User:Bri/What's wrong with undisclosed paid editing

Why is undisclosed paid editing a bad thing? Why oppose it either passively or actively? What's the difference between paid editing in general and undisclosed paid editing? What direction should enwp community decision-making take us with regards to it? Step right up. I would have liked to call this essay "Wikipedia's Struggle to Save Its Soul", but that was already used by The Financial Times.

About meEdit

First, about me: I am a 10+ year Wikipedian, and an active volunteer at the conflict-of-interest noticeboard (COIN) and since July, 2015, I've displayed this message prominently on my user page:

I do not edit or otherwise contribute to any WikiMedia article or project on behalf of any employer, client, or affiliated person, organization, or other entity; nor do I receive or solicit any compensation for any edits or other contributions.


Terms and status

  • Advocacy editing - not allowed under policy if it violates WP:NPOV
  • Paid advocacy editing (PAE) - not allowed
  • Conflict-of-interest editing (COI) - covered by WP:COI guideline, discouraged and often dealt with harshly
  • Paid editing - allowed sometimes, although often reviled
  • Undisclosed paid editor (UPE) - never allowed under policy

WP:PAID is a binding policy and states "Paid contributions without disclosure" are prohibited. Undisclosed paid editing (UPE for the rest of this essay) is therefore prohibited. It is an increasing problem on Wikipedia with several new scandals in 2015 (see sources below).

The WMF does not allow PAE.[a] Although PAE and UPE are both disallowed, the former is easier to detect by its nature: advocacy speaks for itself. Undisclosed paid editing can go unnoticed indefinitely.

The upshot is that anyone receiving compensation to edit Wikipedia—employees, contractors, business owners—has to walk an extremely fine line to avoid crossing into advocacy. It is almost never successfully done, which is why it is so frequently concealed. Conflicts of interest can occur even if one is not being paid outright. For instance, one has a family relationship with the subject, one is the subject, or one is gaining non-monetary value such as class credit for an internship.

An editor taxonomyEdit

This editor taxonomy, especially the highlighted term, will be referred to later in the essay.

Wikipedia editor taxonomy
Type # Conflict of Interest? Paid to Edit? Disclosed? Nickname Example
0 N N N Model Wikipedian
1 N N Y Not possible
2 N Y N
3 N Y Y PR guy kicking back
4 Y N N POV warrior Non-disclosed eco-warrior intern
5 Y N Y Disclosed eco-warrior intern
6 Y Y N Black Hat Hired guns, Long-term abusers, clandestine PR, sockpuppet rings
7 Y Y Y Gray Hat COI+

Impossible cases are gray

The greatest threat to Wikipedia is currently Type 6 Black Hat editors, which will be explained below. They have the time, motivation, resources and numbers to pose a serious and sustained threat to Wikipedia's integrity, and ultimately the fate of the project.

SEO, reputation management and WikipediaEdit

Wikipedia can be cynically manipulated by companies and...the credibility of the website is, especially in the developing world, a powerful and potentially dangerous tool.

— Alastair Sloan, Newsweek[2]

[T]he people who gain most advantage from editing Wikipedia are almost always the charlatans and liars.

— Andrew Brown, "Wikipedia editors are a dying breed", The Guardian, June 25, 2015[3]

Self-promoters of all flavors see Wikipedia as a vehicle for their own self-interests: scammers; SEO operators; commercial and non-profit organizations; individuals and organizations; the largest to the smallest.

WP publicity or even neutrality is worth money to a lot of people and organizations. To understand why undisclosed paid editing is happening, the simplest thing is to follow the money. Understand what commercial interests are trying to accomplish and you are half way to understanding what the community's response can and should be.

Wikipedia is a targetEdit

[I]t might be appropriate to engage the services of an SEO company to manipulate the search results with the aim of eliminating negative content.

— Shireen Smith in Reputation Management: Building and Protecting Your Company's Profile in a Digital World[4] (emphasis added)

If you can get a Wikipedia page created about yourself or your business, it will almost always show up on the first page of Google whenever someone performs a search query that includes your name or your business name.

— Anne Marie in How to Perform Online Reputation Management - The Guide to Proactive Reputation Management, Reputation Monitoring and Crisis Management[5]

[I]f a company website has a negative result directly below it [in a search result] then up to 70% of surfers will click on the negative result first rather than the company website. It is important for a company to ensure that its website gets close to the top of search results for terms relevant to its business.

— Paul Muljadi in Digital Marketing Handbook[6]

We are interested in improving our first search page in Google by suppressing the negative content. In addition to this and as part of our Reputation Management project we would like to have a Wikipedia article written as well.

— Elance ad, June 2015

As you can see from the comments from the experts writing about and practicing SEO and reputation management, one of their main objectives is to bring up positive or neutral results and to push down negative results in a search. 92% of search click-throughs result from the first page of search results in Google.[7] A Wikipedia article is very often the first or second search result for any given topic. Therefore, controlling the content of a Wikipedia article is automatically a tempting SEO goal.

I used to think that the Elance advertisement used as an example above was an amazing outlier, a lucky catch. Far from it. This advertisement is simply a direct and frank application of the business practices promulgated by the textbooks quoted, and followed to its inevitable conclusion. The businessperson who placed it probably sees himself as a great person for carrying out his fiduciary duty to his management and the investors of the company. Why not, as long as we hold out Wikipedia as a corporate directory, a yellow pages, an alternative LinkedIn?[b]

Serious businessEdit

The existence of transnational actors like Internet Research Agency indicates the serious stakes for controlling and shaping public opinion in political as well as commercial realms.

Industrial-scale efforts to control WP commercial content exist. Operation Orangemoody documents one of them, with hundreds of sockpuppets operated in concert to insert clandestine material into Wikipedia, usually for commercial interests.

One WP article is worth at least $500 on job boards. The low-paying work is often taken by English speaking people in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. Different business ethics norms and/or appearance of lucrative, low-risk work may be a factor in recruiting. More than this can be earned by experienced editors who demand $50 per hour and up, and are frequently from the United States, Great Britain and Ireland.[9] At least one of the American LTA abusers, who is banned, continues to advertise his services to create and monitor WP articles, which appears to be his full-time business with probable subcontractors at work as well. As of 2015, his rate was $600 per article, per year for Wikipedia reputation management. Another company involved in a scandal offered $10,000 via Elance for crisis reputation management on Wikipedia.[10]

Institutionalized manipulation of WikipediaEdit

A PR niche has grown up around "wikiwashing"[11] and astroturfing. Whole companies have been discovered devoted to undisclosed paid editing.[c] The entertainment industry in the United States[d] and India[e] is known or suspected of routinely using Wikipedia to advance its agenda.

New paid editing rings are discovered almost daily. See WP:COIN investigations; new cases were opened at the rate of approximately 1.75 per day in 2015.[f] Some of these are lone actors but many are not, with the occasional motherlode discovery of hundreds of coordinated accounts: Wiki-PR 2013, Morning277 2014, Orangemoody 2015.

Is there such a thing as ethical, paid editing?Edit

If you [as a PR professional] think PR is ethical two-way communication seeking to achieve mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics, then you respect Wikipedia's rules and others' points of view. Your ultimate goal is to help achieve the organisation's goals, so you cannot claim a NPOV. Period.

— Philip Sheldrake, PR consultant, 2012[13] (emphasis added)

In June 2012, the Chartered Institute for Public Relations issued guidelines for Wikipedia clearly indicating the public relations professionals are to follow the 'Bright Line Rule' and not directly edit Wikipedia for their company or client. This still constitutes best practice for companies and agencies, but I advise companies to take it a step further update your employee policies to prohibit all company employees from directly editing the company Wikipedia article.

— Marcia W. DiStaso, Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, 2013 (emphasis added)[14]

Whether any paid editing is compatible with Wikipedia is a subject of furious debate. The first quote above illustrates how even some within the industry don't endorse it. The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, is famous for his opposition shared by many, many editors and academic business ethicists. For the scope of this essay, there's enough to deal with in the UPE arena, so having asked the question, it will remain unanswered.

Negative effectsEdit

Commodify: to treat (something that cannot be owned or that everyone has a right to) like a product that can be bought and sold

— Merriam-Webster dictionary[15]

Wikipedia is not a product but a process.[16] The best arguments to allow any paid editing hinge on the benefit to the product of Wikipedia but ignore the effects on the process, which is a completely flawed analysis. Conventional cost/benefit analysis based on immediate payback makes no sense in this context. Preserving the good faith of readers and contributors is paramount. Calling the transient contributions of those who poison the well of good faith a net benefit is a huge mistake.

Damage to WP reputation from the outsideEdit

Now we have a new type of bias which has emerged - a bias towards topics which commercial interests wish to promote for their own gain. Sampling bias is pernicious. While I applaud the efforts of [inclusionists] to research references, this is simply the wrong place to be directing those energies. Once the selection criteria is biased, no cleanup efforts can correct that bias.

— RoySmith at AfD[17]

Biased information harms Wikipedia's reputation as a trusted source. Several major efforts are under way to remedy systemic bias and to improve Wikipedia's inclusiveness towards editors and material.[18][19][20] Undisclosed paid editors just aggravate this problem by further slanting coverage towards topics with a commercial payoff, and redirecting energies of good-faith volunteers towards topics of their choice.

Bigger issues are at stake of social justice, control of information, democracy, and autonomy free of coercion and thought manipulation.[21]

Lives are at stake. WP:MEDRS is an extremely important standard for what has become one of the most-used medical references for laypeople and professionals.[22] The standard was recently violated by several of the Orangemoody edits.[g]

People's fortunes are being wasted on charlatans manipulating Wikipedia, like Indian Institute of Planning and Management.[2][23]

Damage to community from the insideEdit

Wikipedia's goal to create the world's finest free encyclopedia is being undermined by the separate but equal forces of volunteer apathy and PR agencies.

— Daniel Cooper, Engadget, August 17, 2015[24]

The difficulty of bringing on new volunteers has resulted in seven straight years of declining editor participation...The worst scenario is an end to Wikipedia, not with a bang but with a whimper: a long, slow decline in participation, accuracy and usefulness that is not quite dramatic enough to jolt the community into making meaningful reforms.

— Andrew Lih, The New York Times, June 20, 2015[25]

Apathy and editors simply walking away are our greatest threats. Failure to engage new editors and failure to retain existing editors are already worrying trends.[25][20][26]

Undermined volunteer basis and trustEdit

Wikipedia is a Shinto shrine; it exists not as an edifice but as an act of love. Like the Ise Shrine, Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love each other in its context.

Volunteers get forgiven a multitude of sins, because they come here to give me something I can't give myself: working along side other free people on an encyclopaedia. Shillery, in particular shills who lack the capacity to author or edit encyclopaedic content, come here to steal my gift and get paid. Unlike commercialisers of our eventual content, shills intrude on my immediate experience of editing. And shills have no capacity to claim the collegiality I give freely—they bring nothing collegial to the encyclopaedia.

Good editors are the most valuable resource

One of the most salient features of Wikimedia projects is that content is overwhelmingly donated on a volunteer basis. The volunteers understand they are releasing the sweat of their brow to the public sphere in return for certain intangible benefits like the satisfaction of being regarded as a good writer, understanding a complex social system, or simply improving the human condition. When this goodwill is leveraged by actors in their midst who are being compensated under the table, it undermines the implicit arrangement that makes WMF projects possible.[h]

BOGOF editingEdit

With the rules currently stated, we have the inverse of how voluntary organisations run: Volunteers with responsibilities, and staff (undisclosed paid editors) with none. Rewriting bad paid content with good volunteer content results in hiring a BOGOF editor. We're subsidising the market. This is not sustainable. Dare to say it, WP:IAR.

— Widefox, AfD on UPE article, 13 September 2015[30]

"Buy one, get one free" (BOGOF) editing is an example of an ethically questionable practice that co-opts unwitting volunteers. An entity engages with an undisclosed paid editor, frequently through an Internet job board, to produce an article. The article, frequently riddled with POV and sourcing problems, sometimes simply poor English writing as well, is then adopted by others, perhaps unaware that the initial effort was paid, who improve it and finally even feel like their efforts imbue it with personal meaning that make it hard to remove if the "illegal" genesis of the article is discovered.[i] Now the co-opted editors are not only writing for free on behalf of an entity directly profiting from their efforts; they are fighting the entity's deletion debates as well.

Reduced productive outputEdit

A naive look at undisclosed paid editing might lead to the conclusion "what's wrong with that, we're getting content built either way". This is false. Even disregarding the negative consequences of burned readers and good-faith editors, the whole system runs worse when polluted this way. The time spent searching for and dealing with COI editing takes away from productive time that could have been spent on other efforts needed by the project, including editing. Same for deletion debates, which, in the worst-case BOGO scenario described above, tie up at least one good-faith editor on the delete side, and one on the keep side, and frequently up to dozens of editors.[j]

Overwhelmed systemsEdit

The "WP Police" will eventually become overwhelmed at which point WP reaches a point of no return. If these things happen, a subsequent possibility is fragmentation into WPs with competing philosophies on notability and/or accepting paid editing (already proposed at User:Doc James/Paid editing), or stagnation and ossification as a reaction to uncontrollable advocacy editing. WP could cease to exist as a source worth the paper it's printed on.


We should learn from the masters of reputation management, and keep foremost in our minds that WP's own reputation is an asset that should be protected. Even if this means drastic steps like occasionally deleting content, making decisions to exclude suspected but unproven bad actors, and rejecting "free" contributions from paid editors.

What to do to combat UPEEdit

Today's toolset includes the following: legal terms, spam patrolling, COI patrolling, SPI patrolling and associated noticeboards, and actions of individual admins.

I've recently adopted a type 4 undisclosed unpaid editor (intern) and may have been successful in converting them to a productive Wikipedian. Perhaps this is a model others can follow.

However, the increasing frequency and intensity of UPE, as well as the sophistication of the forces using it, probably demand a changed response from the WP community.

What's needed nextEdit

Integrated effort to leverage every aspect of WMF's organizational strengths and those of the community. User:Doc James/Paid editing has spawned some interesting brainstorms that could produce results.

The answer?Edit

[R]ecidivism rates decrease when the punishment from an authoritative source is known, certain and swift. Organizations are only now coming to the realization that the greatest such authority is not a government official or a marquee columnist from a major publication. Rather, this new authority is a connected public who can easily find perceived ethical affronts and, most powerfully, each other."

— Phil Gomes (founder of CREWE) in Reputation Management: The Key to Successful Public Relations and Corporate Communication[31] (emphasis added)

You, dear reader, the connected and aware public, are the solution to this problem. Much of the harm to Wikipedia is caused by those who can only be effective if their presence is undetected: Type 6, Black Hat editors. Disclosing the effects of advocacy editors, and taking appropriate action on articles in their wake, is absolutely necessary.

New standardsEdit

Lack of notability is not the only reason for deletion. Borderline notability combined with clear promotionalism is an equally good reason.

— DGG at AfD[32]

Interviews, one-sentence mentions, press releases, and stock profiles do not demonstrate notability.

— Primefac at AfC[33]

New standards for notability may be part of the solution to combat the BOGO problem and attempts at inserting promotional material on startup companies, among other things. There are vocal members of the community pushing for these new standards, but others who are in favor of retaining the status quo. I hope I've laid out good reasons here why the status quo is not an acceptable condition and is in fact not a stable equilibrium.

The rewardEdit

[A] new model we might call a "gift economy." Wikipedia is the perfect illustration of this trend: With people contributing for free and using it for free as well, the site thrives and triumphantly belies the "tragedy of the commons" theory — the idea that whenever anything is available at no charge, some people will overuse or otherwise deface the resource and deplete it.

— Viviane Serfaty,, 2011[34][k]

Each one of us has his or her own story why he loves Wikipedia. An intellectual game, an opportunity to share with others – maybe millions of them– a community of word-lovers, a gift to humanity... in the purest sense, the opportunity to participate in building a cathedral is its own reward. We're looking forward to English Wikipedia's 5 millionth article soon, and it would be a shame to have it stop there.

Further readingEdit

The following on-Wiki writings are suggested to amplify or contrast with my own.


  1. ^ Sue Gardner, then executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, wrote in 2013: "Editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature. Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a "black hat" practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people."[1]
  2. ^ Credit to Kudpung who stated at a recent AfD "Purely promotional and obviously a case of someone 'mistakenly' believing that Wikipedia is another LinkedIn, not understanding the difference between an Encyclopedia and a comercial networking site or the Yellow Pages.. Whether it is part of the Orangemoody paid spamming campaign or not, DGG has said all that needs to be said already. Wikipedia cannot be allowed to be used for profit in this way at the abuse of the voluntary unpaid time that dedicated users spend building this encyclopedia which in spite of some biographies and articles about some companies, was never intended to be an additional business networking platform. Whether the text itself sounds promotional or not, the article is an advert and a plethora of sources has never been an automatic assumption of notability."[8] The AfD was closed "no consensus".
  3. ^ See Wiki-PR and other operators mentioned in the navbox.
  4. ^ See Sony Pictures Entertainment hack#Wikipedia
  5. ^ "[I]t's become clear to me that no Indian newspaper however respected is really free from including promotion--and I've been told they all expect payment from the cinema industry for articles on films."[12] These Indian film reviews or production blurbs are routinely used for problematic articles. See COIN case and associated ~100 account sockfarm for a typical case.
  6. ^ Exactly 1.73 per day for the first six months of 2015, COIN archive 79 through archive 86 totaling 312 new cases with between 1 and approximately 40 (Arr4) articles involved per case.
  7. ^ One such account was disturbingly named Medicalresearchassistant.
  8. ^ Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody, writes "Why doesn't Wikipedia suffer from the Tragedy of the Commons? Why haven't free riders and vandals destroyed it?" and answers himself with the self-healing nature of a crowdsourced project, but more significantly, notes another scholar Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, who highlighted the nonmarket creation of group value. Shirky goes on to give a case study of monetary reward breaking down a functioning volunteer network effect.[29]
  9. ^ Widefox's BOGOF comment was answered a few minutes later with this: "I don't think WP:IAR is a good reason to delete my hard work on a notable topic."
  10. ^ For example: as of the time of writing, the article The Next Internet Millionaire, known to be almost certainly the result of undisclosed paid editing, just finished its second deletion debate. The first lasted 17 days and involved 11 editors. The second, between eight and nine days and 14 editors. The article, about a reality TV webcast created by an internet marketer described as a "shameless self-promoter" by sources in the article itself, has survived both AfDs.
  11. ^ Richard Barbrook has published a scathing critique of a naive "info-anarchy" approach to the gift economy; however, his observation "Only the rich can afford to pay Northern prices in the South [but]...In the developing world, participating within the hi-tech gift economy is a necessity not a hobby."[35] appears consonant with my own interpretation of Wikipedia's potential to deliver value to people globally on a non-discriminatory basis.


  1. ^ Sue Gardner, "Press releases/Sue Gardner statement paid advocacy editing", Wikimedia Foundation, 21 October 2013.
  2. ^ a b Alastair Sloan (March 24, 2015), "Manipulating Wikipedia to Promote a Bogus Business School", Newsweek
  3. ^ Andrew Brown (June 25, 2015), "Wikipedia editors are a dying breed.", The Guardian
  4. ^ Smith 2011, p. 106.
  5. ^ Marie 2014.
  6. ^ Muljadi 2011, p. 5.
  7. ^ Jessica Lee (Jun 20, 2013), "No. 1 Position in Google Gets 33% of Search Traffic", Search Engine Watch
  8. ^ Circle AfD
  9. ^ Elance data via Bri
  10. ^ Jeff Elder (June 16, 2014), "Wikipedia Strengthens Rules Against Undisclosed Editing", The Wall Street Journal
  11. ^ Bartlett, Jamie (2015-09-30), "Wikiwashing: how paid professionals are using Wikipedia as a PR tool", Telegraph Blogs, The Telegraph, retrieved 2015-09-30CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  12. ^ DGG at COIN
  13. ^ Philip Sheldrake (6 January 2012), "Reputation and Wikipedia", Official blog
  14. ^ Marcia W. DiStaso, Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, Research Editor for the IPR Social Science of Social Media Research Center, and Senior Research Fellow for the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication (December 17, 2013), Rules for Wikipedia Editing for Public Relations – via Institute for PRCS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ "commodify". Merriam-Webster online. Encyclopedia Brittanica. 2015.
  16. ^ Shirky 2008, p. 139.
  17. ^ Twitter Power AfD, edit summary "PROMO > N"
  18. ^ Wikipedia's gender and race gaps, KQED
  19. ^ Michael Blanding (January 19, 2015), "Is Wikipedia More Biased Than Encyclopædia Britannica?", Working Knowledge, Harvard Business School
  20. ^ a b Who really runs Wikipedia (The Economist)
  21. ^ Korten 2015, p. 320 "Information is the only resource we have that cannot be depleted and can be freely shared without depriving anyone of its use. Every contemporary human invention necessarily builds on the common heritage of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years and countless generations. This is the information commons of the species."
  22. ^ Laurent & Vickers 2009.
  23. ^ David Matthews (November 21, 2013), "PR staff strive for Wikipedia whitewashes", Times Higher Education
  24. ^ Daniel Cooper (August 17, 2015), Wikipedia's volunteers are no match for PR agencies, Engadget
  25. ^ a b Lih, Andrew (June 20, 2015). "Can Wikipedia Survive?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-09-15.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  26. ^ Halfaker et al. 2013 "[T]he number of active editors (editors with >= 5 edits/month) abruptly stopped growing in early 2007 and entered a steady, linear decline. Recent research has shown evidence that this transition is rooted in the declining retention of new editors..."
  27. ^ Shirky 2008, p. 141.
  28. ^ Paid Advocacy FAQ talkpage
  29. ^ Shirky 2008, pp. 133–136.
  30. ^ WP:Articles for deletion/The Next Internet Millionaire (2nd nomination)
  31. ^ Gomes 2015.
  32. ^ The Next Internet Millionaire AfD
  33. ^ Wakanow AfC
  34. ^ Viviane Serfaty (September 26, 2011), The Gift Economy of the Internet,
  35. ^ Barbrook 2005.

Books and papersEdit