Professionalism/Conflict of Interest Wikipedia Editing: Sunshine Sachs and Jack Craver

Introduction: Sunshine SachsEdit

In the summer of 2015, Jack Craver, a freelance journalist, caught the PR firm Sunshine Sachs covertly editing its celebrity clients’ Wikipedia pages to cover up unpleasant parts of their lives.[1] Craver highlighted edits to supermodel Naomi Campbell’s Wikipedia page as the primary proof of this biased editing. Wikipedia user Alexdltb made 3 suspect edits of her page:

  1. He changed “Campbell also attempted an acting career” to “Campbell also had an acting career” which eliminates the impression that her acting career was a failure.[2]
  2. He removed the phrase “critical and commercial failure” which was describing Campbell’s R&B album Babywoman.[2] The album was a self-admitted failure and by Campbell’s own admission “did not amount to much”.[3]
  3. Alexdtlb removed mention of Campbell’s controversial personal life and 3 charges of assault from the introduction. The information is still included in the page, but the intro no longer includes this reference to it: “Her personal life is widely reported, partitucaly her relationships with prominent men-including boxer Mike Tyson and actor Robert De Niro-and several highly-publicised convictions for assault.”[2]

Sunshine Sach’s guilt was confirmed when internal emails were leaked in which Sunshine employees advertised “we’re here to help your clients edit their pages!”[3] As Wikipedia becomes a more important source of information, ensuring it presents an unbiased view is crucial to providing users the best possible resource. The scandal with Sunshine Sachs called public attention to the broader issue of conflict of interest Wikipedia editing. This biased editing threatens the integrity of Wikipedia’s goal to present a “summary of existing mainstream knowledge in a fair and accurate manner.”[4]

Wiki-PREdit

One of the earliest and most notable cases of conflict of interest editing involved the Texas-based public relations firm, Wiki-PR. Founded in 2010, Wiki-PR managed the Wikipedia presence of over 12,000 clients, including large companies such as Priceline.com and Viacom.  In addition to creating pages for clients, Wiki-PR advertised services such as “page monitoring” and “crisis management”.[5] The firm actively reached out to clients via email, offering to create a page for a price of $500-$1000.[6] There are several instances where Wiki-PR wrote online articles about clients to meet notability requirements necessary for page creation.  Once a page was created, Wiki-PR offered monitoring services for around $50 per month.[6] Wiki-PR is believed to have made thousands of edits to advance the interests of clients, both by editing Wikipedia directly and by creating sources to support edits. The firm made edits from over 300 sock puppet accounts and often cited content farms and user-edited websites. Wiki-PR edited many of these sites and used these sources to create an illusion of credibility.  They also employed several Wikipedia admins, which are long-time Wikipedia editors with special privileges to restrict editing access to pages.[6]

In 2012, Wiki-PR was exposed when former clients revealed their activity to the Daily Dot and Vice.[6][7]  Published articles prompted a large-scale investigation by Wikimedia Foundation, the parent company of Wikipedia.  Wiki-PR’s actions sparked a major response by Wikimedia to combat conflict of interest editing. In October 2013, the Wikimedia Foundation banned over 250 user accounts and issued a cease and desist letter banning Wiki-PR and its affiliates from making further edits.  The Executive director of Wikimedia Foundation, Sue Gardner, condemned paid promotional editing as a “black hat practice” that “violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people”.[8] Although “deceptive activities” were already prohibited by its terms of use, the Wikimedia Foundation expanded restrictions on paid advocacy editing in a 2014 update to its Terms of Use.[9]  The terms now state that paid editors should disclose their conflict of interest, and they should propose changes in talk pages rather than edit pages directly.[10]

Despite efforts by Wikimedia Foundation, conflict of interest editing persists.  This behavior pollutes public information and is nearly undetectable. Policing edits requires a large expenditure of resources, a cost that Wikipedia bears.  This example raises questions regarding responsibility: To what extent is Wikipedia responsible for the quality of its website? A similar dilemma is faced by companies such as Facebook and YouTube, who expend resources to combat users who are exploiting their product.

Independent Conflict of Interest EditingEdit

One notable conflict of interest editor is Mike Wood of Legal Morning. Wood began editing wikipedia pages in 2008 while working as the chief gaming inspector for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian, and eventually became a verified page editor. He claimed “Wikipedia actually becomes addicting after a while.”[11] After several years of editing, Wood realized that celebrities and companies would pay him large sums of money to edit their pages favorably. Edits made by Wood range from changing a few words to removing documented reviews.

In January of 2013, Business Insider published an article by Wood titled “I get paid to Edit Wikipedia for Large Companies.” Wikipedia responded by blocking the IP address that Wood had been editing the pages on, which came from one of his work computers. Subsequently, Wood was fired from his job as gaming inspector just two days after the article was published.[12]

The issue with conflict of interest editing is that as long as the editor does not reveal his/her clients and uses different IP addresses and account names, Wikipedia has no way to track the editors. Wood created Legal Morning Marketing, which specializes in editing Wikipedia pages for set prices that are listed on the website.[13] Although this is against Wikipedia’s terms of use, it is not illegal by law so Wood cannot be arrested or charged for this act. He continues today to edit pages by refusing to reveal his clients and changing the account and IP address he uses to make the edits.

Mike Wood brings up the dilemma of which stakeholder is ethically responsible for monitoring conflict of interest editing. Wikipedia has changed their terms of use to try to reduce the number of paid editors, but that obviously has not worked given that Mike Wood markets his wikipedia editing company to the public. Wikipedia should take as much action as possible to eliminate paid editors, however, in the case of Mike Wood there’s not much that Wikipedia can do to to reduce or eliminate his paid edits. Responsibility for conflict of interest edits also falls on the editors and the people paying the editors. As a company or an individual, having a wikipedia page is a privilege that should not be unfairly taken advantage of. As a wikipedia editor, you are granted anonymity that is expected to be used ethically. Both of these stakeholders have the ability to act professionally by following the terms of use laid out by Wikipedia.

Medtronic and KyphoplastyEdit

On January 11, 2013, James Heilman, an ER physician and an experienced Wikipedia editor, noticed a suspicious change to the kyphoplasty Wikipedia page. The anonymous editor attempted to change the results section to read that the procedure is “well documented and studied” rather than “contentious”.[14] James Heilman found this characterization of the practice to be unsupported by the existing research.[11] Kyphoplasty is a surgical spinal procedure that has mixed clinical trial results. The procedure has been in practice for over 25 years, but recent research is more explicitly showing “no evidence that [kyphoplasty] leads to clinically important benefits”.[15] No consensus among physicians has yet been reached, however, on the effectiveness of this procedure.

Aware of these mixed clinical trial results, Heilman wondered why someone wanted to write over the debate around the procedure and investigated potential motives for such a seemingly biased change to the Wikipedia page. A google search of the anonymous Wikipedia editor’s username connected the screen name to a gmail account of Kim Schlebe an employee of Medtronic, a major medical device manufacturer.[11] Upon further investigation, Heilman found that Medtronics had recently acquired Kyphon Inc., the primary manufacturer of Kyphoplasty surgical equipment.[11] This discovery uncovered the conflict of interest that motivated an editor to attempt to frame kyphoplasty positively on Wikipedia.

Once Heilman caught Medtronic and exposed its employee’s attempt to write over the procedure’s controversy, Medtronic defended its action because “the site and content on [t]here is scaring prospective patients and insurance companies are not willing to cover these expenses”.[11] In fact only three years previously, Medtronic’s kyphoplasty division was caught in another scandal when they manipulated perception of kyphoplasty results to convince Medicare to pay for more procedures. A whistle blower exposed “the spinal medical device company’s sales and pricing strategy to increase its profits by defrauding Medicare”.[16]

Wikipedia protects every editor’s anonymity. On Wikipedia, “remaining anonymous is your right...you can make your edits with a pseudonym, hiding your true identity”.[17] Medtronic tried to hide behind this anonymity to promote their products by minimizing undesirable medical facts. Even after being caught trying to fraudulently manipulate public perception of kyphoplasty and fined $75 million,[16] the anonymity of wikipedia provided a seemingly safe outlet to continue this unethical practice. Much like many other notable examples of fraud, such as Volkswagen clean diesel or Enron, the perpetrators tried to leverage anonymity to inconspicuously act dishonestly and avoid consequences.

ReferencesEdit

  1. Craver, J. ( 2015, June 16). PR firm covertly edits the Wikipedia entries of its celebrity clients. https://wikistrategies.net/sunshine-sachs/
  2. a b c Naomi Campbell: difference between revisions. Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Naomi_Campbell&diff=571834224&oldid=571830610
  3. a b Cieply, M. (2015, June 22). Wikipedia pages of star clients altered by P.R. firm. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/23/business/media/a-pr-firm-alters-the-wiki-reality-of-its-star-clients.html
  4. Wikipedia: purpose. Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Purpose
  5. WIki-PR Services: https://wiki-pr.com/services/
  6. a b c d Owens, S. (2013). The battle to destroy wikipedia's biggest sockpuppet army. The Daily Dot. https://www.dailydot.com/irl/wikipedia-sockpuppet-investigation-largest-network-history-wiki-pr/
  7. Robbins, M. (2013). Is the PR industry buying influence over wikipedia? Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/kwpqmn/is-the-pr-industry-buying-influence-over-wikipedia
  8. Gardner, S. (2013). Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner's response to paid advocacy editing and sockpuppetry. https://blog.wikimedia.org/2013/10/21/sue-gardner-response-paid-advocacy-editing/
  9. Wikipedia: Conflict of Interest. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Conflict_of_interest#Wikipedia's_position
  10. Brigham, G. (2014). Making a change to our terms of use: Requirements for disclosure.  https://blog.wikimedia.org/2014/06/16/change-terms-of-use-requirements-for-disclosure/
  11. a b c d e Pinsker, J. (2015, August 11). The covert world of people trying to edit wikipedia for pay. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/08/wikipedia-editors-for-pay/393926/
  12. Wood, M. (2017). I Got Fired For Editing Wikipedia. Wikipediocracy. http://wikipediocracy.com/2016/05/23/i-got-fired-for-editing-wikipedia
  13. Wood, M. (2019). Online Marketing & Professional Wikipedia Editing. LegalMorning. https://www.legalmorning.com/
  14. Vertebral augmentation: revision history. Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Vertebral_augmentation&action=history
  15. Wolters Kluwer. (2018, July). Death knell for vertebroplasty-after a twisting 25-year research saga. The Back Letter. https://journals.lww.com/backletter/Fulltext/2018/07000/Death_Knell_for_Vertebroplasty_After_a_Twisting.1.aspx
  16. a b Phillips & Cohen (2008, May 22). Medtronic unit will pay $75 million to settle whistleblower medicare fraud case. https://www.phillipsandcohen.com/medtronic-unit-will-pay-75-million-settle-whistleblower-medicare-fraud-case/
  17. Wikipedia: wikipedia is anonymous. Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_is_anonymous