by Gregory Kohs
Surely readers are tiring by now of the news stories identifying people or companies “caught” editing their own Wikipedia articles. These “investigative” reports seem to appear like clockwork, every few weeks or so. This week, it was the Hirshhorn museum director’s husband scrubbing her Wikipedia entry of controversy. Two weeks ago, it was Koch Industries implicated in a Wikipedia whitewashing dispute. And in the week before that, the news was tripping over itself to expose paid editors who created promotional pages but would delete them if not paid. So, we know, we know. Wikipedia is full of “bad guy” editors pocketing money for their work, or puffing up articles about themselves.
What are famous people or large corporations supposed to do, though, if they wish to ethically engage on Wikipedia? Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales thinks he has the answer to save Wikipedia from infiltration by paid and self-interested agendas. He calls it his “Bright Line Rule”. It is simply this:
“Do not edit Wikipedia articles directly if you are a paid advocate. Instead, contribute proposed edits to the talk page, and escalate to appropriate venues on Wikipedia if you are having trouble getting people’s attention.”
Jimmy Wales maintains that this will always work, for just about every corporate entity that is frustrated by false or unfair documentation of the entity on Wikipedia. Jimbo says emphatically, “It is virtually impossible to find a case where a business has tried to do things correctly and failed to get good results. There is no need to directly edit the article.”
If it is virtually impossible to find a case where a business tried to engage on a Wikipedia Talk page and got lousy results, why did this trusty reporter immediately find such a case when he was recently searching Wikipedia for Grayling PR firm editors? If you search all of Wikipedia’s pages (not just the articles) for “Grayling PR”, the third search result is User:AdamF Grayling, who describes himself as follows: “I’m a PR and Social Media professional working for an international communications consultancy. Clients include: PayPal UK, Hilton HHonors and Ketel One Vodka.” We confirmed this is Adam Fitzpatrick of Grayling PR, who was familiar with the Bright Line Rule when he signed up for Wikipedia. He told us, “As a communications professional, I think it’s important for us to collaborate with Wikipedia editors and maintain best practice.”
This particular Grayling PR employee tried to follow Jimmy Wales’ Bright Line Rule by the book. The PR specialist’s very first edit on Wikipedia was to announce his employment affiliations and conflict of interest. Since that day in January 2015, he has never directly touched any Wikipedia article, instead restricting himself to conversations on Talk pages and User pages. Looking at his edit history, it becomes immediately clear that his objective is to help Wikipedia improve its coverage of the Ketel One vodka distillery.
How much progress has he made? None.
He took to “WikiProject Spirits” in mid-February to suggest some new content about Ketel One vodka, complete with various sources that might be cited. Some of the sources he suggested were rich with interesting info, including these examples:
“Ketel One, owned by the Dutch Nolet family since the 1600s”…
– – (but Wikipedia says Ketel One was “Introduced 1983”, with no source provided)
…in 2007, “embarking on a worldwide expansion with a new distribution partner, British drinks giant Diageo”…
– – (Wikipedia does not mention Diageo at all in its article about Ketel One)
…”Between 2003 and 2006, Ketel One grew 41% in the U.S., according to Adams Liquor Handbook. That compares with 91% for category juggernaut Grey Goose. But it handily beat the 13% growth for Stolichnaya and 8% for Absolut, and at a time when more than a dozen new or recently established superpremium vodkas were fighting for shelf space.”
– – (Wikipedia does not mention the growth of the Ketel One brand in its article)
“Ketel One — a family company from Holland that’s been around since 1691″…
– – (Again, Wikipedia says 1983, without a source)
More than a month went by without a response to Fitzpatrick the PR man. So, in April, Adam tried again. Still no response. Two weeks later, he tried his message at Wikiproject Brands. Not a soul replied to him, and the appeal for help was archived by a “bot” in July. In late April, he reached out to two specific editors for help. They ignored him. And he even reported himself to a “Conflict of Interest Noticeboard”. At least there, an editor named “Pigsonthewing” dutifully helped to typeset his request, but beyond that no help was provided, and the plea was erased by another bot within a week.
Wikipediocracy has seen this happen all the time, so it’s no surprise. Jimmy Wales announces that things are a certain well-and-good way on Wikipedia, but the reality is quite the opposite. He tells PR firms to just ask for help, and volunteer Wikipedians assuredly will come running; but in reality, the typical Wikipedian completely ignores the PR man. This is how Jimbo’s “Bright Line Rule” often works — he shames the PR firms into obeying it, then when they try the method, it doesn’t work. Eventually the pendulum will swing back, and PR firms will discover that if they just “pretend” to be a Wikipedian for a few days before and after their PR editing work is done, they can very easily improve Wikipedia with their missing content in a do-it-yourself capacity, and none will be the wiser.
This article originally published on Examiner.com here: Wikipedia’s Ketel of conflict of interest.
Image credits: Picture of Jimbo Wales adapted from this one found on Wikimedia Commons. Ketel One image courtesy of Ketel One. Image of Wikipedian waiting for assistance adapted from this image which was marked as available for reuse.