Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wikipedia has problems with editors-for-hire

Edit conflicts are old hat for Wikipedia. But what happens when people hire themselves out to PR firms whose clients have a financial interest in what Wikipedia articles say? In an article  focusing on medical examples Joe Pinkser reports on the problem in The Atlantic.
In 2006, Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia’s most public-facing board member, reportedly said that undisclosed paid editing—trying to alter the content of Wikipedia without revealing a financial conflict of interest—is “antithetical” to the site’s aims. The practice continued at a low hum over the rest of the decade, but a few years ago Wikimedia started hearing from its volunteer editorial corps that weeding out undisclosed paid edits was distracting from more substantive work. "They were spending a tremendous amount of their time patrolling articles, particularly articles about celebrities or individuals or companies for PR-type editing,” says Katherine Maher, a spokesperson for Wikimedia. The issue took on a sense of urgency in the fall of 2013, when a firm called Wiki-PR was banned from the site for using hundreds of dummy accounts to fabricate widespread support for pages that flattered its clientele.

To combat activity like this, Wikimedia amended its terms of use last summer to ban any undisclosed paid editing that might carry a conflict of interest. (To clarify, the scenario of a political-science professor, who’s paid to think about political science, forgoing disclosure when she edits a page about Japanese elections doesn’t present a conflict of interest and is thus kosher.)

Maher says the terms-of-use change has been received well by those in the Wikipedia community devoted to stamping out paid editing. Perhaps it has—several large PR firms pledged not to violate Wikipedia’s rules—but the practice hasn’t disappeared entirely. Two months ago, an investigation revealed that even after the rule change, employees of Sunshine Sachs, a public-relations firm, had still been editing the Wikipedia pages of their clients without disclosing their affiliation. One email sent by the company boasted, “Sunshine Sachs has a number of experienced editors on staff that have established profiles on Wikipedia. The changes we make to existing pages are rarely challenged.” Sunshine Sachs is reported to have scrubbed, among other things, Wikipedia’s references to Naomi Campbell’s critically-panned R&B album and Mia Farrow’s Ecuadorian activist efforts.
So, who uses Wikipedia articles, and how?
But the way people answer their everyday questions today means that a lot of research does end on Wikipedia. The site’s pages are regularly among the top links that search engines turn up—among the general public, the site’s medical articles are estimated to have a larger readership than WebMD. Google has even started embedding excerpts from Wikipedia pages alongside its search results. Wikipedia isn’t just the final destination of typical denizens of the Internet; sometimes it’s where professional researchers end up as well. Fifty to 70 percent of physicians have been found to consult it as a source of medical information—a testament to its reliability.
It is not, however, obvious just how big the problem is.
Because an undisclosed paid edit that goes through is undetectable, it is hard to empirically assess the effectiveness of Wikipedia’s responses to conflict-of-interest editing over the years. Nowadays, the estimated prevalence of paid editing changes depending on whom you ask. “The site itself is so massive that when you talk about problems, they actually tend to be quite small compared to the overall body of work,” Maher says. She points out that Wiki-PR, the furthest-reaching paid-editing operation yet discovered, only made a few thousand edits. Still, undisclosed paid editing is enough of a fly in the ointment to prompt the Wikimedia Foundation to say it “affects the neutrality and reliability of Wikipedia.”

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