Friday, December 16, 2011

Pottingers, Wikipedia, & WikiLies

Last week, The UK newspaper The Independent revealed that Bell Pottinger, a leading PR agency, had engaged in the covert manipulation of Wikipedia entries related to some of its clients. Using multiple, anonymous accounts, staff at the agency had eradicated negative information, inflated positive references, and altered the facts of numerous Wikipedia entries. It also became apparent that agency executives routinely pitched to clients and prospects their ability to alter Wikipedia entries as part of their services.

I propose that henceforth we name an entry in Wikipedia that has been willfully manipulated a "Pottinger" in their honor. I challenge readers to create the "Pottinger" Wikipedia entry.

Your immediate reaction to this story might reasonably be this – how stupid can you get??? My reaction was a little different: I’m a marketing professional with over 15 years’ experience running PR programs for big organizations, and I must confess to having altered Wikipedia entries too.

A few years back I started a new job at a well know technology company, and on my second day got a call from the CMO: Could I come to his office immediately. When I got there he showed me the Wikipedia entry for a senior executive. I was shocked. The entry had been altered by several anonymous people and contained openly slanderous statements. Some of the changes seemed downright bizarre. I had a Wikipedia account (I’d created a number of entries years ago), and I worked to get the changes removed and details corrected. It was an uphill struggle because I didn’t disguise who I was, but eventually things were made right (then right again, as the entry continued to be changed). We made no attempt to catch the perpetrators – that was too complex and time-consuming.

Of course, unlike Bell Pottinger, my actions didn’t breach any of Wikipedia’s guidelines (that I know about) or hide any truths – in fact, the reverse. And I’m not alone: I know of many instances where company employees or agency staff altered entries related to their employer or client, almost all correcting wrongs, adding missing information, or providing context. Wikipedia is a crowdsourced entity, open to anyone; laudably democratic, but ripe for abuse, neglect or simple error. Fixing things can feel unnecessarily arduous and often frustrating.

Needless to say, none of this excuses the stupidity of Bell Pottinger. They’re dolts, with a history of ethical issues.

However, you can’t argue BP is a unique case, or even out-of-the-ordinary. Far from it. There’s a long history of Wikipedia abuse. WikiScanner, Wikipedia Review and others have catalogued many examples over the years, and others have pointed to the inherent problem with a trust-based, crowdsourcing model for gathering information.  Indeed, Wikipedia deletes over a thousand entries every day.

In general, crowdsourcing anything should invite scrutiny and skepticism. We certainly shouldn’t assume that Wikipedia is the bastion of unalienable truth. And unfortunately, nor should we think of Bell Pottinger as an anomaly – expect continued revelations of WikiLies as Wikipedia, already the sixth most visited website worldwide, gains in significance.

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