Wikipedia editors are said to be shocked and dismayed following the announcement that hundreds of user accounts have been suspended for engaging in promotional behaviour that violates the policies of the free encyclopedia.
Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the not-for-profit organisations which runs Wikipedia, said in a statement that 'perhaps as many as several hundred [user accounts] may have been paid to write articles on Wikipedia promoting organisations or products.' She added that 'more than 250 user accounts' have been banned as a result.
The majority of Wikipedia pages which are suspected to have been created or edited in this way are Silicon Valley dot-coms and their founders, but there are a number of more unusual entries, including the page for the Wikileaks Party, a political party set up to back Julian Assange's campaign for a seat in the Australian Senate in the 2013 elections. Another entry was for Mercy Ministries, a Christian charity that has been criticised in the UK, US and Australia for its medical and employment practices.
Other pages include small financial institutions as well articles about authors, sportsmen, doctors, a musician and a small oil company.
According to editors, the allegations of unethical promotion centre around an American company, Wiki-PR, which offers its clients the ability to 'manage your image' on Wikipedia. Ironically, under its 'Services' page, the company says 'Don't get caught up in a PR debacle by editing your own page', and 'you need not worry about anyone tarnishing your image - be it personal, political or corporate.'
The user accounts in question have been grouped together under the name 'Morning277', after one of the many usernames chosen by the rogue editors. Other Wikipedia users noticed that a number of articles were being created or edited by a group of users who 'collaborated without ever using the talk pages' [Their italics].
"Sock-puppet" editing refers to the creation of multiple fictional accounts which users can then use to post positive feedback to each other or make seemingly independent changes to articles. From the Wikipedia investigation, it appears that elements of "sockpuppetry" were involved, as well as the practice of recruiting real-life new editors for the sole purpose of authenticating the work of others, known in the editing community as "meat-puppetry".
Dozens of articles were found to have been created along the same lines: users would follow the same steps to become "confirmed" authors, then set up draft pages which other authors would pick up and publish, adding pictures or logos. When the pages were flagged for deletion (usually on the grounds that the subject wasn't sufficiently well-known) the same group of authors would contest or delay the deletion process.
Sue Gardner described the issue of 'paid advocacy editing' as 'inconsistent with Wikipedia's educational mission' and 'extremely problematic'. She said that the Foundation is closely monitoring the investigation, and 'assessing all the options at our disposal.'
Editors at Wikipedia described the pages as having 'a promotional tone' and containing 'material that is either neutral or...flattering of their subjects, never material that is critical or negative, to the extent that they have sometimes been speedily deleted as spam.'
The references chosen by Morning277 users to add credibility to their articles were found to either be press releases for the clients or links to websites that appeared to be news sites such as CNN but were in fact "citizen journalist" blog sites including Iwatch.CNN.com, CaBusinessJournal.org and DigitalJournal.com.
In a statement to the BBC, Wiki-PR chief executive Jordan French denied any wrongdoing.
'The PR in Wiki-PR is a misnomer - we're a research and writing firm', French said. 'We research the subject and write in an accurate and properly referenced way about it, filling a hole at Wikipedia for many subjects - concepts, companies, people, even astronomy - in which other editors lack an interest.'