Saturday, 5 September 2015

* Can Wikipedia’s incorruptibility survive the commercial imperative?

Murad Ahmed

Few of Wikipedia’s ubiquitous users treat its articles as gospel. But, given the boast that its pages cannot be bought, many regard the 35m or so entries on the online encyclopedia as at least pretty much neutral.

This reputation for neutrality, unlike Switzerland’s, is based on an idealistic aversion to money. By contrast with the billionaires who built the other pillars of the internet, Wikipedia’s leaders resisted the urge to splash ads across the site. For founder Jimmy Wales, the mission was to “give every single person free access to the sum of all human knowledge”. And it has worked: the site, largely funded by small donations, is among the world’s 10 most visited.

There are no firm rules on what can be published. Except one: the “bright line” rule. “If you are a paid advocate,” says Mr Wales, “you should disclose your conflict of interest and never edit article space directly.” So if you do not agree with an entry, tough. The only option is to declare your allegiance and appeal online to Wikipedia’s legion of volunteer editors who attempt to verify information using independent sources.

But the bright line is being breached. Wikipedia’s non-profit Wikimedia Foundation announced this week that following a digital sting it had shut down 381 “sock-puppet accounts” — used by people paid to edit subjects’ pages, usually to present them in a favourable light. These puppets seem to have one master: a “co-ordinated group” posing as Wikipedia employees and offering to create articles for small businesses and individuals for a fee. They reportedly snared a wedding photographer and a former contestant on TV’s Britain’s Got Talent, among dozens of others.

This may be a small-time scam, but it highlights an intensifying attack on Wikipedia’s founding principles. Can the site’s incorruptibility survive the commercial imperative?

It appears not. Wikipedia is a target for the growing information-industrial complex, which has turned online reputation management into a multimillion-dollar industry. A Google search often returns a link to the site as one of the first results. For companies and prominent figures, this is power that cannot be entrusted to idealistic amateurs.

PR groups and companies have pledged to stick by Wikipedia’s rules. Yet cases of tampering keep cropping up. In June it emerged that staff at Sunshine Sachs, an American PR outfit, tweaked the entry for its client, Naomi Campbell, to remove references to the commercial failure of her 1994 album. Sunshine said an employee had been unaware of the rules but it would be “in compliance moving forward”.

Facts may be sacred but alterations need only be subtle. In 2011, a computer registered to an IP address at Coca-Cola changed a description of its Dasani product from “bottled” to “spring” water.

Dasani is made from purifying water sourced from the tap. Coca-Cola said it could not be sure these changes were made by an employee, adding that they were not “in the spirit of Coke’s online social media principles”.

For the most part, Wikipedia’s system works. Divisive subjects are well monitored. Pages on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are guarded by advocates on both sides, resulting in articles stripped down to facts most can agree on. This is the result of constant, concentrated argument from which those caught in the real-world conflict could draw hope. Climate change articles, likewise, draw informed, reasoned debate.

The problem is the number of Wikipedia editors is falling. According to the site’s own statistics, the number of active Wikipedians of the English language version was about 31,000 in July 2014, down from a peak of 51,000 in March 2007.

Technological factors help explain this. Editing can be fiddly, and it is easier with a mouse and keyboard. As people switch to mobile devices, fewer submit changes. Other reasons are decidedly human: editors simply stop logging on in summer. In response, some editors have set up programs that scan for typos and other errors, and instantly reverse changes on pages prone to repeat offences.

The Wikimedia Foundation is teaming up with academic institutions, and trying to make editing easier.

But without its fact-checkers, faith in Wikipedia’s information will fade. Its survival depends on people keen to continue to contribute freely to the sum of human knowledge. The fear is the motivations of those with money will outlast the interest of editors without it. Self-serving changes to the pages of billionaires, companies or talent show contestants go unnoticed — and so, for many, become truth. Without reinforcements, the bright line cannot hold for ever.

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