Wikipedia Astroturfing & Reputation Management

At the behest of several followers on Twitter (follow me here), here’s a primer on Wikipedia astroturf and reputation management. Wikipedia entries are generated by readers who post entries on topics they care about or edit entries with or in need of more information. The power of Wikipedia cannot be underestimated. The site is currently the number 9 most visited site in the world according to Alexa, and is always a perennial Google search favorite.

Wikipedia has very clear guidelines on submitting articles and editing, including the following:

Articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV), representing fairly and, as much as possible, without bias all significant views (that have been published by r eliable sources).

That means companies, campaigners, PR firms and other hired guns cannot edit themselves (or clients) or add their own entries. To do so is considered Astroturfing. Most notably, Microsoft got busted astroturfing on an open-source entry, prompting a public outcry against the ethics violation.

Last summer, I wrote on this topic in the Buzz Bin in a piece dubbed, “Astroturfing on the Dark Side of the Moon:”

Astroturfing is a slang term for false PR or fake social media in the blogosphere. No PR or marketing person wants to be dubbed an astroturfer. Wikipedia (not normally a great source) dubs astroturfing as, “formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior.”

Compared to this definition, astroturfing in the blogosphere can be considered three shades slimier. Much of the ethical bantering in the marketing and PR blogosphere tends to revolve around astroturfing or corporate social media-related incidents. And these incidents tend to have a mushroom cloud hovering above them.

AS-010A lot of companies engage in astroturfing, most claiming ignorance when they are caught. But believe me, no one should engage in this practice because if caught, it forever taints your brand reputation. So don’t be quick to muddy the waters. And if you think you can edit Wikipedia addresses anonymously, think again. Wikiscanner demonstrates how editors trace IP address owners.

Wikipedia Reputation Management

Is there such a thing? Difficulties in protesting WIkipedia postings openly and honestly have gotten to the point that most of the major PR firms allow their current wikipedia entries to be half-false.

Because of the encyclopedia’s adamant policy against corporate-based information (representing a conflict of interest), companies have to suck it up more often than not. WIkipedia will only create unbiased entries.

In order to be successful with a contested entry, lots of third party information has to be provided. So companies have to cite legal documents, public records, journalist accounts, and other points of view published on the Internet if they want to contest an entry. In many cases, companies will not be able to provide this kind of factual accounting to write their ship. In fact that’s what caused Microsoft to engage in its astroturfing incident.

In such situations, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recommended the following:

Wales said the proper course would have been for Microsoft to write or commission a “white paper” on the subject with its interpretation of the facts, post it to an outside Web site and then link to it in the Wikipedia articles’ discussion forums.

This is an OK way to handle it, and you should make sure any counter points are posted on the corporate blog in case someone searches your site for more information. You also have to combat the Wikipedia results that Google will serve. For an excellent read on Search Engine reputation management I recommend this post from Andy Beal, “Ten Ways to Fix a Google Reputation Nightmare.

Additional Reading

Kami Huyse’s “Astroturfing and the American Way.”

Jeremiah Owyang’s “List of Flogs, Astroturfing, Fake Blogs and Drag Queens

Scott Baradell’s “Open letter to Jimmy Wales

Issue Dynamics’ “Non Profits Should Avoid Astroturf, Too

10 Replies to “Wikipedia Astroturfing & Reputation Management”

  1. I’m completely against astroturfing, but this is one point I simply do not agree on. Astroturfing is about not being transparent about who you are, or allowing only your side of the story to come through. It’s not about going against the wishes of Wikipedia. The fact that they value “unbiased” over “factual” is laughable to me, and the fact that they are the ninth most visited website in the world makes it an issue that companies should deal with, regardless of whether or not Jimmy Wales wants them to.

    If there was a paragraph about my company on Wikipedia that was flagrantly false and potentially hurtful, I would consider it my job to correct it, even if that meant doing it from another IP address. It’s not up to the world to decide what is true and what is not.

    To be clear, I’m not talking about removing the “controversial” stuff from articles, or altering issue-based articles to suit your needs. I’m talking about correcting the stuff that is 100% false, and in my opinion, not doing so is just bad PR.

  2. Ryan:

    Yeah, it’s not really a great system and I think it undermines Wikipedia’s credibility. I think that’s what Scott Baradell’s letter was about. That the rules would cause more astroturfing, not less.

    At the same time, as a marketer, it’s good to know what you are dealing with. While the rules may not be good, they are the rules and it’s our job to navigate them. I think it would hurt your company more to be nailed for altering a Wikipedia entry against the rules and outed for astroturfing (wrong or right), then it would be to write something up independently, publicizing it, and calling into question Wikipedia’s already shaky credibility.


  3. Great post, Geoff. I do, however, think that there is a little more gray area here than the basic principles may suggest. Many of these rules are set to prevent brands from acting irresponsibly in Wikipedia but I think certain conflict of interest issues can be secondary to the correction of factual information, which is more important to the overall goal of Wikipedia. While direct edits to an article are a last resort (and should never be done by an agency), I’m not sure if I’d advise a client to write a white paper if there was a strict factual inaccuracy in their article than can be easily proven false by an independent respected source. I would start in the discussion pages and then move on to the talk pages of the most active editors while maintaining full transparency on the individual’s user page (who they are, who the work for and what they do on Wikipedia).

    Also, Wikipedia also has a sandbox feature, that allows users to create entries without them going live to the public. This can also resolve many conflict of interest issues since a sandbox entry can be flagged to enlist other impartial editors to contribute and ultimately decide if the entry should go public. I believe it’s a completely ethical way to submit an idea/concept/brand/personality to the Wikipedia community and let them decide if it deems an article and how that article should be written.

    Regarding Wikiscanner, I think agencies and large brands should really take advantage of this tool to make sure no one internal is violating their social media guidelines. If you look at the trouble Edelman has gotten in, it has nothing to do with their expertise (they obviously have some great people in this space) but more to do with their ability to police themselves.

    In the next couple days I’ll post some of the lessons I learned in my past year of dealing with Wikipedia issues. I’ve seen everything from Wikipedia editors having vendettas against certain brands to internal editor quarrels using brand entries to get back at each other. It’s definitely not our father’s encyclopedia.


  4. However, this is one clear case where the Rules and Expectations that business brings into the arena are more accessible and practical than those brought by Wales and the idealists.

    In the long run, Wales and the Wikipedia policy is encouraging corporate interests to ignore social media entirely. Who wants to play in an arena that is so hopelessly biased? And who elected this Wales guy to be the King of something so influential? “Business-friendly” does not equate to “business-manipulated,” and by creating a byzantine labyrinth of steps to maintain the “purity” of his creation, Wales is instead becoming an impediment to open and honest dialogue by encouraging the dismissal of social media as a serious communications tool.

    That said, I agree with Geoff. This post is not a sanctification of the Wikipedia policy, merely an explanation of the current state of affairs.

  5. Peter: I look forward to your post. And the general Wikipedia approach is anti-corporate and assumes all companies are evil. BTW: this reflects general societal opinions of corporate america. The approach actually undermines Wikipedia’s credibility.

    Ike: “by encouraging the dismissal of social media as a serious communications tool.” I disagree with that. What it dismisses is Wikipedia as a credible resource, not social media as a tool.

    People that dismiss social media as a tool are in denial about dramatic usage numbers that increase with every new research report. They are fighting change as people who are threated want to do. At the same time, smart marketers understand that when you have an early majority of the population using a communications medium that they need to communicate through it. Thus they already know it’s a “serious” communication tool.

  6. Geoff – we are in agreement, but I see a different effect.

    When businesses look at policies like Wikipedia’s, they see a system that is unfair and is gamed against them. In places that are just now considering social media, the thought becomes “if those crazy internet people are going to have such silly rules, then maybe we ought to stick to something that is grownup.”

    Again… I’m not agreeing with that seniment or editorializing… just showing where those thoughts can lead. And it is a direct consequence of the rules Wales insists on maintaining.

  7. Ike: You say we agree, but we don’t. I think that’s just a BS conservative reaction. People looking for excuses to dismiss social media have them abound. Smart marketers look at the numbers and get it.

  8. Very helpful comments thanks – especially liked Peter’s. I have made corrections to Wikipedia before now on my own behalf – but for a company I used to work for and who afterwards became a client. The problem with the Wikipedia system is that you never know when you might get called out – and probably not know by whom.

  9. All that sounds nice. But in practise I find WP to be quite thoroughly astroturfed or at least biased. It seems to me anything remotely political or historical is largely from a centre-right, firmly pro-capitalist and pro-US perspective. Critical or progressive readings are minimised. Terminologies used and omissions or context providing information also speaks to bias on balance.

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