Wikipedia Blocks 10 Users From PR Firm Bell Pottinger

by David King on Dec 09, 2011
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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.

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....