By Gregory Kohs
This rule could become an embarrassing problem for Tretikov, because if past history is any indicator, some of the Wikimedia Foundation’s biggest cash donors seem to regularly flout the ethical demand for disclosure when conflict of interest editing is involved. This is Wikipediocracy’s fourth installment delving into major donors who edit Wikipedia to enhance their profile, but don’t always 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 Usual.
One recent donor of at least $5,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation is the Bijan & Soraya Amin Foundation, which was founded in 2000 by the film producer Mark Amin and his brother, Reza Amin. This foundation, with about $1.3 million in assets, has contributed money to many organizations, including the National Ability Center, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the University Muslim Medical Association, the Iranian-American Muslim Association of North America, and the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Wikipedia’s article about Mark Amin was substantially expanded by user Rtwired in January 2014. There seemed to be a bit of reputation polishing going on.
The Mark Amin biography history is really interesting to examine closely. When the biography was created in 2007, it looked like this.
Fast forward to October 2013, and the article still looked basically the same.
…until an anonymous editor came along on November 12, 2013, inserting some factual information about Mark Amin’s May 2012 insider trading charges leveled by the SEC.
Guess what happened to the article in January 2014? The editor Rtwired came along and rewrote it, cleaning it up to look more like a “good” Wikipedia biography, and (surprise!) the SEC charges were rephrased. Where Wikipedia once described an insider trading incident that cost the Amin family a nearly $2 million settlement with the SEC over profits made of $618,000, the new description provided by Rtwired removed the $618,000 figure and added the words “alleged” and “allegedly” to soften the blow.
If you look at the editing history of the Rtwired account, one might conclude that it is the handiwork of either a public relations or paid editing firm. This editor has hundreds of Wikipedia edits under his or her belt, but up until this month, over 95% of these edits are about only three subjects (presumably their clients): Anthony Galea, G. Scott Paterson, and Mark Amin. If you conduct a Google search for these three names, you will encounter websites like this one …where the only reason those names are all mentioned is because of fake “comments” being left by Galea, Paterson, and Amin. The comments are not really being left by those individuals; it is most likely the paid PR firm leaving the comments, in order to “astroturf” the facts about them that they want to optimize in search engine results, and to help position the content in Wikipedia. This technique was not unlike the technique that one high-level Wikipedian accused a disgraced paid editing firm, by the name of Wiki-PR, of using — building fake websites to house factual content that would look like news, so that they could “cite” the content in Wikipedia.
Additionally, User Rtwired uploaded to Wikimedia Commons a professional-looking photograph of Mark Amin, with the source listed as “own work”. Rtwired has also been quite busy in the past week, working on a draft Wikipedia article about what appears to be his fourth paying client, Dr. Stanley K. Bernstein, the founder of 60 weight-loss clinics.
Another donor of between $5,000 and $24,999 to the Wikimedia Foundation is MathWorks. You may have heard of this $750-million software company, along with its MATLAB brand, as a frequently-plugged advertising supporter of National Public Radio. MathWorks, MATLAB, and Simulink (another MathWorks product) each have their own Wikipedia articles. Let’s take a look, shall we?
The most frequent contributor to the Wikipedia article about MathWorks is a user called Simoneau. He identifies himself on Wikipedia as Matthew Simoneau, an employee of MathWorks. Simoneau has directly edited MathWorks-related articles as recently as April 2013, even though Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales established, years earlier, a “Bright Line Rule” against such direct editing. The number 2 contributor is Snakepliskin13, who also identifies as an employee of MathWorks.
“Snake” edited the MathWorks article in January 2014, when he removed sourced content that informed the reader that “The licensing of MathWorks software is under investigation for anti-trust behavior by the EU.” Snake gave the reason why this information shouldn’t be shown to the average Wikipedia reader: “Removing sections on litigation. This doesn’t seem to be standard on Wikipedia pages for corporations.” He gave the same reason in November 2013 when he removed a massive section about “Lawsuits” that MathWorks was involved in.
Is it true that Wikipedia articles about corporations don’t discuss litigation or lawsuits? Well, not exactly. Wikipedia has 336 articles about companies that, like MathWorks, were founded in 1984. Fifteen mention “litigation”, and twenty-one discuss a “lawsuit”. So, while it may not be “standard” to discuss these topics in Wikipedia pages about corporations, it is certainly not unprecedented. Regardless, as an employee of MathWorks, it’s not really for Snakepliskin13 to decide this matter. Only once — one time in over 12 years — has a single MathWorks employee ever engaged in discussion on the MathWorks talk page before editing the MathWorks article directly. Even though over 25,000 readers have now viewed the MathWorks article since Snake removed the section about lawsuits, not one editor has challenged Snake’s conflict of interest in the article itself or on the Talk page. It is as if MathWorks is immune from Wikipedians’ scrutiny.
MatlabDoug and Mcarone1 are two other editors on the article, who do self-disclose that they are employees of MathWorks. The article has been edited “anonymously” over the years by such IP addresses as 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206, and 220.127.116.11 — all of which belong to MathWorks.
MathWorks’ major products are MATLAB and Simulink. The top contributor to the MATLAB article is again Mr. Simoneau. Indeed, the MATLAB article on Wikipedia was introduced way back in October 2001 by a MathWorks “144.212” IP address. Regarding the article about Simulink, the number-one contributor is Aturevsk, who self-discloses that he is Arkadiy Turevskiy, an employee of MathWorks. Simoneau is the second-most frequent editor of Simulink. The Simulink article was begun in 2004 by the MathWorks IP address 18.104.22.168.
That MathWorks IP address also launched the Wikipedia biographies about Jack Little and Cleve Moler, the two co-founders of MathWorks; and the IP also created an article about Stateflow, another product created by MathWorks. While using that IP address, Simoneau assured readers of Wikipedia that he is working on articles related to his employer “as a Wikipedia fan, not a MathWorks salesman.” That’s reassuring, isn’t it?
Of the top three contributors to the Stateflow article, the leader is Siddhars, who self-disclosed that he is Siddharth Sharma, working at MathWorks and presently the Stateflow Product Marketing Manager. The second-most frequent contributor is Mcarone, who says he is Michael Carone, employed by MathWorks. (Note the similarity to the other Wikipedia editor, Mcarone1.) He was Sharma’s predecessor in the product marketing role. Stateflow’s contributor #3 is, of course, Matthew Simoneau.
SimEvents is yet another product from MathWorks that is enshrined on Wikipedia. This article was started by Anujaapte, who was employed by MathWorks at the time, as the product marketing manager and global strategy leader for SimEvents.
And just when you thought that Wikipedia couldn’t possibly fit another article about a MathWorks product, there is Polyspace. This article was created by and most-heavily contributed to by a Wikipedia editor called “Jabraham mw”. (Get it? That’s Jay Abraham, employee of MathWorks!)
Put your money where your mouth is
So, currently, we have these various donors to the Wikimedia Foundation skirting Jimmy Wales’ “Bright Line Rule”. Over two years ago, Wales said, “I am opposed to people who are paid advocates being allowed to edit in article space at all“. Yet, he seems perfectly willing to accept their financial donations to the Wikimedia Foundation, even when they’ve been doing advocacy editing directly in article space, repeatedly and recently.
Wikipediocracy calls on readers to visit the Talk page of the Wikipedia co-founder, click the Edit tab, and express your concern about how bad this looks for the Wikimedia Foundation. You may even suggest that the WMF should return the gifts of any private or corporate donors who are clearly unable to abide by Jimmy Wales’ rules against conflicted, non-neutral editing.
Image credits: Flickr/trawin, Wikimedia, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic, reformulation by Krustilu Productions / Wikipediocracy