Editing Wikipedia for Pay theatlantic.com

Let me tell you a little story.

In 2019, after Wikipedia articles were used for advertising by outdoor clothing company the North Face, I set myself the task of digging into another phenomenon I knew was happening behind the scenes. Marketing agencies were using Wikipedia articles as part of their search optimization campaigns, inserting URLs on behalf of clients into relevant articles’ sources and references. When I did an initial web search, I could not find articles exploring this angle, so I bookmarked it for a later time.

Last night, I finally started digging into this story properly. After a couple of hours of research into specific Wikipedia accounts I found connected to a couple of different agencies, I found this story had already been covered many times, going at least as far back as a 2007 Associated Press story. Then, in 2013, Charles Arthur reported for the Guardian about a cease-and-desist order sent by the Wikimedia Foundation to Wiki-PR, banning the agency and its hundreds of sockpuppet accounts from editing the site. Wikipedia enacted a policy for paid editors and those with other conflicts of interest the following year.

The best investigation I found into the phenomenon of marketing agencies editing Wikipedia articles was published in 2015 in the Atlantic. Even though it is old, I recommend this piece wholeheartedly. Joe Pinsker:

In a way, undisclosed paid edits are just a smaller instance of a much more foundational problem for a site that strives for unalloyed “neutrality.” All Wikipedia editors, whether volunteer or paid, come to their keyboards with some kind of bias. The presence of money in this equation is never a reliable indication that some information is untrustworthy, since it’s frequently the case that the people who feel they have the biggest stake in promoting their views on Wikipedia are often the best informed. Douglas Beall might receive money from medical-device manufacturers, but part of the reason they’re paying him in the first place is because he’s an expert on certain medical devices. Moreover, plenty of people hold views for which they receive no compensation that would nevertheless render them inadequate editors. For example, a volunteer Greenpeace activist might not be the most impartial steward of a page about the coal industry. Money is but one limited signifier of information’s quality.

I also found that Wikipedia maintains a list of paid editors, some of which are banned for failing to adhere to the site’s policies.

These articles are all about using Wikipedia articles for brand management. I still have not found a great article about the surreptitious use of articles’ sources for boosting an organization’s search rankings; perhaps I will actually write that one day. But for now I thought this collection of old, non-newsworthy articles was worth your time if you missed them, especially the 2015 Atlantic piece.