By Gregory Kohs
|This blog post is one of a five-part series of investigative reports by Gregory Kohs, documenting conflicts of interest among individuals and organizations who have financial ties with the Wikimedia Foundation.
How many people or organizations donate more than $5,000 in support of Wikipedia? According to a recently published annual report (July 2012 through June 2013) of the Wikimedia Foundation, 166 did so.“There is a very simple ‘bright line’ rule that constitutes best practice: do not edit Wikipedia directly if you are a paid advocate.” — Jimmy Wales
In January 2014, the Wikimedia Foundation published its official 2012-2013 annual report, celebrating ten years of the foundation’s management of Wikipedia and its sister projects. The report is only two pages long, constructed in that annoyingly tall “infographic” layout that makes it nearly impossible to print out and read on paper without a magnifying glass. Toward the bottom of the report, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) lists all of the donors who gave a gift of at least $1,000. Regardless of the documented fact that the WMF spends less than 51% of its revenues from donations on the actual program services that every 501(c)(3) is required to report as accomplishing the organization’s mission, it is nearly impossible to find a substantial donor to the WMF who expresses any concern at all about this abysmal program efficiency ratio. (Most legitimate charitable educational organizations aim for program efficiency ratios north of 80% or even 90%, not 51%.) Why would donors to the WMF happily look the other way when presented the fact that more than 49 cents of every dollar they donate is being hoarded or spent on personnel and activities that don’t fulfill the mission of the organization? Perhaps there are ulterior motives at play.
Wikipediocracy, the Internet’s foremost Wikipedia criticism community, has embarked on a special project to look more closely at the 144 named high-end donors ($5,000 or more) to the Wikimedia Foundation. (An additional 22 anonymous donors obviously could not be evaluated.) We want to learn what’s going on; why would a person or a company donate so much money to such a wasteful entity? Is each donation an altruistic gesture, or are some a financial “tip of the hat” to thank Wikipedia for the promotion of the donor or his or her business enterprise? We thought that the first place to investigate would be Wikipedia itself. What does a Wikipedia article say about the donor, and how did that article’s content come to be? Our research is intended to present to the reader a factual, non-biased account of the Wikipedia editing activity discovered by our analysis.
Wikipedia donors are editing their own Wikipedia articles
While the research behind the 144 named donors who gave more than $5,000 to the WMF is not yet complete, it is already clear that several dozen of them are not widely notable enough to have a Wikipedia article associated with them or their enterprise. Several dozen other donors have such common names (e.g., “John Blue” or “Timothy Mott”), it would be nearly impossible to determine which namesake is the actual donor, without further assistance from the Wikimedia Foundation. However, many of the named donors have unique enough names that it is quite easy to find a Wikipedia biography associated with their name, and/or a Wikipedia article associated with their corporate ambition.
We’re finding that a substantial percentage of heavy-duty donors to the Wikimedia Foundation have themselves constructed the Wikipedia article(s) germane to them. While a few have adequately disclosed their conflict of interest, most have not. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will be disclosing some of the most plainly obvious cases of donors self-promoting on Wikipedia. To give you a taste of this research, let’s look at an example of a “mid-grade” violator of conflict-of-interest norms on Wikipedia.
Is that you, Josh Dillon?
Cards Against Humanity is a popular, politically incorrect party game. In December 2012, the company donated $70,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation as part of a marketing stunt that received extensive media coverage. Josh Dillon is one of the co-creators of the Cards Against Humanity game. Wikipedia editor Jsdillon created Wikipedia’s article about Cards Against Humanity in December 2010, but it was quickly deleted as “unambiguous advertising or promotion”. The article was later re-started in June 2011 by another editor who said they were “not affiliated with Cards Against Humanity”; but the very next day, user Jsdillon returned from a three-month hiatus from Wikipedia to continue his work on the article. About 80% of Jsdillon’s Wikipedia edits are to the Cards Against Humanity article. Another early editor of the article, user HyperfineCosmologist, has dedicated more than 80% of his or her Wikipedia editing activity to the Cards Against Humanity article. Mention of the December 2012 donation to Wikimedia was promptly added to the Wikipedia article by an “IP editor” (i.e., one that does not log in with a Wikipedia account, so that his IP address is displayed instead of a silly nom de plume) with only that single purpose toward Wikipedia.
It is clear to the Wikipediocracy researchers that Josh Dillon has edited Wikipedia with the outcome of promoting his for-profit project, Cards Against Humanity. Is it clear to you, though, the reader of the Wikipedia article about Cards Against Humanity? There is no “notice” or “tag” on the Cards Against Humanity article to signal the reader about Dillon’s involvement in the writing process. But in fact, no other Wikipedia editor made more edits to the Cards Against Humanity article than Jsdillon. No other Wikipedia editor has ever remarked to the user Jsdillon that it is a remarkable coincidence that he shares the same name as one of the co-founders of the game he writes about on Wikipedia. The article is viewed over 50,000 times per month – an enviable visibility (and marketing) plateau achieved by only a tiny fraction of Wikipedia articles.
But that’s not an ad
Every year, the WMF runs a fundraising banner at the top of every Wikipedia page, proudly proclaiming: “To protect our independence, we’ll never run ads.” Is the Wikipedia article Cards Against Humanity an ad, written by the product’s co-creator? The fundraising banner continues, “We run on donations: $5 is the most common, the average is about $30.” What does a $70,000 donation buy you? Certainly not a full-page ad viewed 50,000 times a month on the #5 website in the world, right?
Stay tuned. As we mentioned, this was only a moderately-strong example of conflict of interest that we found. Wait until you see the more elaborate schemes that WMF donors have executed to manipulate content on Wikipedia.
Image credit: Flickr/Peter Blanchard, licensed under Creative Commons Attibution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic