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Wikipedia sockpuppetry probe puts a sock in hundreds of accounts

Is 'edit-for-pay' deceitful or just garden variety PR sleaze?

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Wikipedia has blocked or banned over 250 user accounts as it investigates "suspicious edits and sockpuppetry" – the latter being the use of fictitious identities for the express purpose of bullshitting deceiving readers, usually for commercial or promotional purposes.

"It looks like a number of user accounts — perhaps as many as several hundred — may have been paid to write articles on Wikipedia promoting organizations or products," wrote outgoing Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner in a blog post on Monday.

"Our readers know Wikipedia's not perfect," Gardner continued, "but they also know that it has their best interests at heart, and is never trying to sell them a product or propagandize them in any way. Our goal is to provide neutral, reliable information for our readers, and anything that threatens that is a serious problem."

And the investigation to which Gardner refers in her blog post has uncovered a serious problem, indeed. As described in painstaking detail earlier this month by The Daily Dot and last week by Vice, and as logged on a Wikipedia project page, the investigation has turned up hundreds of sockpuppets.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the rise in sockpuppetry is the parallel rise of Austin, Texas–based Wiki-PR, which promises its clients that they'll "have a dedicated Wikipedia project manager that understands your brand as well as you do. That means you need not worry about anyone tarnishing your image – be it personal, political, or corporate."

But what if your brand or image has factual, verifiable, objective aspects to it that an independent, not-for-hire editor finds germane to its Wikipedia entry? At the very minimum, Wiki-PR's promises to its clients are problematic. "Don't leave your Wikipedia page up to chance," they say. "Don't get caught in a PR debacle by editing your own page."

Wikipedia's Terms of Use are clear about sockpuppetry, expressly forbidding "Attempting to impersonate another user or individual, misrepresenting your affiliation with any individual or entity, or using the username of another user with the intent to deceive."

Offering for-pay services as does Wiki-PR, however, is not explicitly proscribed in the Terms of Use. However, as Gardner writes in her Monday blog post, "Editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature."

For their part, Wiki-PR headman Jordan French says that his company is innocent. "The PR in Wiki-PR is a misnomer – we're a research and writing firm," he told the BBC.

"We're part of the fabric of Wikipedia – an integral part – and useful where volunteers don't want to or cannot put in the time to understand a subject, find sources, code, upload, and professionally monitor a page," French insists.

One can only assume that as the Wikimedia Foundation continues its investigations, the subject of editing for pay will take center stage along with its cousin – and possibly its enabler – sockpuppetry.

"The Wikimedia Foundation is closely monitoring this ongoing investigation and we are currently assessing all the options at our disposal," Garnder concludes. "We will have more to say in the coming weeks."

And we'll likely learn more about Wiki-PR's methods, as well. ®

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