Is Wikipedia doing more damage to itself than to paid editors in its war against paid content edits?
According to some, Wikipedia is seriously being ripped apart by a, what they term, a Witch Hunt against organizations and individuals who use paid editors to edit various Wikipedia entries.
Yes, Wikipedia may be free to read and edit, but that does not mean there is no paid content on the site. Wikipedia is one of the most visited sites in the world at any given moment.
And since Wikipedia does not show users advertisements and does not sell its space to marketing companies and doesn’t do business with affiliate companies either, it stands to reason that people try to take advantage of that fact and slide in their own form of “paid content” in many secretive ways.
Secret paid editing, which is the kind of editing that is never disclosed, is definitely on the rise when one considers the number of secret editors that were engaged in editing Wikipedia entries from a couple of years ago to now.
Consequently, Wikipedians along with the Wikimedia Foundation have taken some serious steps by working together to ban and block the practice of paid editing.
And while that objective may be well intentioned, the fact remains that this “Joint Effort” could seriously hurt genuine editors and hence Wikipedians and The Wikimedia Foundation will have to take steps in order to ensure that they do not, inadvertently, discourage the user participation that has made Wikipedia the go-to resource for any topic imaginable.
If Wikipedia could be considered as a beast then it will certainly be one strange beast. Wikipedia’s page on Library of Alexandria is constantly vandalized and its “watchers” have to work overtime in order to keep the page in good condition by erasing unverified form of content, more like graffiti, from taking over the page that is visited by millions.
Back in the year 2014, a similar incidence happened with a Wikipedia article on a popular soccer player, in the US that is, by the name of Tim Howard.
Tim Howard who played as a goalkeeper for the 2014 US World Cup soccer team, was mistakenly listed on his Wikipedia article as being the secretary of defense. Of course, the damage then too was contained by moderators who swiftly removed the content before it could be read by potentially millions of people around the world.
Coming to the current year, we saw the House Speaker who goes by the name of Paul Ryan being inducted, or rather was forced to join, to the list of invertebrates on Wikipedia.
The point we’re trying to convey here is that Wikipedia has continued to suffer at the hands of vandals for many years but those proportions have reached record levels this year and there is no sight of it slowing down any time too unless some serious action is taken to safeguard the information that is presented to the public via its main site, that is Wikipedia.
Wikipedia, the kind of project it is, was always prone to get vandalized since its creation in the year 2001. In fact, most resources show the site had actually been a victim of severe vandalism since the beginning, but of course, the scale and impact of those violations have reached unprecedented levels now.
It is more or less a miracle that Wikipedia has been able to survive and thrive amidst all these content attacks for so many years. In fact, Wikipedia has flourished and has continually improved both the quantity and quality of its articles despite facing serious issues such as of those related to vandalism.
But now the situation seems to be getting out of hand. In other words, paid editors have become a big problem for moderators at Wikipedia.
And it’s not because paid editors are able to do their damage to the content that is available on Wikipedia and then escapes unscathed. It is because the “law” allows them to do their work without any fear of repercussions. To a certain extent that is.
Paid editors usually create content, and then edit it too, for a sum of money in order to fulfill the requirements of their clients. Let’s just say that these type of content creators and crafters have proven themselves to be quite a challenge for Wikipedia to overcome.
Here comes the kicker, though. Not all paid editors are generous enough or even honest enough to publicize these type of disclosures on their user pages for the benefit of the people reading their article on Wikipedia.
The reason for that is simple enough too. These type of paid editors want to reap all the benefit that are on offer when some piece of content can be given the appearance of total objectivity. Most paid editors prefer not to mention their conflicts of interest with the content they are putting on Wikipedia so that their content does not seem paid for.
Needless to say, these are the same type of policies that have managed to put Wikipedia on the map and one of the most visited websites in the world in any given category. More than that, these policies have made Wikipedia extremely useful.
What Are Those Policies?
Those policies are basically two words. Anonymity and consensus.
These qualities are now, fundamentally, at the heart of this particular controversy. The controversy on how the people behind the formation of Wikipedia and all the hard working editors of the open-source encyclopedia can take steps to stop the modification of Wikipedia entries text by paid editors who do not want to disclose this very fact. That they are indeed paid writers and not people who know something about a particular subject pretty well and want to contribute that to Wikipedia without any charge or purpose other than that of raising awareness through dissemination of knowledge.
James Heilman, who currently works as a medical doctor and is also a university professor. He also likes to edit Wikipedia entries and uses the name “Doc James” as his username on Wikipedia to edit entries.
He, along with many other Wikipedians like him, has urged authorities to take action and somehow have an even closer oversight of a problem that is eating Wikipedia from the inside out. The problem of paid editors and their content without proper disclosure for the public, or visitors who come to the site on a regular basis.
While talking to a reporter from Motherboard, he stated that the problem of undisclosed paid promotional editing or in other words UPPE (Undisclosed Paid Promotional Editing) had grown in the past many years especially as Wikipedia had become more popular in major search engine rankings.
He also said that Wikipedians like him have had experiences in the past where multiple companies send emails out to specific people, both to those who currently have Wikipedia pages, asking if any of the Wikipedians would like those specific pages to be improved, and along with them those companies and individuals as well who currently don’t have presence on Wikipedia with requests to create pages on Wikipedia if they do not exist.
Heilman further added and both instances of requests and almost all the people who were involved in engaging in Undisclosed Paid Promotional Editing were basically in breach of both community and Wikipedia Foundation policies.
Another Wikipedian who is currently a PhD candidate at Colorado University in computer science, Michael Skirpan, and has focused his recent works on modern and advanced techniques such as data collection and surveillance, told a reporter that if Wikipedia wanted to remain as a trusted source of information and knowledge then it had to resolve these issues as soon as possible.
In fact, he went further ahead and said that the viability of the Wikipedia project hinged on a reasonable resolution to the matters that raised questions marks over Wikipedia’s reliability and integrity.
He told a reporter from Motherboard that Wikipedia’s hard-earned status as the only advertisement-free, properly referenced source of information and reference was absolutely essential to the site’s utility to the visitors who came in search for specific answers.
Skirpan was also of the opinion that if Wikipedia was to survive as a genuinely open platform, then the people behind the scenes would have to protect the goal of its integrity and objectivity and that would require deep investigations into disputes that have been prolonged for far too long in which suspected but hidden paid actors continued to edit information on Wikipedia utilizing misleading routes.
As of now, it is a pretty safe bet to assume that a lot of people have tampered with content that is freely available and editable on Wikipedia for various reasons, the chief amongst which is public relations.
Sometimes, these “people” include actors from government organizations. In fact, various sources in the media have recently revealed that congressional staffers have actually gone ahead and edited related entries for personalities such as Vice President Mike Pence and Edward Snowden (a former NSA hacker who lives in Russia as a fugitive now).
Of course, there is always the possibility that hard working Wikipedians would quickly get a scent if something untoward has taken place to any of the pages that exist within Wikipedia and resolve any such issue rather quickly because these are, relatively speaking, obvious issues.
But they can only go so far in supervising the work that has been done by “paid editors” who do not want to disclose their corporate affiliations. On the other hand, paid editors who do disclose their related affiliations, Wikipedians can take care of their work as well in order to ensure that Wikipedia remains an objective source of knowledge with as little bias as possible.
As mentioned before, if an undisclosed editor makes a Wikipedia entry edit for a sum of money, then it makes it quite difficult for these same Wikipedians to oversee and then fact-check their work.
Modern day paid editors actually make a full-time living out of editing Wikipedia entries and generating more entries on Wikipedia for people who aren’t so public. They also offer services to fluff the relevant profiles of specific companies and corporations along with other major players in any given industry.
Heilman revealed, continuing his interview with a reporter from Motherboard, that those involved in Undisclosed Promotional Paid Editing simply did not write neutral content (who could if they knew they were getting paid to write something for a client?) and that wasn’t the same as disclosed paid editing.
He also added that if entities such as Consumer Reports or the Center for Disease and Control (CDC) wanted to get work done by paying people in order to help them improve their Wikipedia entries or improve the health content on Wikipedia, then it was no problem since that would be done for the common good.
Heilman did mention though that even then, the likes of Consumer Reports and Center for Disease and Control would have to disclose their paid editors but at least the work done would be positive “paid editing” so long as they weren’t specifically hiring paid editors to improve Wikipedia articles about their own interests or organizations.
Furthermore, Heilman told the reporter from Motherboard that the people behind Wikipedia and people who moderated the world’s largest online encyclopedia were in need of more resources and tool to get problems like Undisclosed Paid Promotional Editing under control.
He also stated that part of the problem that they struggled to deal with was that the Wikimedia Movement was partly, if not largely, born from a group that held anonymity along with consensus in exceedingly high esteem.
In The End
Despite these problems, Wikipedia has been able to keep up the quality of content which has made visitors come back to the site for more information time and time again.
But that does not change the fact that the number of active “genuine” editors on Wikipedia have slightly fallen in the last couple of years and more.
However, the problems that are being brought into the spotlight at the moment, such as those of editorial dishonesty, have only begun to gain traction recently. Part of the reason is that now there exists a rather small number of people on Wikipedia who hold and use, a massive amount of clout over the content and the inner working of the site.
Skirpan believes that it is vital that people behind Wikipedia are able to strike a reasonable balance between supervising editors and encouraging more contributors to help Wikipedia grow and that they should do everything that is necessary to keep it a collective effort.
He told a reporter from Motherboard that it would prove to be hurtful to the existence of Wikipedia if people starting to jump to conclusion and went to extremes in order to lock down the open platform and allow only a few editors to have more control or give up on supervising editors all together as such measures would hurt Wikipedia going into the future.