With rare exceptions, if you Google a political candidate you'll get a link to his or her Wikipedia page among the top five results. Certainly this is true for the presidential candidates, and certainly we can all understand why they should be extremely concerned about what's said about them there. And while there is great motivation for candidates to either modify their entries themselves, direct their staff to do so or hire an editorial consultant, all of these actions are frowned upon by Wikipedia's editorial policy. As a result, "black hat" Wikipedia editors have proliferated, much to the consternation of Wikipedia. But there's also been a rise in "white hat" paid Wikipedia consultants; along with an effort to organize them and establish a code of ethics to convince Wikipedia that these "white hats" fit into the spirit of Wikipedia's mission.
Politics Crossing the Line
This past spring, references to expense account abuses and sex scandals were removed from the pages of UK Members of Parliament in advance of the election. More than a dozen bios were altered, all of them accessed from computers inside of the Houses of Parliament.
In India, cases of government workers revising history on Wikipedia have surfaced over the summer - among these changes were bizarre edits to India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's personal bio.
In Canada, an automated Twitter account (@GCCAEdits) tweets every time someone in the Canadian government anonymously edits Wikipedia. Among the changes snared by this Twitter account were "repeated attempt(s) to alter the Canadian section of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets page on July 21, 2010"... "to remove public criticism" by someone at the Department of Defence.
Closer to home, in addition to scandals involving politicians hiring staff to alter their own bios, evidence suggests that the New York Police Department has tried to alter the Wikipedia record regarding the deaths Eric Garner and Sean Bell.
Focusing beyond politics, a recent article in The Atlantic chronicles the case of "black hat" edits by people being paid by medical device company Medtronics regarding the efficacy of Kyphoplasty surgery for back pain. The story involves undisclosed, paid for editing and intimidation of a volunteer Wikipedia editor.
White Hats are Necessary
That there have been too many incidents of underhanded edits to Wikipedia by people with conflicts of interest, in particular by people being paid to make edits that don't comply with Wikipedia's editorial policy by not providing adequate references, is the strongest reason for Wikipedia to review and change its policy on paid edits. I see this as analogous to policies regarding reproductive rights - we know that women will terminate pregnancies regardless of whether or not it's legal. And we know that because it is legal, women can do so safely (at least in principle... which is a longer conversation best had elsewhere).
Enter William Beutler. Beutler is a long-time public relations professional who is very well respected in the Wikipedia community. He's the author of The Wikipedian, a blog about Wikipedia, and owner of Beutler Ink, a firm that specializing in helping clients work effectively with Wikipedia, especially within its ethics rules. Beutler is a leader in the effort to provide transparent services to clients needing to navigate the tricky waters of Wikipedia. He's a long-standing volunteer Wikipedia editor, and he's among the core group of professionals looking to establish "white hat" Wikipedia consulting services.
Beutler is part of CREWE, the Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement, which has been around since 2012 and was founded by Phil Gomes of Edelman Worldwide. It exists primarily as a Facebook discussion group and requires permission to join, but any real person who asks to join will be accepted.
Beutler's approach is fundamentally different from the "black hat" consultants featured in The Atlantic's article. Unlike the culprit in that story, Wiki-PR, Beutler Ink works with clients to ensure that whatever they do regarding Wikipedia is within the established best practices, especially those laid out in Wikipedia's Conflict of Interest rules. Driving this point home, Beutler has also written a primer for guiding PR professionals working with Wikipedia-related projects.
I met recently with Beutler to discuss this issue and get more insights regarding his response to the article in The Atlantic. Here is some of what he said:
"It tells the story of how a company called Medtronic appeared to be sending its employees and consultants to manipulate a Wikipedia article about a medical procedure Medtronic profits from. James Heilman, a prominent Wikipedia editor, called them out and was subject to intimidation by Medtronic. This much of the story is well-told and worthwhile.
However, the author also uses it as a preface to write about the larger subject of money influencing Wikipedia, and here is where it breaks down. The author chooses to portray only two sides: the "black hat" editors who subvert Wikipedia's rules for PR gain, and the volunteer editors who defend Wikipedia from them.
What the author basically misses is that there has been an ongoing discussion between the PR industry and Wikipedia about what the proper rules of engagement might be. I've been a leader in that, including a major initiative last year getting the major PR firms (Edelman, Ogilvy, Burson, Ketchum, and more) to sign a pledge saying they'll follow Wikipedia's rules, and Wikipedia editors have been trying to work out the best process to answer requests from companies and PR reps.
Unfortunately, the author quotes multiple "black hat" editors, and makes only a passing reference to the pledge, and leaves readers with the impression that it's either "don't do anything" or "break the rules" on Wikipedia. This is discouraging; I and a small group of Wikipedians and PR execs have been trying to change this narrative.
The "Statement on Wikipedia from participating communications firms" released last June, led by myself and with the close involvement of Gomes and others, is a multi-agency voluntary statement by most of the world's biggest PR firms pledging to follow Wikipedia's rules and advise clients and colleagues to do otherwise."
With the 2016 presidential campaign already in full swing, and the Congressional campaigns just around the corner, now is the time to focus on this issue. Wikipedia is a powerful source of information and many voters will rely heavily on it, not just for what's said in the entries, but for the links provided there, as well. If we really want to stop "black hat" efforts to mislead voters, Wikipedia needs to do more than just promote "abstinence."
By establishing rules for "white hat" consulting services that are thoroughly consistent with the spirit and mission of Wikipedia, it'll be easier to show the public how bad the "black hatters" are. Aside from providing valuable services to the subjects of Wikipedia content that may find the rules of engagement there confusing and/or intimidating; the "white hatters" will provide a clear foil to those breaking the rules. This will serve to reduce the demand for "black hat" activities, a goal that benefits both Wikipedia and the voters.