By Marvin Oppong
The case of Sarah Stierch has once again demonstrated that paid editing remains an issue with Wikipedia – not only in the English Wikipedia, but also in the German Wikipedia, the second-largest worldwide. Otto Brenner Stiftung, the scientific division of the German trade union IG Metall, the largest individual trade union in the world, published my study on covert PR in Wikipedia entitled “Covert PR in Wikipedia – companies set their sights on the knowledge of the world”.
The results of the study: PR and manipulation are omnipresent in Wikipedia. Not only companies, but also associations, federations, political parties and individuals are trying to improve their public images by editing the online encyclopaedia’s articles, in a number of ways. Intervention does not stop any of this effectively. Manipulation attempts were made in topics such as nuclear power, the history of companies, controversial political issues, cases of individual misconduct and the pharmaceutical industry. Whether multinational groups, Scientology members or the case of the PR agency Bell Pottinger – there are many instances of people trying to shed a new light on facts and figures. Additionally, the reported cases of covert PR in Wikipedia might only be the tip of the iceberg.
A copy of the study can be ordered free of charge from the Otto Brenner Stiftung website or downloaded. On the website relating to my study you will find all the reactions to this publication plus a download link. My research provoked fierce reactions in the German Wikipedia community. Some critics argued that my study had some “weak points”, was a “nonsense product” or was mere “entertainment journalism”. Other commenters, however, maintained that the issue of “PR in Wikipedia” was important, and they questioned the Wikipedia community’s ability to have an efficient dialogue. Initially, some Wikipedians wanted to publish a rebuttal, but so far have not done so. Commenters also referred to a “huff-and-puff mechanism” and “Oppong bashing”. Wikipedia author “Giftzwerg 88” apparently mentioned an act of violence called “curb stomping”, as shown in the movie “American History X”, and warned me “not to get stuck on the” curb “with the chin” [in German he wrote “Borstein”. I assume that he meant “Bordstein”, being the equivalent of “curb” in German]. The corresponding preliminary investigation launched by the public prosecutor in Bonn was shelved. In its information letter of more than three weeks ago, the public prosecutor’s office explained to me that “investigation abroad” would be required to fully investigate the case, that only the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco had “access to the respective databases” and that the costs associated with mutual legal assistance were “disproportionately high”.
As a journalist, I have been dealing with the topic of Wikipedia for four years. In November 2010 I received a research grant awarded by the Otto Brenner Preis for my research outline on a Wikipedia topic.
In my research work I came across the fact – amongst other things – that information on Daimler employing Nazi forced labour during WWII had been deleted from the Wikipedia article on the carmaker by an IP address belonging to Daimler AG. Daimler claimed they were not responsible for these modifications. About three hours after my research had been published at Spiegel Online, an edit war on the Wikipedia article “Daimler AG” broke out. Finally, the article was locked by administrator “Seewolf”.
In May 2007 the “Nawaro” project (Nachwachsende Rohstoffe in der Wikipedia – Renewable raw materials in Wikipedia) was started. Within three years, 150 new Wikipedia articles on renewable raw materials were scheduled to be created. The specialist agency for renewable raw materials, FNR, a project provider of the Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, sponsored the project. It was finalised in June 2010 with a total of 234,000 euros from the budget of the Ministry for Consumer Protection. The project was launched by the nova-Institut GmbH, a company which employs the well-known German Wikipedia contributor Achim Raschka. And the head of the Nawaro project: Achim Raschka.
The amalgamation of public funding and private sector stakes in this project, which my study covers in six pages, provoked heavy criticism within the Wikipedia community, right from the outset. External experts who neither belonged to Wikimedia Deutschland nor to nova-Institut also participated in this project. When asked about the identity of these experts and their remuneration from public project-related funds, neither Wikimedia Deutschland, nor FNR, nor nova-Institut were willing to provide any information. The final report on the “Nawaro” project details only that “paid experts” from “interested organisations” participated in “creating articles”.
The PR head of FNR dryly commented that “he assumed indeed” that “an FKuR employee might have been among the experts”. FKuR is one of the globally leading manufacturers of bioplastics. On the company’s premises, an authors’ workshop for the “Nawaro” project was held – with Raschka being one of the participants.
The use of public funding, and/or the question of which author received which type of remuneration, has not been fully clarified so far. Wikimedia partner nova-Institut did not seem to welcome scrutiny of this type of cooperation: the “Nawaro” project report says that the aligned parallel structures of Wikimedia and the institute are “not to be actively communicated, particularly not in the rollout phase”.
Two members of the German Federation of the Oilseed Processing Industry (Verband der ölsaatenverarbeitenden Industrie in Deutschland e. V.) attended an “editor training”, and afterwards these lobbyists created a “serious encyclopaedic entry” for the keyword “Verband der ölsaatenverarbeitenden Industrie in Deutschland e. V”.
Achim Raschka completed Wikipedia articles that contained considerable information about the PLA plastics made by FKuR. Raschka uploaded a dozen photos to Wikipedia servers, showing FKuR products. These photos were also published on the official FKuR homepage. Three images of products made from the FKuR plastic Bio-Flex even made it into six different articles in the French and Italian Wikipedias.
Raschka inserted the photos of FKuR products into different Wikipedia articles, e.g. in the article on plastic materials – rated “excellent” – where he added an FKuR trade name. Raschka even fought an edit war with an author who complained about Raschka inserting the trade name of an FKuR plastic into the Wikipedia article on “polylactide”. The English version of the article still has one of these photos.
Raschka, the Wikimedia Foundation, and FKuR were unwilling to comment on the allegations.
Raschka also performed paid services for the nuclear power plant operator RWE. That firm responded to my inquiry, saying that there had been a meeting between Raschka and “RWE communication experts”. In this meeting, “the notability criteria for company and organization presentations” and “of course opportunities for content-related participation in the spirit of the Wikipedia philosophy” had been discussed. RWE also plays its part in another section of my study: I revealed that from the IP address 126.96.36.199, belonging to RWE, the term “export of nuclear waste” was modified into the fudged term of “return of rods” in an article on an interim storage facility for nuclear fuel elements.
I came across Achim Raschka via the Wikipedia author “7Pinguine”. He ultimately triggered my research activity because I had – by coincidence – observed that in an article on the gym chain “McFit”, “7Pinguine” had deleted information concerning a report published by the German public broadcasting company ARD on suspected xenophobic behaviour. “7Pinguine” edited 14,500 revisions in the German Wikipedia and created 95 articles. As now documented in my study, he – amongst other things – deleted two paragraphs from the “criticism” section in the German article on Nestlé. One of them was entitled “Massive deprivation of drinking water” and informed about Nestlé having supplied the US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with huge amounts of drinking water from Pakistan, thus lowering the water table in the source region. On request, Nestlé headquarters in Switzerland declared that “internal investigation” had confirmed that “Nestlé had neither modified” the articles on Nestlé “itself nor commissioned third parties to do so, participated in or promoted such modifications in any way”. The identity of “7Pinguine” remains unknown. It is a matter of fact, however, that he addressed comments to me from an IP address leading to the Trumpf group, a world market leader in industrial laser technology.
After research in the environment of “7Pinguine” aiming at identifying him, the latter asked “how can you justify to systematically ask questions in my surroundings”. The Trumpf press department did not comment on the question whether “7Pinguine” was an employee or on why he sent his emails via a Trumpf-owned server. Trumpf is headed by Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller. She is member of the most important counselling body for science policy in Germany, was a member of a former counselling body to Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, and sits on the Siemens supervisory board.
But apart from individual editing action, the entire system must change. The Wikimedia Deutschland association hesitates to seriously tackle the problem of covert PR in Wikipedia. Instead, they merely started off with a small project that does not question paid editing in itself, but only paid editing contravening the Wikipedia rules. The quality of content and correctness of Wikipedia data is important, however, if Wikipedia wants to be recognized as a vessel of “World Cultural Heritage”. The Wikipedia community is not in a position to master this issue. Companies, federations and political bodies have abundant human and financial resources available, thus making it impossible for the Wikipedia community’s volunteers to counteract the numerous manipulation attempts. The number of corporate press offices and PR agencies is simply too large, and the core group of the Wikipedia community is simply too small. A new way of thinking is required in various directions: on the one hand, Wikipedia consumers must take heed of the fact that they are consuming a medium which can be modified in content by each and everyone – be it an altruist private person wishing to inform and educate the masses or a cash-rich client’s spin doctor from the business world. Wikimedia Deutschland and, above all, the Wikimedia Foundation urgently need to become active in this area.
Over the past few months, my study published on 13 January 2014 has attracted sustained interest from numerous media outlets in the German-speaking world and other European countries. Three weeks ago the German leftist newspaper “taz” wrote: “Wikipedia is set to gamble away its reputation as a source of information, in case it does not take up the reform proposals outlined by Oppong at the end of his study.”
My reform proposals include making the Wiki software simpler, handling the obligation of proof more strictly, forcing corporations to make their Wikipedia accounts fully transparent, and increasing the share of verified corporate accounts. Contrary to the German Wikipedia, there are no verified accounts in the English-speaking Wikipedia.
Editor’s kibitzing: judging from the usernames selected by the German Wikipedians mentioned in this article, one might conclude the WikiCulture there is very much like that of the English-language version. For example, “Giftzwerg 88” means “poisonous dwarf 88.”
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons