Thinking about editing the Wikipedia page about your company on your own?
Many Wikipedia articles about a contemporary subject like a company, university, or living person tend to have information that’s out-of-date or inaccurate. And many Wikipedia articles tend to have gaps where important facts are missing, too.
So if you or your organization has a Wikipedia article that needs to be updated or corrected, why not just dive in and make the changes yourself? There are actually a number of reasons why this is a bad idea, especially if you don’t have a great deal of prior experience with Wikipedia.
In this post, everything we say refers to the policies of the English language version of Wikipedia. you can consult us about the variations in other projects. (For example, there are major differences in the note, ability policy for companies in the German-language Wikipedia project.)
In addition to publicly disclosing conflict of interest Wikipedia (in almost all major languages) requires that conflicted editors propose page updates or new pages for review by independent editors. This is meant to ensure that editors who have a favorable bias towards the subject of an article don’t let it interfere with rigorous application of the many dozens of Wikipedia policies, spanning tens of thousands of words
While the actual software of Wikipedia doesn’t physically prevent you from editing an article without disclosing your conflict of interest (creating enormous temptation to cheat) there is a WikiProject (users organized on Wikipedia for a common purpose) with several hundred members devoted just to detecting conflict of interest editing. There are also more than one thousand Wikipedia administrators with the party to block users who seem to be violating policy.
But how do people who are cheating get caught if Wikipedia is anonymous? First off all admins and many other editors investigating possible conflicts of interest are granted special rights, such as disclosure of user account IP addresses, to assist with their investigations. They also have access to advanced tools with powerful algorithms that can spot recent edits that may be problematic.
And Wikipedia is not a court of law, even though it does have various procedures that are somewhat akin to due process. But the standard to get someone thrown off of Wikipedia is merely strong suspicion by experienced editors or administrators.
There are dozens of tells of conflict of interest editing which are apparent to experienced Wikipedia editors. The accused editor can swear up-and-down that they don’t have a conflict of interest and still get tossed off Wikipedia, their account(s) banned, their IP address blocked and their edits reversed or worse.
For Wikipedia, undisclosed conflict of interest editing is a cardinal sin that threatens the foundational reputation of the project as a neutral and independent arbiter of verifiable facts. To deter this, both the official and unofficial sanctions can be severe. Pages are deleted or warning flags placed on top of them; offending content is removed: and in some cases, editors even go out of their way to add negative content to the affected articles or strip them down to a nub.
Clients come to us almost every day who have been caught cheating. Getting problems on a Wikipedia page addressed after someone has been caught COI editing is difficult and expensive. We are perhaps the leading agency in the world when it comes to dealing with these contentious matters. But it’s far better just to never have the problem in the first place.
There is a proper way to participate on Wikipedia and stay in strict accordance with policy. But it takes far more time, effort, patience and expertise than cheating. Proposals need to be formatted in a highly specific way; research needs to be impeccable, and in strict accordance with the guidelines on “reliable sources”; language needs to be written in a way that adheres to both the letter of policy and best practices; finally, you need to be able to justify why you want to add, change, or delete content by citing chapter and verse of Wikipedia policy. If you can’t do all these things well, Wikipedia doesn’t want you to participate, even if you do disclose your conflict of interest.
Let’s dive into details.
Why is it a bad idea to edit an article about your organization?
Wikipedia policy prohibits anyone from directly editing articles about a topic with which they have a personal connection, labeling these individuals as “conflict of interest” (or COI) editors. So, for example, an employee of a company should not edit an article about the business they work for (with a few minor exceptions such as correcting spelling errors.) Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:
“Conflict of interest (COI) editing involves contributing to Wikipedia about yourself, family, friends, clients, employers, or your financial and other relationships. Any external relationship can trigger a conflict of interest. Someone having a conflict of interest is a description of a situation, not a judgment about that person’s opinions, integrity, or good faith.”
As you read this, you might be thinking “Hang on, isn’t Wikipedia anonymous? How would anybody know I work for that person/organization?” It’s actually pretty easy for experienced Wikipedia editors to spot when someone with an undisclosed COI is making improper edits to an article. Just the use of the wrong types of citations along might be enough of a clue to trigger strong suspicions, especially in relation to favorable content. When suspicion is strong, changes are usually reversed right away, and in many cases the COI editor is given a warning not to edit the page again – sometimes they are even temporarily or permanently blocked from doing so.
If the article in question has too many instances of undisclosed COI editing it’s also possible that there will be more significant consequences, such as the page being locked down by administrators (more on that below).
A full list of all the things that could potentially go wrong when you try to edit an article about you or your organization is too long to fully cover here. But these are some of the more common or serious issues you might run into if you try to go it alone:
Problem #1: Your edits are far less likely to stick
Many Wikipedia editors get very worked up about undisclosed COI editing, which they see as an abuse of the encyclopedia to sneak promotional content into what is supposed to be a neutral platform. So if a user with a COI makes edits that draw the attention of reviewing editors hunting for problems, they will often go through the article with a fine-toothed comb looking for other problems to address. The result may be large chunks of content getting removed if that content is poorly-sourced or otherwise constitutes a violation of one of Wikipedia’s policies.
But the unfortunate truth is that editors who are offended by undisclosed conflict of interest editing sometimes become punitive, removing contents that is perfectly fine under Wikipedia policy and blocking constructive updates, or proposals to update, down the road. Once an editor finds a page to be problematic they can set an automated alert to track changes for years to come. We see it constantly. It takes a great deal of skill and patience to overcome problems created by an editor whose ire has been ignited by an undisclosed COI.
Problem #2: You might attract hostile editors
When direct page editing by conflict of interest users is suspected, there’s m a good chance that it might attract the attention of Wikipedia users who will become hostile. Again, Wikipedia has all sorts of automated alert systems that experience back and editors used to identify potentially problematic edits. Not only can these hostile editors revert edits, but they could someone add highly negative or slanted content to the article as well to punish the article subject,
It is far more difficult to get biased content removed when there has been suspected or confirmed conflict of interest direct editing of a page. Yes, the facts and policy might be on your side. Some editors might want to be punitive despite the merits. When clients hire us to deal with such contentious matters, the process can be long and involved. It’s certainly a lot more expensive than just doing it right the first time.
Problem #3: Wikipedia Issue Flags, tags or Labels.
Once undisclosed conflict of interest editing is suspected, not only might the content you added, changed or deleted be reverted, but a reviewing editor might to decide to affix a warning flag tag to the top of the article.
Flags (officially called “maintenance templates”) are meant to call attention to problems with the page that other editors might wish to work on. There’s nothing in Wikipedia policy to suggest they should be used punitively. But sometimes that’s exactly what happens when users with an apparent conflict of interest are caught sneaking in content to an article. Other times, the article really is riddled with policy violations. Rather than fix them all, the reviewing editor leaves the label so someone else can take care of it, or in the interim, the article is discredited.
There’s little doubt that the effect of such labels is to make readers more skeptical of a page, even if most of it is accurate. Paradoxically, independent editors are less likely to want to improve articles where there’s been an undisclosed conflict of interest. So the labels can sit atop articles for years to come.
Getting a label removed isn’t easy. Since your conflict of interest has now been discovered, simply taking it off without discussion will almost always lead to a quick reversion. Instead, all the policy violations on the page need to be addressed via proposals on the article’s Talk page. These proposals need to be made in the highly structured format required, along with the disclosure of conflict of interest. Only after the policy violations are corrected will the label be removed. And when it comes to policy violations where there is a significant gray area, such as the definition of “promotional” or “advertising” content, it’s sometimes necessary to overcompensate with proposed deletiond in order to satisfy the reviewing editors that the page is neutral.
Problem #4: The article could get “protected”
In some cases, such as when a string of obviously problematic edits are made to an article by multiple users, it’s possible that an editor could request that Wikipedia administrators get involved to “protect” the article. This involves blocking all or over certain groups of editors from being able to modify the article at all for a specified period of time (or more rarely, indefinitely). An example is editors with fewer than 500 edits on Wikipedia. This prevents newer editors, who are focused just on one page from participating in direct editing of the article.
Other editors can continue to make changes when the page is locked down in this way. Typically, that means that only experienced editors with hundreds of edits and months or years of experience would be allowed to make edits to the page, while newer editors (even ones not involved in the original situation that resulted in the article locked) are not able to directly work on it.
In the interim editors, who are blocked from the page can make proposals for administrators to change the page. The degree of scrutiny applied in such cases is tremendous, far greater than the scrutiny of an ordinary proposal to update a page. Limited duration protection orders can be renewed multiple times if the same or different Wikipedia accounts continue to make problematic edits.
Problem #5: Your Wikipedia account could be blocked (or outright banned)
The block applies to the individual behind the account, not just the account itself. You will be blocked from participating with editing the page, or potentially all of Wikipedia. Setting up alternative accounts, or certainly multiple alternative accounts, is a violation of the Wikipedia policy called “sockpuppeting.” The IP address between suspected sock puppets are compared. The nature and language of edits from different accounts is also compared. The experience of the user and their contributions to Wikipedia is also considered.
What’s more, Wikipedia has wised up to VPNs used to disguise IP addresses. Wikipedia is constantly blocking suspected VPNs from editing Wikipedia. Aside from VPNs, Wikipedia has reacted to attempts to evade blocks by banning shared IP addresses, even when search drastic actions can affect thousands of uninvolved people.
Since the vast majority of Wikipedia service providers are “black hat”, posing as volunteers in order to make direct edits rather than going through the difficult process of presenting proposals that will be reviewed thoroughly by independent editors prior to publication, this aggressive hunting and banning of undisclosed conflict of interest or sock puppet accounts is a common outcome with this cohort. Even if a service provider like this makes reasonable edits for you, only adding reliably sourced content phrased in a neutral manner, you’ll nonetheless be caught up in the snare when they are blocked for doing unreasonable work for another client. In such cases, the work on the offending page are not the only edits reversed. The entire contribution history of the block the count is reviewed. And the independent editors are not in a forgiving mood when it comes to serial cheaters they suspect are being paid.
Problem #6: You could potentially fall afoul of the law
Believe it or not, how you edit Wikipedia could potentially result in breaking the law in your country (or countries, if your organization is multinational), at least in theory. Depending on where you are headquartered, “deceptively” editing Wikipedia article (hiding a conflict of interest) about a company or product could potentially be a violation of local, state, or national law, according to the Wikipedia at least. In the United States, for example, it’s a violation of federal law for advertisers to engage in “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” on the internet.
To the best of our knowledge, there’s never been a legal enforcement action regarding deceptive practices related to Wikipedia. But the fact that Wikipedia makes a point of emphasizing this on their website should be of concern. The Wikipedia Foundation has a budget of tens of millions of dollars annually, allowing them to maintain a full staff of lawyers. The prospect of them filling a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees this body of law in the United States, is conceivable.
When the clothing brand North Face bragged that it had “hacked” Wikipedia by sneaking in adventure-travel photos with their logo on many Wikipedia pages, the Foundation publicly attacked the company’s ethics and explicitly called it out for violating policy. The story ended up in The New York Times. The company almost immediately apologized and all the offending photos were removed. Had the product placement campaign not originated and been carried out from Brazil, one could imagine the FTC pursuing an enforcement action.
There have also been federal enforcement sections concerning deceptive practices by restaurants which left phony customer reviews on the Yelp pages about their business.
For more information about what constitutes “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in online advertising under U.S. Federal Law, see: https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/attachments/press-releases/ftc-staff-revises-online-advertising-disclosure-guidelines/130312dotcomdisclosures.pdf
The Solution: Follow Wikipedia Policy
Wikipedia recognizes that page is about people and organizations can contain serious mistakes, biased statements or just become out of date. Since you are not allowed to directly edit the article, if you have a conflict of interest, the solution, Wikipedia has come up with is to allow users with a conflict of interest to declare this on the discussion page of an article, called Talk, and submit proposals for changes. The proposals are than reviewed and discussed among independent editors. At times, editors with an obvious bias or agenda, will also participate in the discussion. There’s no prohibition as to who can participate on a Talk page
It is therefore vital that the user submitting the proposal has done their research, and is presenting only proposals that are well justified under Wikipedia policy. There’s going to be suspicion at such a user as more interested in promoting the subject of the page then creating a neutral encyclopedia article.
At WhiteHatWiki, even with the decade of Wikipedia experience, we will spend days researching and preparing such proposals. Two experts will pour over every word as we find internal discussions will ferret out problem better then one editor. Our clients are often amazed at how complicated the policy discussions can become concerning what seems like a simple update.
But there’s nothing simple, for example about scrutinizing a source for editorial credibility, and by anticipating how a typical reviewing editors are likely to react, constructing a solid argument that the source should be allowed. When the difference between a statement being allowed or not allowed, comes down to whether a single source will be judged as “reliable“, then an investigation into the credibility of the source, guided by best practices on Wikipedia, becomes critical.
Even very experienced Wikipedia editors sometimes fumble when it comes to preparing proposals that need to make their way through the gauntlet of a Talk page discussion in the context of a conflict of interest disclosure. Editing Wikipedia without having every word you wish to add or change be scrutinized by skeptical editors is entirely different than being a volunteer, posting to Wikipedia without pre-publication review. You not only need to be familiar policy and best practices, but you need to be able to cite it and explain it convincingly as it applies to new fact patterns.
Feel free to contact us and let us know about your Wikipedia issues. Even in very difficult cases, we may be able help.