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A Conflict of Conflict of Interest

In similar fashion, Fresco has heavily influenced Wikipedia's conflict of interest policy. He's made more edits to the policy than all but two other Wikipedians.

Shortly after the policy was first drafted in October 2006, it included a section that forbade guru followers from editing articles about their gurus.

"Friedrich Engels would have had difficulty in editing Karl Marx. Such a close friend and follower surely would have had conflict-of-interest problems," the policy once said. "The same may go for disciples of 'gurus,' of 'senseis' in the martial arts, or any other area where a strong personal relationship is implied in the teacher-pupil bond. Particularly for traditional teachers, but in other cultural areas such as academia, a devoted pupil may be conflicted. Edits by those whose loyalties to such a teacher transcend any stake in this project may have to be treated as suspect."

But Fresco removed this language, defending the change on the policy's discussion page. The original author of the policy, Wikipedia Arbitration Committee member Charles Matthews, in turn argued that Fresco shouldn't be anywhere near the conflict of interest policy.

"You have again removed the word 'discipleship', and again without prior discussion," Matthews told Fresco, after Fresco made another edit to the policy. "You are very clearly a conflicted editor in so doing, and I have explained at great length on your User Talk that you are in violation of very specific matters laid down in terms on Wikipedia:Editing with a conflict of interest, for editing with any conflict of interest, or apparent conflict of interest. The fact that the page that you are editing in this way is the guideline defining conflict of interest only makes it more serious as a matter."

But the guru language was not returned to the policy - and Fresco continued to referee his own game. When we spoke to Matthews on the phone, he declined to discuss Fresco in particular, but he made a point of saying that Wikipedia's conflict of interest policy is merely a "guideline." "It was meant not to be enforced in a harsh way," he said.

Shortly after butting heads with Matthews, Fresco created the Conflict of Interest Noticeboard. And yes, users have tried - and failed - to use the noticeboard as means of preventing Fresco from editing and policing Rawat-related articles.

Community consensus

Fresco has not only tweaked the conflict of policy to permit his own edits to Prem Rawat-related articles. He has tweaked it to prevent edits from those who oppose him. Around this same time, Fresco suggested that people who've been involved in legal disputes should not be allowed to edit related articles. And uber-admin SlimVirgin made the change.

This came just twelve hours after Fresco went out of his way to welcome the arrival of a new editor, Tgubler, to Wikipedia. Then, a week later, Fresco told this editor he should not edit Rawat-related articles because he'd been involved in a legal dispute with a subsidiary of Elan Vital. Three weeks after that, Fresco enforced this with help from another uber-admin, Jayjg.

Fresco told us over email that his ability to shape Wikipedia policy is limited. "Policy is not shaped by individuals, rather, it shaped by community consensus," he told us. "Proposals for policy page changes made by any editor, attracts vigorous debates in the community. There is no one single person in Wikipedia that can 'shape' policy." But others see this differently.

"The bottom line is that a single person can make extensive changes to Wikipedia policies and guidelines if they put their mind to it," says a senior administrator. "A single editor who is determined, patient, expert in Wikipedia customs, well connected, and a bit ruthless will typically prevail over many less interested, impatient, unconnected editors who disagree with him.

"In my opinion, [Fresco's] entire career at Wikipedia has one goal: promoting his guru. But he's not a stupid guy, like a lot of people who come through with a strong opinion. He doesn't insist on doing things his way. He's been assiduous with building relationships, with other editors and admins, doing a lot of favors for folks to get into their good graces."

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