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This blog post does not constitute legal advice
Wikipedia’s openly editable model and a history of misbehavior on the site creates radical attitudes from marketing professionals and the legal departments that support them.
As a Wikipedia consultant, companies routinely ask me if they can just remove negative information, with a straight face and no realization that “censorship” is the right word to describe what they’re asking for.
On the other hand, reputable, ethical companies with a rich history and a positive reputation that should be reflected on Wikipedia are often too timid to participate.
Contradictory, confusing and erroneous information about PR participation on Wikipedia creates too much uncertainty for risk-adverse companies, who don’t know there are safe and ethical ways to participate on Wikipedia.
I would like to set the record straight in particular with regards to what is or isn’t astroturfing on Wikipedia.
In 1980 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published “the Guides,” a set of guidelines that establish what is and isn’t astroturfing. The guides were updated in 2009 and demonstrated in the Reverb Communications case. It’s simple, individuals that work for the company are expected to disclose that affiliation in online communications.
The FTC only investigates extreme cases and uses contextual information to make an assessment. In 2011, The Bell Pottinger Group created a fake identity as a retired stock broker in order to pretend they were a disinterested volunteer editor on Wikipedia. This kind of intentional deceit to mimic a grassroots effort may have legal repercussions.
Astroturfing laws have led most legal departments to establish policies – as recommended by the FTC – to identify yourself online and ask bloggers that have received gifts or reimbursement to disclose it. When companies edit Wikipedia anonymously, but are not specifically deceitful, they are not following legal best practices, but it would likely be seen as a good-faith mistake by Wikipedians and in the eyes of the law.
There are ways to participate on Wikipedia that are controversial (and risky), but not necessarily illegal. They are not unethical, nor are they ethical, rather there are areas where there is disagreement and varying points of view, among the Wikipedia community, the media and the public at-large. “It depends” is the mantra of conflict of interest on Wikipedia.
While the FTC has not set a precedence or provided guidance for Wikipedia, we can assume that corporate participants that disclose their affiliation with the company on their user page and on the Talk page of the article have fulfilled their obligation to the FTC. Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines also allow an editor with a conflict of interest to edit the page, it merely urges caution and warns of “real-world consequences.”
EthicalWiki called our latest report “Finding Safety in Ethics,” because the business value of ethics is a welcomed collaboration with the editorial community and avoiding the risk associated with mediocre ethics. Companies with a hands-off policy can request factual corrections, discuss controversial issues and offer contributed content to the site’s editors through Talk pages.
When companies ignore that Wikipedia is openly editable, our relationship becomes the same as how we work with any other website, because we work collaboratively with the site’s editors. Wikipedia’s openly editable model gives marketing professionals a feeling of entitlement, but if we humble ourselves and treat Wikipedia with autonomy and respect, any contribution that is valuable to Wikipedia can be made without the controversy.
Within the clearly ethical band, companies still have options. Some choose to pro-actively cover controversies, while others cross their fingers that they won’t be covered. One rarely used, but very effective and efficient approach, is a sponsored Wikipedian. This is when an experienced Wikipedia editor is sponsored, but the company grants them editorial freedom, realizing encyclopedic content is difficult to pass through corporate approval cycles.
Most companies can improve their Wikipedia articles by preparing excellent draft articles, genuinely collaborating with other Wikipedia editors and requesting a move to article-space when it’s ready. Just like any other website, final editorial decisions are left in the hands of editors who only have the reader’s interest at heart.