by E. A. Barbour
In our research on paid editing on the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, we discovered a number of administrators whose financial interest conflicted with their involvement in the project. One example stands out.
Editor Wifione joined Wikipedia at the beginning of April 2009, although he did not start editing properly until the end of June. The gap may be explained by the rumor that he was the reincarnation of another editor (Nichalp), a Wikipedia ‘bureaucrat’ (senior administrator) who was forced out in disgrace after he was found to have used sockpuppet accounts to edit for payment. Nichalp was the first bureaucrat in Wikipedia history to be removed “for cause”.
In his four year career at Wikipedia, three of them in a position of trust, Wifione has been part of a campaign of censorship and misinformation that has been waged across the internet by powerful vested interests. It is a campaign, according to one commentator, that is in some ways more damaging than China’s practice of locking up dissidents, because it is more insidious and less visible.
This is the story of how such a thing was possible in a project where the principles of free knowledge and freedom from censorship are held as sacred and inviolable.
Indian Institute of Planning and Management
Wifione’s mission was to promote the interests of a group of Indian business schools, the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, owned by flamboyant millionaire businessman Arindam Chaudhuri. You cannot escape the Institute’s advertising presence in India: bold, glossy ads promising job placements for its students, multinationals recruiting on campus, affiliation with other accredited institutions, awards of degrees from those institutions and so on. Hundreds or thousands of supporters – almost certainly paid supporters – promote his interests on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Quora, other internet forums. Chaudhuri’s Facebook page currently has four million likes. It seems to be money well spent. Its ‘degrees’ are practically worthless, but unsuspecting parents are persuaded to mortgage the family farm, or take out loans of 10 lakh (about £10,000) or more to send children to the Institute.
Wikipedia is simply part of its campaign. Before Wifione arrived, Chaudhuri’s agents relied on an army of sockpuppets. This sockpuppet investigation shows the sheer scale of their operation. This page shows how socks can be used to give the impression of numbers and apparent weight of opinion against an opposing editor. “As the controversy section is fairly outdated and holds no relevance now, given the High Court rulings favouring IIPM, I propose deleting the complete controversy section,” says paid editor Mrinal Pandey. “What makes you say it is out of relevance?” asks Joshua Artgobain Benedict, a sockpuppet of Pandey. “Seems to be sensible,” chips in Addy kundu, another sockpuppet. “Yes, delete!” Deborah Fernandes adds her voice to the chorus. But she too is another sockpuppet. (And so say sockpuppets -Sumitpatel12 and Ianchapell, and all the rest).
This approach was not particularly successful, largely down to the heroic efforts of a user called Makrandjoshi, who was not deterred by the sockpuppets, nor by threats of violence, nor death, nor destruction. Wifione’s approach was entirely different. He deferred to Wikipedia’s cultural norms, using one account and being polite at all times. Most importantly, he used his comprehensive knowledge of Wikipedia’s policy to make his edits stick. One pillar of the ‘neutrality’ policy is the requirement forreliable sources. But there are few extant reliable sources about Chaudhuri’s empire. The Indian mainstream media depends on the Institute’s advertising revenue – it is supposed to have spent the equivalent of 8 million dollars one year – and are unlikely to carry any criticism. Media without a wide circulation are not reliable sources for Wikipedia and, in any case, they are likely to be banned through India’s defamation laws, where almost any kind of criticism amounts to defamation, and where truth is not enough if ‘malicious intent’ can be established.
When Rashmi Bansal wrote an article in JAM magazine in 2005, accusing the Institute of misleading students by advertising rankings which were no longer current, claiming wholly unrealistic job placements, and making false statements about corporate recruiters, Chaudhuri’s agents filed a case for defamation, and after a court ruling, the article was removed from the internet. In parallel with that, Wifione removed any claims sourced from Bansal’s article, appealing to the ‘Reliable Sources’ policy.
Though JAM calls itslef [sic] JAM magazine (I guess Just Another Magazine), there is no confirmation that this is a magazine. There is no registeration[sic] of it as a magazine or a newspaper. I tried to search but could not find. I propose some editor kindly [our emphasis] give confirmation of the same. As I guess we can give references of only authentic newspapers or magazines.
Using another policy, Wifione removed a link to a copy of a letter from Stanford University held on MBA-Channel, with the comment “It’s only a career portal. Only reliable secondary sources are to be placed in exceptional claims.” He was referring to the Wikipedia policy that “Exceptional claims require exceptional sources”, which was to prevent the sourcing of self-published information from wacky fringe sites. But in the Stanford letter case, the information was perfectly reliable! It was a clearly genuine copy of a letter from Gale Bitter, Associate Dean, denying the Institute’s claim – in a major advertising campaign across India – to have a partnership with Stanford.
Neither the Stanford Graduate School of Business nor the office of Stanford Executive Education has ties of any kind with IIPM. Any claims to this effect are false and misleading.
And in any case, the letter was what Wikipedia calls a ‘primary source’, which is not allowed either. After removing the link to the letter, Wifione comically added a ‘citation needed’ tag.
Another of Wifione’s targets was a magazine called Careers 360, a publication which also tried to reveal the truth about IIPM. In June 2009 they published ‘IIPM – Best only in claims?’ Like Bansal, they found that the IIPM degrees were worthless. “For us only registered institutions with accredited programmes are considered credible”, said the Belgian government agency. Employers denied having any association or recruitment process with IIPM. Academic sources like McCombs Business School, University of Texas at Austin, said they were unaware of any association between the McCombs and IIPM. The ‘international’ job placements were low-paid and the terms poor. An ex-student told them that they were frequently taught by students who had just graduated from IIPM. You would not know this from reading Wikipedia, which said that Careers 360 was ‘poor in quality and a shady new yellow journal that ran illogical and brazenly false stories about IIPM’. Its source was a story in The Sunday Indian, the newspaper edited by Chaudhuri himself. Wifione claimed the story was unreliable, although editor Mahesh Peri told us that Careers 360 is the largest career magazine in India, launched by Dr. Kalam, former president of India. “We knew who we were taking on, hence stuck to facts.”
In the West, the investigation by Careers 360 would have certainly drawn action from the authorities. In India, it was the other way around. Chaudhuri’s agents took legal action against them, and a summoning order was passed on 12 Oct 2009 by a magistrate, forcing them to take the article down, and to prepare a legal defense. “A lot of things can be done with money”, Bansal told us. “Also Indian courts admit all kinds of cases without merit and then drag them on for 10-15-20 years. The system is a joke.” She never knew about Wifione’s role, though. “It’s deeply distressing to know this is happening on Wikipedia.”
The High Court of Uttarkhand eventually dismissed the case as an abuse of the law, saying “Truth is also the best defence in a case of defamation. A truth spoken for public good can never be called defamatory”, but this was never reported on Wikipedia. Wifione removed any reference to the High Court judgment, using the ‘exceptional claims’ policy as before. “Please don’t use ‘Lounge’ pieces for exceptional claims” (Link). On 24 January 2012 he managed to completely revise the section about Careers 360, under the pretext of “reformatting” the article. The section now said that the courts had admitted IIPM’s defamation cases against Outlook and Careers 360, and that the contents of the Careers 360 article were “prima facie defamatory”. This entirely misrepresented the legal process.
As well as promoting articles about Chaudhuri’s business, Wifione added derogatory material to articles about Chaudhuri’s competitors, particularly Amity University, repeatedly adding claims that its founder was wanted on fraud charges (link), (link). In the introduction to the article about the Indian School of Business, he claimed that its Chairman Rajat Gupta had been sentenced for insider trading, with the comment “reformatted intro to balance the whole article” (link).
His persistence, the veneer of civility in which he couched his insults, and his command of policy succeeded where death threats had failed. In August 2010, after Wifione removed a reference to a UGC censure, a reference to EFMD removing an affiliated institution IMI from its membership, and a link to the Stanford letter, Makrandjoshi simply gave up, and never returned.
In September 2010 Wifione was promoted to Wikipedia administrator. This did not confer any special privileges for editing articles about the Institute, but it provided considerable protection against other users who were questioning his conflict of interest. For example, in January 2012 a complainant alleged that Wifione was putting spin into the IIPM article, and removing criticism. Was this a PR exercise? “Whenever the user has been asked about any affiliation with IIPM, he/she has evaded the question”. But the complaint was slapped down by another administrator, saying that Wifione was not compelled to answer conflict of interest questions, and that “repeatedly insisting on it could be considered harassment”. Later, when we politely questioned him about his conflict of interest by email, he was able to complain of harassment as an administrator on the English Wikipedia, and requested that the account we used be blocked from Wikipedia. Administrators are held in such a degree of trust on Wikipedia that it is almost impossible to challenge them.
Is it harmless? Wikipedia is only an internet site, after all. And there are thousands of other articles created by editors with a conflict of interest. But in many cases these merely promote local bands, books, small businesses and so on. Wifione’s activities are more damaging. Wikipedia is one of the few channels that Indian students can use to check the fraudulent claims of ‘schools’ like the Institute. Even warnings by the University Grants Commission are targeted by Chaudhuri. In February 2013 he got over 70 URLs blocked, one of them belonging to the Indian University Grants Commission which had merely publicised the fact that IIPM was not recognised by them. This provoked free knowledge apostle Cory Doctorow to protest.
Such misinformation can destroy lives. One parent spoke of being ‘ruined’ after taking out a bank loan. All they have is misinformation. “We got lured by the fake ads coupled with newspaper news praising IIPM institute,” said one parent. And as Chaudhuri’s lawyers were blocking official sites that may have helped the students and their parents, Wifione was at work on Wikipedia, removing statements like “Historically, IIPM has also been by far the largest advertiser among Indian educational institutions,” and “IIPM has been involved in controversies with respect to its advertising.” (Link)
Acclaimed writer Siddhartha Deb, who has also been a victim of Chaudhuri’s campaign of censorship, says that this kind of suppression can be far more insidious than the way China locks up dissidents, because it is much less visible.
It passes without notice in the west, but what is more significant is how damaging it is to India’s fragile democracy. It promotes, in a country that is diverse but also deeply hierarchical, a culture of cringing before the rich and the powerful.
Despite the fact that the Institute was running a blatant scam, Wifione has, for a long time, been able to use his deep knowledge of Wikipedia policy and his connections to its administration to prevent any of this being divulged. Yet, given that the Western media have largely ignored the issue of India diploma mills like IIPM, and given the effective censorship of criticism under the draconian laws on defamation, Wikipedia is often the only place which students can – in theory – reliably depend on. It is deeply ironic that this censorship and suppression has reached into the very heart of a project like Wikipedia, which was based from the very beginning on the principle that knowledge and truth ‘want’ to be free.
This article incorporates material from the forthcoming book, Wikipedia through the Looking Glass, copyright Edward Buckner and Eric Barbour.
Image credit: Flickr/Gadgetdude ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
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