to mind).

In my admittedly limited experience, `rules' are often exploited to change (or expunge) articles with anything that remotely challenges the opinions of that select cabal of `veteran' editors.

sort of relevant: history of jesus' wiki entry http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/webhead/2011/01/jes...

I don't think it's a big secret that certain Wikipedia entries -- particularly those for well-known people, companies, products, and institutions -- are manipulated by SEO and PR teams to get better ranking or link off to favored sources, or sanitized to remove uncomfortable information.

Maybe it's time for Google to address the SEO problem from its end. If front-page SERPs are no longer guaranteed, the incentive to engage in these activities will be reduced.

What it's time for is site operators to stop consuming SEO "services". It's disingenuous, parasitic crap - and always has been.

It is a classic case of Jaron Laniers prediction that we will dumb ourselves down until the computers "pass" the turing test. You are giving up your choices and distinctions as a human being when you decide NOT to write what you want to write, but rather, write what the computer wants you to write.

Here's what seems to have happened.

Wikipedia (that is, site parked at the domain name "wikipedia.org") is operated by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Wikimedia. Wikimedia pays ~$4MM/yr to its employees in salary; most (or at least a plurality) of those employees are tech.

Wikimedia has a chapter in the UK (Wikimedia UK, or WMUK). WMUK is at least partly funded by "global" Wikimedia.

Both Wikimedia and WMUK are managed by boards of trustees, who select foundation executives, help manage fundraising, write mission statements, and that kind of stuff. I don't know if either WMUK or Wikimedia compensates trustees (but trustees do have a voice in compensation for foundation staff).

A trustee at WMUK, Roger Bamkin, is embroiled in a conflict-of-interest scandal. What seems to have happened is this:

Bamkin created a project, QRPEDIA, which acts as a sort of QR-based Bit.ly for Wikipedia articles. This is a good thing. What it does is allow people to create QR codes that can be displayed on buildings and landmarks which, when snapped with a scanner, will take you to the associated Wikipedia page. This is as close to a good use for QR codes as I've ever heard, because the ugliness of the QR code here is offset by the value of a symbol pointing out that you're looking at a landmark. Good for Roger Bamkin.

After conceiving of and executing QRPEDIA, Bamkin and a partner set out on a project to plaster QRPEDIA codes all over the UK county town of Monmouth, and in the process create a "Monmouthpedia". I'm not sure if either Bamkin or his associates were compensated for this project; as I understand it, the rationale for the project was to demonstrate the potential for QRPEDIA.

Now here's where it gets sketchy. Bamkin gets involved with the government of Gibraltar (you know, at the tip of Spain) to repeat the Monmouthpedia. Bamkin, acting as a consultant to Gibraltar, creates a project plan to train residents of the area to contribute to Wikipedia and navigate the rules & policies of the site. Moreover, Bamkin arranges to nominate tens of articles about Gibraltar to the Wikipedia "DYK" section, which occupies a spot on the Wikipedia front page.

And he's apparently done this for cash.

In the ensuing, ferocious, immediate hooplah surrounding the discovery of this transgression, it's discovered that Max Klein, another Wikipedia veteran (remember, anybody in the world can be a "veteran"; just spend a couple years donking around editing the site) is running a consultancy advertising a service to help commercial clients get better coverage on Wikipedia.

In addition to any other roles they might have served with WM/WP, Klein and Bamkin have also held roles as "Wikipedians in Residents"†. Residencies are grant-style sponsorships offered either by Wikimedia or by institutions to compensate editors for improving the encyclopedia.

The thing you want to understand about residencies is that they are not like trusteeships or adminships or any other status symbol on Wikipedia; they're grants, usually offered by organizations outside of Wikimedia. For instance, Klein's paid residency was sponsored by the Online Computer Library Center, a nonprofit unaffiliated with Wikimedia. Wikimedia status surely does contribute to selection for residency, but the final say in who gets the residency is the sponsor's.


There are a couple things that strike me in this drama.

1. Wikimedia owns an excruciatingly valuable piece of the Internet. Wikipedia articles occupy the top of many extremely valuable Google SERPs. Wikimedia itself raises mid-8-figures funding yearly without appearing to break a sweat. The opportunity for corruption inside Wikimedia is obvious and large.

2. The big story we have about corruption today has little to do with Wikimedia global. An elected trustee built a model for compensated improvement of the encyclopedia that went beyond the pale. It's not good, but it also doesn't appear to be tolerated. But this is nothing like corruption scandals at other charities; "corruption at nonprofits" tends to involve the nonprofit spending contributor dollars to hire cronies as consultants.

3. Violet Blue did not discover this drama. One assumes she was tipped (Wikidrama being what it is). Either way: I've probably done as much "reporting" on the incident as she did at this point. That's because Wikipedia itself EXPLODED when contributors competing for DYK spots noticed what was happening. This, to me, looks like the system "working".

4. Take any other large charity --- say, the American Red Cross --- and try to get a handle on their organizational politics and day-to-day drama. Does any other 501(c) in the US of comparable size operate with anything resembling the transparency (for better or worse) than Wikimedia does? I'm not saying Wikimedia is "fully transparent". They clearly aren't and probably never will be. But neither are many other charities. I don't know what the ACLU or PIH does with its contributions or staffing or internal promotion plans or conflict of interest guidelines and am happy to support them anyways.

Here you start hearing the term "GLAM", which stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums. GLAM is the Wikipedia project for doing outreach and joint projects with, well, GLAMs. GLAM is important to this story in part because it is, at least in the meager scale of Wikipedia --- remember, even the highest-status Wikipedians tend not to be, uh, globally competitive earners --- lucrative; libraries and museums tend to sponsor residencies.

EDIT : nevermind, wrong assumption, see replies.

I'm not sure there's a problem here. The article seems to imply the guy actually edited wikipedia home page to promote his client.

For what I understand of how "did you know" section works, it's not the case : it's automatically collecting recent additions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Recent_additions/2012...).

It means that, worst case scenario, he only wrote a lot of new pages about Gibraltar. That's still an issue if those page are advertisement-like (which I did not checked if they are), but certainly not the same thing as spamming home page on purpose.

Also, he may as well have respected neutrality guidelines when writing those articles (even if it's a hard task, if you earn money from the person you're writing about).

The real problem is mostly : does others people have read those articles and checked them ? It's the good old wikipedia problem : only pages that attracts a lot of editors can be considered balanced enough, with or without PR, with or without money.

> For what I understand of how "did you know" section works, it's not the case : it's automatically collecting recent additions

This is incorrect. New articles for 'did you know' have to be nominated, and go through a (somewhat opaque) review, approval and queue process - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Did_you_know#The_DYK_...

What's more, if you follow the actual on-Wikipedia discussion of this, the person in question had been using his position on the English Wikipedia to push Gibraltar-related DYK entries through the review and approval process. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Did_you_know#Pot...

Thanks for placing the edit note at the beginning of your comment. It's impressive discussion forum etiquette and very thoughtful, since it saves readers like me time. Cheers.

The article states he was using more than just the "did you know section" (see below) to promote his client. And given his position, I'd be pretty surprised if he didn't realise what his writing was doing on the front page.

"Roger Bamkin ... appeared to be using Wikipedia's main page "Did You Know" feature and the resources of Wikipedia's GLAM WikiProject (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) initiative to pimp his client's project."

"did you know" section do not automatically collecting new articles. Any article listed has first been through the processes of a user summarizing it in once sentence, submitting it for review, and then have it accepted.

Not a problem. Find them and kick them out. The system works.

The deeper problem is that such people are needed at all. Wikipedia is an example of revolution within the form[1] -- the concept of an openly editable wiki was silently replaced by an Editoriate who spend a lot of time on impenetrable internal politics.

All the knobs and dials for the open wiki are still there. But the actual day to day operation of the machinery has long since been completely inverted.

[1] The top link on Google for "revolution within the form" links to what appears to be a neo-nazi wiki. I don't even know what to say about that.

Have you tried adding an article recently? I haven't had any trouble with my additions in a while. Some years ago there was a lot of deletionism, since there were still people like Larry Sanger around who thought Wikipedia should be a smaller, more traditional encyclopedia. In the past few years I've been occasionally writing articles on a variety of things, and nobody's complained, as long as they're well-referenced. I wouldn't say I'm a very active editor, either; probably 2-3 articles a year, so it doesn't require doing it constantly. I pick a topic (most recently, a Greek archaeological site), find 3-4 good references in, in this case, archaeological journals or monographs, write an article, submit it, and that's that. I haven't found a need to get approval from an Archaeology Cabal or anything. People sometimes come by and fiddle with the article's formatting to make it fit some kind of standard (adding infoboxes, etc.), but I haven't had unfriendly reactions.

The articles do have to be well-referenced, of course, since an article that doesn't cite good sources isn't very reliable. It also helps to pick things where you don't have a conflict of interest. Many of my fellow academics who run into trouble did so when they tried to write an article about themselves, or their research group, or one of their own projects (or worse, some kind of holy war they're involved in).

I haven't. I gave up because the experience was too much of a pain.

And that's part of my point: first impressions are the ones that last.

Fair enough, but I while I think there are plenty of things that could be improved about Wikipedia, imo it's hard to improve much without accurately understanding how it works. In these kinds of discussions I find a lot of opinions based on third- or fourth-hand information people have heard somewhere about Wikipedia, which isn't the best basis from which to work.

Well certainly the position is going to attract a certain kind of person whose editorial interests are pretty much required to be at least to the level of a hobby. I suppose you could say that the absence of amateurs in these spaces is an inversion, but I don't think it's realistic to expect that that to be the rule on a site the size and scope of Wikipedia.

What's missing from the site that would make it open and inviting again?

I think that shooing away the deletionists would be a great start.

There's also an annoying culture of instant reversal for pretty much any change. The headline says: "improve me!". The small type says: "and some editor will undo it!"

AFAIR there are reversal bots, to prevent vandalism.

And that's a perfect example of what I mean.

The problem is that it is no longer enough to be a subject-matter expert in order to contribute to Wikipedia. You need also to be a Wikipedia expert so you can navigate the hidden layers of bureaucracy to get a change in.

Many actual experts notice a small mistake, correct it, then watch in amazement as their changes are reverted. Do they know why? No. Do they care why? They shouldn't have to. Most of them never come back, forever diminishing a) the pool of potential contributors and b) the potential total value of the knowledge in Wikipedia.

The entire point of a wiki is minimal drag and minimal upfront commitment. The interface still promises that, but everything that happens after an edit shows that it's just the facade that remains.

Perhaps Wikipedia should work like GitHub, pull requests?

Wikipedia plays such a role in today's information access, that leaving it to 'the people' is simply impossible. In the end, Wiki is a powerful media, it's impossible not to acknowledge the potential huge profits of propaganda and advertising. If something is worth having, then it's worth cheating for. Sticking 2 cents into one of the most powerful sources of information on the internet is definitely worth it.

Leaving it to "the people" is the entire point. The entire point.

The hidden layers of wheels within wheels ("Oh, I'm sorry, did you not know to go to /wiki/talk/kafka/machiavelli227-chat, which is nowhere linked to, in order to resolve your issue? Too bad, the matter is closed forever.") are not necessary. It's more about warts developed to deal with internal bunfights than actual problems from actual abusers (which are mostly dealt with sensibly).

> it is no longer enough to be a subject-matter expert in order to contribute to Wikipedia

It's neither sufficient nor necessary.

He did nothing wrong.

Mentions of Gibraltar were reviewed by third parties and not received special treatment.

See voting at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Template_talk:Did_... .

I've had my articles on main page DYK a few times, and of course I was interested in topics of those articles.

Great reporting from Ms. Violet Blue. Have seen her grow from starting an interesting sex education blog with classy radio podcasts to reporting now on quality and integrity of open web properties. Kudos on that!

Unfortunately paid PR (or corruption in top media properties), both in institutions of profit and non-profit, is a problem since time-immemorial. Containing corruption is one of the hardest problem to solve, and could become one of the main reasons to push people into believing machines more than people next-door.

Hope Wikimedia corrects this soon.

[Edited for spellings]

Strong disagree. Typically misleading article from Violet Blue aims more at stirring up controversy (and pageviews) than on reporting the boring specifics and context. Minimal (maybe no) original reporting. No quotes from sources. The primary sources --- available and searchable on the Internet --- are more informative.

The very fact that you're left with the notion that WM has a "corruption problem" that needs to be corrected soon is evidence of the low quality of this article. WM may very well have a corruption problem, but Violet Blue hasn't reported it; just innuendo.

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