Wikipedia Bans Paid Editing Firm, Mass-Deletes Articles

An employee at a money changer counts USD 100 bills in Manila on October 25, 2012. AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS
AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS

Last week a company named Wikiprofessionals was banned from Wikipedia after an editor identified accounts the firm allegedly used for undisclosed paid editing. In a subsequent discussion, editors agreed to delete articles reputedly created by the firm and have so far deleted over a dozen. Articles deleted include ones on executives of social media game company Zynga and a Qatari billionaire who married pop singer Janet Jackson.

Wikipedia editors also claimed the article on Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media was originally created by a paid editor and discussed deleting the page, though the history of the article’s creation and the editor who created it suggest the editor was seeking to smear the outlet, not promote it. While undisclosed paid editing is prohibited on Wikipedia, disclosed paid editing is a common permitted practice.

Wikiprofessionals recently came to the attention of editors on Wikipedia after editor “The creeper2007” came forward claiming to have had a private conversation with a representative of the company who admitted to paying an editor for articles. Editors consequently began an investigation of the company and creeper2007’s claims at a noticeboard for discussing conflicts of interest. After creeper2007 posted exchanges with a company representative, it was determined “HappyKatsu” was one account tied to the firm. HappyKatsu has created a dozen articles about various video game executives, such as a former CEO of THQ and various executives from Zynga, known for being behind various popular Facebook games. Alleged Wikipedia articles from the paid editing included ones on the creators of such ubiquitous titles as Words with Friends and Farmville.

Suspicion fell on the HappyKatsu account due to it creating an article on another mobile game developer, Neil Young. Editors noted Young was one of several individuals listed on a portfolio for Wikiprofessionals, which the company identified as some of their work. Names on the list included the former CEOs of John Hancock Financial and the Trulia real estate site as well as Wissam Al Mana, a Qatari billionaire who was married to pop singer Janet Jackson. All had articles created by single-purpose burner accounts and showed signs of promotional editing with some edited to moderate their tone following the paid editing revelations.

Confusion arose over whether the portfolio only showed articles created by the firm or included articles the firm merely paid users to edit in ways favorable to a client. Editors noted one name in the portfolio was that of Helen DeVos, the late mother-in-law of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. However, the editor who created the page was described as a “well-established Wikipedian” and editors reviewing it saw no obvious evidence of paid editing. Some articles that showed no signs of being created by paid editors did show evidence of later contributions from paid editors.

Most pages allegedly worked on or created by the company involved commercial clients such as an electric bike company, an online food-delivery service in Europe, and a manufacturer of space launch vehicles. One article involved a Taiwanese developer of electric vehicle batteries, but when the editor who created the page was listed as part of an investigation into “sockpuppetry”, arguing the accounts were all connected or operated by the same person, that editor commented to deny any connection to the other accounts or paid editing.

Eventually, a discussion was initiated on banning the company and any editors who may be associated with it. The opening comment of the discussion listed articles they suspected of being created by the company, thus excluding ones such as the DeVos page, with some subsequently being crossed out after further review. While the editor opening the discussion only argued for bans, many editors weighed in to argue for deleting all articles believed to have been created by the company.

Some editors expressed concerns about mass-deletion and suggested articles be reviewed with those having been significantly edited by unrelated users retained. Despite this, the discussion was closed in favor of banning all editors believed to be associated with the company and deleting all articles believed to have been created by the company. Others objected to certain deletion attempts, prompting questions about whether deletions could be challenged given the decision. More than a dozen of the articles suspected of being created by paid editors have been deleted, mostly those created by HappyKatsu, but also a few others such as the one on Wissam Al Mana.

One article listed in the discussion and proposed for deletion is an article on conservative media outlet Blaze Media, founded by Glenn Beck. Despite the listing, evidence suggests the editor who created the page was not engaged in promotional paid editing. Editing since 2006, the editor who created Blaze Media’s page had a long history of smearing conservatives including Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

These edits included numerous ones attacking or mocking Beck’s 2010 Restoring Honor Rally, such as noting the crowd was mostly white. The rally came several days before Beck announced creation of the Blaze and the page on the outlet was created by the editor that day following news coverage. Such history is suggestive of the editor creating the page as part of an anti-conservative agenda rather than paid editing. Having retired from editing in 2011, the editor has not commented on the paid editing discussion.

Paid editing is a widespread practice on Wikipedia. Cases such as Wikiprofessionals involve undisclosed paid editing, which violates the Terms of Use put in place by the Foundation that owns Wikipedia. The ban has not prevented numerous firms from pursuing undisclosed paid editing in defiance of the terms. However, what is permitted is disclosed paid editing, where paid editors identify themselves as such on Wikipedia then propose articles and edits.

Such so-called “white hat” paid editing has still generated controversy as firms perform work for political, tech, and media figures, such as NBC News and reddit CEO Steve Huffman. Despite following rules on paid editing, such firms still often skirt the site’s content policies by slipping subtle bias into massive proposed edits that are reviewed by the site’s unpaid volunteers. However, greater concern about undisclosed paid editing means concerns about disclosed paid editing are dismissed, allowing those editors to avoid any sanctions as has occurred with the paid editing firms of Ed Sussman and William Beutler. Wikipedia also has a “reward board” where editors offer each other prizes, including cash, for certain tasks or contests, typically serving non-commercial purposes (Disclosure: this author previously received cash prizes in two such contests).

Conflicts of interest on Wikipedia are a common problem due to the open nature of the site and reliance of media, scientific researchers, and Big Tech, on the online encyclopedia. This has included cases where editors who volunteered or worked for campaigns of 2020 presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, and Kamala Harris, had created or significantly edited articles on those candidates in a biased fashion. Such problems are in addition to the site’s regular problems with political bias recently criticized by the site’s co-founder.

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

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