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The Thin Bright Line

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.

See Wikipedia:Starting an article

We do not intend to besmirch the reputations of these donors, simply because many of them were (or suspected of) either directly editing, or paying other professionals to directly edit their Wikipedia articles. This practice of “conflict of interest” or “paid advocacy” editing has been frowned upon by the Wikipedia community since at least August 2006; with Jimmy Wales further increasing the pressure against it in June 2009 by pronouncing a “Bright Line Rule” against paid or conflicted editors from ever engaging directly their Wikipedia article. Currently, the WMF’s legal department is promoting a change to the Terms of Use that would require any Wikipedia editor to disclose their benefactor or employer if they are being compensated or receiving benefit for editing Wikipedia. However, the practice of conflict-of-interest editing is so widespread, and the guidelines against it so loosely enforced, there is extensive debate about whether editing for pay or with a conflict of interest is really so “bad” for Wikipedia, as long as the content conforms to other policies like citing reliable sources and presenting a neutral point of view.

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

28 comments to The Thin Bright Line

  • Most anyone interested enough to navigate the hostile waters of Wikipedia has an interest in a subject, either through employment, advocacy, or just plain liking or disliking the topic of an article.

    The ‘Bright Line’ rule is doomed, as paid editing and advocacy is already rampant in Wikipedia. It’s time to manage this, not demonize it.

    I’m looking forward to subsequent chapters in this COI saga.

  • HRIP7

    Hmm … the eleven edits by Jsdillon, ten of which were made within the space of one hour on 12 June 2011, are a little underwhelming at first glance, as four of them are self-reverts. The net effect of these ten edits was to add the names of the creators of the game to the article, to change “random chance” in the infobox from Low to Medium, and to change the number of players from 2+ to 3+.

    His edit the next day changed the number of players from 3+ to 4-20+ and the targeted age group from Intended “For Adults” to 17+, and added a picture of the product.

    This edit by Hyperfine Cosmologist is more interesting in that it says hard-copy distribution would begin 15 June 2011. The edit was made the very day before that launch date, on 14 June 2011.

    The article itself was (re-)created on 11 June 2011, i.e. four days prior to sales launch. Page views predictably spiked in mid-June 2011, although the overall total was relatively modest (the article was viewed 3,030 times that month, most of these page views occurring around the launch date).

    The timing does suggest that the article was created to support the product’s launch, and it probably enhanced sales to some extent.

    The page had healthy page views in last year’s Christmas season: 121,047 in total in December 2013.

  • anon.

    Somebody should ping User:Orangemike ….he should be interested in this series

  • […] Jimmy Wales. And yet, the Wikipedia-criticism website Wikipediocracy recently began a study showing that dozens of the Wikimedia Foundation’s largest cash donors have violated that polic…. Repeatedly, and wantonly. In short, they wrote articles about themselves or their companies, then […]

  • Tim Davenport

    Very interesting piece.

    I don’t think a quid pro quo has been demonstrated between a $70,000 “marketing stunt” and a pay-for-play article, however. After all, the first article by the donor was deleted and they had to start again. That $70,000 didn’t actually buy them much for that first iteration, did it?

    As for Wikimedia Foundation’s spending habits, I’m not a lawyer and can’t speak to their requirements for spending under the law. I CAN offer my opinion that I’d rather see them building up a endowment than I would see them dropping bales of money down the rathole on such worthless line items as Wikimedia UK or such ineffective things as incompetent software coders and in-house bureaucrats. Would it really be better to ramp up the spending on stuff like that?


    • HRIP7

      The donation was made in December 2012, well after the creation of the article. It may well have been gratitude, because the Wikipedia article helped them. On another note, the sourcing of the article looks really quite iffy. The company’s own website; their Kickstarter page; two pages on Dice Hate Me (a self-published blog, which fails WP sourcing rules); a Facebook post, etc.

  • Sockatume

    Because Wikipediocracy won’t, I’ve provided the totality of JsDillon’s links below. That way you, and not the author of this community, can decide whether they violate NPOV rules.

    This is the article he wrote that was promptly deleted:


    These are his only changes to the article some months after it was revived by a third party:


    • HRIP7

      I listed all his edits above in my earlier comment. (The December 2010 ones weren’t visible originally, when this piece was first published; someone at Wikipedia has restored them to public visibility.)

      And you missed this edit, which added a picture of the product. Just in time for the launch.

  • Here’s an interesting edit that I just noticed:


    Kind of undercuts the notion that the Wikimedia Foundation would never, ever intervene to assist the Wikipedia article of a major donor, huh?

  • HRIP7

    Just a tiny tad. The mighty Jimmy Wales himself intervening. 🙂 And note that several other sources in that article as it stood then were also clearly non-compliant with WP:RS. Only the negative one was chucked out.

    • Tim Davenport

      Indeed, it is interesting that Jimmy Wales would take a personal interest in the editing of this piece. Perhaps he will drop by to provide us with the backstory…


      • Tim Davenport

        Ah, I see that JW identified the donation on the talk page and didn’t touch the piece himself. No worries.

  • If any company treated its employees the way Wikipedia treats its volunteers, there would be cries of outrage all around the world.

  • Radiant Orchid

    My friends at the NSA tell me that HyperfineCosmologist is the account of Cards Against Humanity’s Max Temkin.

    • That’s funny… today I learned that the #2 most frequent editor of Cards Against Humanity was an IP address, owned by Cimarron Group. Strangely enough, Ben Hantoot (http://www.linkedin.com/in/benhantoot ) used to work for Cimarron Group and is also listed as one of the designers of Cards Against Humanity.

  • Taylor Oliphant

    This website doesn’t even have an about page yet it details every possible problem with the anonymity and funding of wikipedia. Make something better if wikipedia is so messed up. It’s not hard to code a wiki; it’d probably take less time than this spiteful bullsh*t.

    • Well, no ‘About’ page… this isn’t 2004 any more. In the left column is our ‘Why this Site?’ section. Have a look.

      You’re right, it’s not hard to put up a wiki – ours is here.

      Perhaps you should have another look.

      Anyway, welcome to our humble abomination.

      You can register here: link

      –Zoloft (site admin)

  • metasonix

    As you can see from “Sockatume”‘s splutterings above, this is why Wikipedia has such success.

    They have numerous maniac fans who will go to any news site or forum, and try to shout down or deny any criticisms or revelations of their Magic Encyclopedia. Since Slashdot figures quite prominently in the origins of Wikipedia (one of the first-ever public announcements of Wikipedia’s existence was on Slashdot), it’s not surprising that it is still infested with some supporters.

  • Tarc

    Yea, I read through that /. thread yesterday, the fanboys over there were really going nutters on you, Greg. The good thing about having “excellent” karma rating over there is that I get mod points frequently, so I spent em countering some of their b.s. “troll” down-ratings of your comments. Cheers.

  • […] blog post was Slashdotted, got over 120 comments. Here's the original: wikipediocracy.com/2014/03/10… #Wikipedia […]

  • […] reveal that they have a conflict of interest. The previous three installments are found here: The Thin Bright Line, Wikipedia donors feel entitled to more than a mug or a tote bag, and Business as […]

  • One of the most bedeviling things about policy-making IMO could be described as the illusion of a bright line. That is, policy is usually defined because the policy-maker believes there are too many cases to fairly evaluate one-by-one, yet all these cases are likely to present at least as many factors that would have to be taken in to consideration to define a truly fair policy.

    More often than not, the bright line has to be diverted to take some factor in to account, then a line drawn to make that diversion must be diverted itself to account for another. Now throw in the kind of creativity that people draw on when something’s at stake, and the bright line quickly turns in to something more like a bright fractal. 🙂

    In the case of something as complex as COI on Wikipedia, policy can only go so far. Are there clear guidelines for when and which humans can step in to make final and fair decisions when policies no longer can? Maybe such guidelines would be more valuable than many of the guidelines defined by the policies themselves.


    • It’s important to note, Wil, that the “Bright Line Rule” (or policy, or guideline) was not formally arrived at by the Wikipedia community via a consensus-reaching discussion. In fact, there have been at least two major efforts to build community consensus around banning paid editing, but no such effort ever reached consensus. Jimmy Wales is mostly alone out there with his “Bright Line”, and indeed, he is the one most likely to be “diverting” it, as you say. The German Wikipedia has a perfectly sensible approach toward paid editing and corporate participation in developing Wikipedia content — simply disclose your affiliation, choose a User name that clearly affiliates yourself with the entity where you have the potential financial conflict of interest, then join with the community in editing as an equal and respected partner. It’s so simple, it would seem the only reason the policy thrives is that (thankfully) Jimbo doesn’t speak very good German.

  • […] by Gregory Kohs Part of our continuing series on the Thin Bright Line […]

  • […] and organizations who have financial ties with the Wikimedia Foundation. The first report is The Thin Bright Line The second report is Wikipedia donors feel entitled to more than a mug or a tote bag And the fourth […]