The idea that Wikipedia is dying has become one of the Internet’s recurrent stories. Because something used by so many people every day is completely free and dependent on the selfless dedication of relatively few individuals, there is perhaps an underlying fear that it will disappear, and it will be our fault for not supporting it better. However, alongside major issues like the need for an influx of new contributors from more diverse backgrounds, one of the lesser-known challenges Wikipedia faces is the rise of “socking”, or sock puppetry. Here’s how Wikipedia defines the term:
The use of multiple Wikipedia user accounts for an improper purpose is called sock puppetry (often abbreviated in discussion as socking). Improper purposes include attempts to deceive or mislead other editors, disrupt discussions, distort consensus, avoid sanctions, or otherwise violate community standards and policies. The term comes from sock puppet, an object shaped roughly like a sock and used on the hand to create a character to entertain or inform. In Internet terminology it is an online identity used for deception.
One of the most frowned-upon forms of socking involves payments. A fascinating article in The Daily Dot reveals a company called Wiki-PR that offers exactly that:
Wiki-PR is no secret. Wikipedia admins have been aware of the company for some time. It openly boasts of its service on its website. Wiki-PR claims to have a “staff of 45 Wikipedia editors and admins helps you build a page that stands up to the scrutiny of Wikipedia’s community rules and guidelines.”
It claims a roster of 12,000 clients and offers them this ironic warning: “Don’t get caught in a PR debacle editing your own page.”
It’s ironic, because a PR debacle is what Wiki-PR seems to be experiencing thanks to a major Wikipedia clampdown on socking, announced in this post by the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Sue Gardner:
Editors on the English Wikipedia are currently investigating allegations of suspicious edits and sockpuppetry (i.e. using online identities for purposes of deception). At this point, as reported, 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, and have been violating numerous site policies and guidelines, including prohibitions against sockpuppetry and undisclosed conflicts of interest. As a result, Wikipedians aiming to protect the projects against non-neutral editing have blocked or banned more than 250 user accounts.
She goes on to explain why paid advocacy is a problem:
Editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature. Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a “black hat” practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.
What is clear to everyone is that all material on Wikipedia needs to adhere to Wikipedia’s editorial policies, including those on neutrality and verifiability. It is also clear that companies that engage in unethical practices on Wikipedia risk seriously damaging their own reputations. In general, companies engaging in self-promotional activities on Wikipedia have come under heavy criticism from the press and the general public, with their actions widely viewed as inconsistent with Wikipedia’s educational mission.
What’s interesting about this episode — aside from all the details revealed by The Daily Dot investigation — is that it raises some key questions about what Wikipedia is and what it is trying to do. For example, when does an article about a company become promotional material? What if a PR person is genuinely correcting incorrect info? Can they do so ethically? More generally, what kind of subjects should be included? Wikipedia uses the idea of “notability”, but what does that mean? Would paying Wikipedia contributors help to bring in the much-needed new blood to re-invigorate the project, or would it simply lead to yet more socking? Those are questions worth pondering and answering because, for all the concerns about Wikipedia’s future, few have any doubts about its value and importance — both to the Internet, and indeed to modern society.
Written by Glyn Moody