Wikipedia Blocks 10 Users From PR Firm Bell Pottinger

by David King on Dec 09, 2011

Over the last couple days the UK media has been covering the actions of Bell Pottinger, a PR firm that was busted by blogger Tim Ireland for editing over 100 Wikipedia entries from an estimated 20 Wikipedia accounts spanning 1,000 edits.

The PR Firm’s defense is that they didn’t break the law and according to Jimmy Wales own tweet stream, the firm is insisting that they have been following the rules of Wikipedia. Tim Ireland, who uncovered the PR firm’s inappropriate actions is – by his own admission – enjoying himself at Bell Pottinger’s expense.

Anytime there’s a crisis like this, especially of such gross ethical misconduct, it’s difficult to assume good faith and most of us have exaggerated, over-simplified reactions. But I would like to presume for a minute that Bell Pottinger really didn’t know any better (just for fun). That they really had no idea what they were doing was inappropriate. Lets educate them, and our readers, right now on where their missteps were.

Didn’t Break the Law

Bell Pottinger claims the firm didn’t break the law. Last year a firm called Reverb Communications settled a complaint filed with the FTC, because they were posing as ordinary consumers online, when they were actually paid-for advocates.

I’m no lawyer, but I think Bell Pottinger‘s employees were posing as ordinary volunteer contributors in much the same way. It appears they may have even gone through great lengths to create fake identities on Wikipedia. I wonder what the FTC would think about their claims of lawfulness.

Didn’t Break Wikipedia’s Rules

Oh my, where to start. Bell Pottinger claims not to have broken Wikipedia’s rules. Wikipedia’s policies require conflict of interest editors to:

  • disclose their conflict of interest, not edit from anonymous accounts with fake identities
  • use one account per person, not create 20
  • allow the community to edit their work, not nominate an article for editing protection right after you got it the way you like it
  • maintain a hands-off policy on controversial content, not publicly boast about editing the Wikis of countries accused of human right violations

Lets dig into the edits of just one user Biggleswiki

The Punishment?

Pages they edited have been flagged.

And plenty of public humiliation. Years of poor edits are being reversed. I wonder how much their clients paid them for work that the volunteer community is now pouring time into reverting.

Lessons Learned

I don’t know what to say. Maybe I should suggest marketers use common sense. After all, Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy says to do just that. But what the Wikipedia community knows is common sense on the site often isn’t well understood outside of it.

Maybe I should tell you to follow Wikipedia’s rules and policies – all 200+ of them. Will you read them?

I could jump up and down waving my arms. Consider hiring someone with experience to help you contribute ethically and tell you when not to. (*uhem).

Or to stick to monitoring, Talk pages and noticeboards if you’re not sure. That’s a decent option as well.

Wikipedia’s been rated as the most influential website on the planet. Wikis on the site show up in the top ten of 95 percent of all searches. We can’t ignore it, especially when false information shows up routinely.

But we can make ourselves a better part of it. We should be making Wikipedia a better, more informative, more complete encyclopedia, not this.

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Post Author

David King is the founder of Ethical Wiki, a professional services organization that helps companies improve Wikipedia ethically by offering content, requesting corrections and discussing controversies. Learn more at ethicalwiki.com or read our eBook on Wikipedia & marketing....

  • David King

    I thought I’d also share what I posted on Wikipedia on this issue.Skomorokh, I came across this post suggesting that you should have asked for my opinion on the Pottinger situation. I didn’t particularly agree that any obligation as such was appropriate, but did want to let you know I posted a blog on it here. The marketing community has responded in one of two ways.1 is to ask if Pottinger really did anything wrong or if the rules are just confusing. I’m embarrassed that people would ask this question. It reflects a lack of knowledge about the details of the edits Pottinger has made and the level of ignorance about how to engage with Wikipedia ethically within the marketing community. This ignorance lives on despite extensive documentation on Wikipedia and the community’s best efforts. I feel obligated to inform the Wikipedia community the best I can that his actions are not reflective of the field as a whole, though many marketers do contribute unethically in milder cases, sometimes unknowingly.
    2 is a hands-off policy. Like this one. I don’t believe a complete hands-off policy best serves Wikipedia’s interests either. This leaves many Wikis to serve the whims of a community that is also often bias, posts misinformation and creates content that is not in keeping with Wikipedia’s policies or serves its encyclopedic interests.
    As is suggested in my original post, I think there are better ways for us to work together and mend years of inappropriate contributions by both well-meaning and unethical marketers. Wikipedia has policies about forgiveness right? But we need to earn it first and this kind of thing doesn’t help. King4057 (talk) 15:43, 9 December 2011 (UTC)

  • http://www.GregoryKohs.com Gregory Kohs

    Why do you keep calling Wikipedia articles “Wikis”?  That is completely erroneous nomenclature.

    My only other comment is that for every scandalous revelation like the one Bell Pottinger is currently mired in, there are probably 10 similar scandals that don’t get reported — only in those cases, the victims are the subjects of Wikipedia articles, and the culprits are “dedicated Wikipedians” who are mucking about, also breaking the rules of their own site, in order to falsely defame the subjects (who are, of course, told that they must keep their hands off the site, and leave the corrective measures to “dedicated Wikipedians”).

  • David King

    I agree. Bias works both ways and the current format has proliferated negative commentary from anyone who is angry enough to invest the time in adding the content. Meanwhile, those most motivated to contribute positive stories often feel they are handcuffed by COI policies. There are many ways for companies to resolve this dilemna, but few know how. This dynamic doesn’t support Wikipedia’s encyclopedic goals for neutrality. 

  • http://twitter.com/CarriBugbee Carri Bugbee

    David, this is interesting. Many times I’ve wanted to submit or fix stuff on Wikipedia, but I’ve never done it because figuring out how to do it while meeting the guidelines represents a “project” that I just don’t have time for. If there really are 200 rules or guidelines, it seems that only a select few will ever be active participants and there will likely be many who inadvertently break the rules. I don’t know if that applies to the PR firm in question, but it probably applies to the marjority of occasional (i.e., non-hardcore) contributors.

  • David King

    You’re on-target. A great example is that companies can post external links to their site in the body of the article, not knowing that Wikipedia’s rules on external links and “official links” doesn’t support that, so they’re actually engaging in link-spamming. Most organizations are also simply unable to provide content in encyclopedic tone.

    There are a lot of corrupt companies just doing dubious things. But there are others who have an SEO firm they trust not to do blackhat SEO, an advertising firm they trust to follow ethical/lawful advertising practices and they need someone to keep them on the straight and narrow on Wikipedia too.

    My depiction is probably a little unfair, because not many people know all 200+ policies. 

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