As we reported earlier the PR Company Bell Pottinger have got in trouble with Wikipedia – and earned lots of negative PR – after they supposedly went about improving their clients’ public profiles on the website using methods that the site’s co-founder Jimmy Wales has deemed unethical and unacceptable.
Bell Pottinger has insisted that they did not break any laws. They say that all the content edits they completed on the website were within Wikipedia’s guidelines. They also claim that they refused to lie on behalf of their clients and only used sources of information that were already available to view on the internet.
We’ll leave the legal status of their changes to the lawyers, and concentrate on whether the company has violated any of the (copious) Wikipedia rules and regulations? After all, there as so many pages of rules on the site that it can get confusing. Let’s investigate to see what the rest of us can avoid:
Multiple accounts and misleading information
Bell Pottinger has been accused of using multiple accounts to edit information about their clients on the website. Wikipedia has suspended accounts they believe are associated with the company until an investigation has been carried out.
It is made quite clear on the Wikipedia Username policy page that using multiple accounts without declaring it is not permitted. This is known as ‘Sock Puppetry’ and there’s a special sock puppetry page dedicated to explaining why it’s a bad thing.
Roughly, sock puppetry takes many forms including creating an account to avoid detection, using another person’s account, logging in to make problematic edits, reviving old accounts and presenting them as a new user, or asking friends to create accounts that seemingly alter public opinion.
Wikipedia states that if you must use multiple accounts, you do so for a good reason (i.e. to protect your first account), and it should be indicated as such. For example it should be labelled: ‘alternative account’. Wikipedia and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) argue that Bell Pottinger did not indicate that these multiple accounts were linked to one another in any way.
This is an important principle as sock puppetry can be put to nefarious purposes. The guidelines say: “Do not use multiple accounts to mislead, deceive, or disrupt; to create the illusion of greater support for a position; to stir up controversy; or to circumvent a block, ban, or sanction.”
Wikipedia keeps a record of each username’s activity that allows others to see what each Wikipedian has been up to. This list of user contributions allows the rest of us to figure out what contributors’ interests are and what their agenda might be, it consequently plays a vital part in judging the value of an entry.
So, each Wikipedia account should only have a single editor. Although there’s no evidence to suggest a single member of Bell Pottinger’s digital team used numerous accounts (they may indeed have had one person operating each account), the company operating as a single body did break the multiple account rule. Even worse they did it to avoid detection while they pushed their clients’ agenda.
Deleting points and a Neutral Point of View
If the use of sock puppetry and multiple accounts seems a little involved for the non-Wikipedian, Bell Pottinger’s other error is easier to agree on. According to the article in The Independent, “the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients in the last year. Some of the changes added favourable comments while others removed negative content.” As making alterations, even “hundreds of alterations”, to Wikipedia is perfectly normal, we should break down this last sentence into its two constituent parts in order to fully understand the problem.
“Some of the changes added favourable comments…” Now, adding favourable comments, as long as they are backed up with reputable sources, is not forbidden by Wikipedia. In fact, you might say that a well-written, and thus balanced, Wikipedia article should have favourable comments added.
To take Registan’s example of the (fake) Uzbekistan government agents asking Bell Pottinger to work for them, it would be relevant to include on the company’s Wiki entry that they have an ethical policy that is rigorous enough to ensure they turned the job down until the country sorts its act out. This gives readers a balanced view of Bell Pottinger.
To return to The Independent’s accusations: “….while others removed negative content.” This practise is evil cheese compared to the good chalk of “adding favourable comments”. One of Wikipedia’s key tenets is to maintain a Neutral Point of View which means “representing fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources.” So, if a Wikipedia article contains something negative about your business it has to stay in. Of course it must be properly sourced (have a link to the article where it was originally found) and cannot be libellous. So, if your company is responsible for a dreadful industrial accident, you can’t take advantage of the encyclopaedia’s open source nature and whitewash this.
To be fair to Bell Pottinger, the rules of Wikipedia are extremely long and can be confusing. They may not have known they were breaking the rules. This doesn’t seem entirely believable however, as deleting negative publicity just goes against ethical common sense. For the rest of us, we can remember these two core principles when editing Wikipedia: a) maintain a neutral point of view (NPOV) as far as possible. b) don’t play silly games and try and mislead others about your identity and interests.