Wikipedia ruled by 'Lord of the Universe'
When is a cult not a cult?
Mike Finch and Jossi Fresco were once close friends, according to Finch. In the early 90s, both worked for a company called MediaForum, based in Brighton, England. Around 1994, the company - which was run entirely by followers of Prem Rawat - opened an office in Boston, moving Finch stateside. Shortly thereafter, Finch says, the guru tapped Fresco to work in his personal office outside Los Angeles.
"Because of his [computer] skills, Jossi was headhunted by Maharaji himself," says Finch, recalling conversations he had with Fresco at the time. "He got the call and moved with his wife and two kids to work in what was called Maharaji's office, which is like working in the office of the President."
At the time, Finch was a devoted follower. He continued to speak to Fresco on the phone, and during these conversations, Fresco explained his relationship with the guru in detail, Finch told us.
"When you're a follower, to be with Maharaji is the ultimate. We thought he was the Lord. He was God," Finch continues. "Jossi used to tell me how blessed he was to be with Maharaji, actually sitting at his desk." According to Finch, Fresco was charged with overseeing the guru's local area network, hardware, and software. He built Rawat's first website, Finch says.
When we contacted Fresco, he declined to speak to us on the phone, but he did answer some questions over email. He said that he "does not now work in Mr. Rawat's office" - though he was vague about whether he's worked in this office in the past. When we asked specifically if he had ever worked in Rawat's office, he declined to answer, saying "I am a private person, and have no intention to disclose my personal life, my job, or other such details just because I edit Wikipedia."
Unlike most of the Wikipedia elite, Jossi Fresco joined the site under his real first and last name - though he has since shortened his Wikipedia handle to "Jossi." And more than two years after joining, he posted a "disclosure" deep inside his user page that says he works for an organization "related" to Prem Rawat.
Meanwhile, a 2002 post to a spam-related usenet group shows that Jossi Fresco was once listed as webmaster for the website of The Prem Rawat Foundation. Today, domain name records do not list a webmaster for the site.
Rules of the Game
"As I have accepted a position in a related organization," Fresco's Wikipedia disclosure begins, "I may reduce the level of my involvement in editing articles related to Prem Rawat and organizations that support his work."
Transparent and straightforward? Yes, as far it goes. But the wording makes it seem like Fresco accepted this Rawat-related job only recently, and he stops short of saying he will quit editing Rawat-related articles. He merely says he "may reduce" his involvement, and he says he will continue to enforce Wikipedia policy where these articles are concerned:
Nevertheless, I intend to continue to actively monitor these articles for vandalism, correct mistaken or out-of-date facts, provide new material attributable to reliable sources, and engage other editors in the talk pages for discussions on how to better these articles. I also intend to continue enforcing talk-page discipline and the policy of Wikipedia:Biographies of living people when needed. If I make any contributions to these articles, I will exercise extra caution by ensuring that my edits are in full compliance with Wikipedia content policies.
Elsewhere on Wikipedia, he says that he no longer edits Rawat-related articles, but this is not the case. He not only polices the content, he continues to make actual changes on his own. And most of the other edits are handled by two editors - Momento and Rumiton - who seem to be fellow Rawat followers.
Still, Fresco told us his conduct is well within Wikipedia's rules. According to the site's official conflict of interest policy, you're allowed to edit articles where you have a conflict of interest as long as you edit neutrally - i.e. tell all sides of the story - and openly divulge that conflict of interest. Fresco posted his disclosure soon after this policy was first formalized.
But it's questionable if Fresco is editing neutrally - and it's questionable if he has completely divulged his conflict. And even if he does meet these criteria, he's still on shaky ground. After all, he helped write the conflict of interest policy.
"So long as you divulge a conflict and you edit appropriately in light of that conflict, then it's OK to continue editing," says another senior administrator, who requested anonymity. "But Jossi made considerable revisions to that conflict of interest policy himself, including deleting a section about having a conflict of interest relating to your guru."