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Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2018-08-30/News and notes

< Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost‎ | 2018-08-30
Flying high; low practice from Wikipedia 'cleansing' agency; where do our donations go? RfA sees a new trend: WMF pays possible Orangemoody ring for user research, and ditches MediaWiki for publishing its own blog. Knife-edge closures at RfA.

WMF hires a spam outfit

Photograph of Katherine Maher speaking into a microphone in 2017
Katherine Maher,
Executive Director

Evoking Cambridge Analytica, Smallbones demands a statement from the very top, Katherine Maher, after Only in death brings the partnership up on Jimbo's talk page. As mentioned in last month's issue of "In the media", however, with Maher spending 200 days a year at 35,000 feet, her business travel apparently leaves her little time to keep an eye on what is happening in the company she is charged with managing. Jim Heaphy (Cullen328), lead host at the Teahouse and otherwise well-known for exercising extraordinary restraint even in the most contentious situations, concurs and beats around no bushes while Maher beats her daily way through frequent flyer lounges and crowded departure gates:

While Maher may well be doing an excellent job as ambassador for the Wikimedia movement, the word 'executive' appears to be a misnomer in her job description. (executive – A title of a chief officer or administrator, especially one who can make significant decisions on their own authority. Wiktionary)

"[T]his is a gross misuse of donated money. Whoever hired or signed off on hiring a company who brags about performing such manipulation of information which is available to the public should immediately resign in shame or be fired. This is unforgiveable and inexcusable."

— Nocturnalnow

The story begins to unfold with a message on the Wikimedia mailing list from MZMcBride that states: "How is it appropriate for Wikimedia Foundation Inc. to work with a company that is, by its own admission, whitewashing Wikipedia?" Expressing his concerns further about a paid editing syndicate being hired by the Foundation and given privileged access to inside information, he continues: "Is it appropriate to give a company that sells whitewashing Wikipedia services access to private user data, as was done in <> and <>? The Wikimedia Foundation Inc. legal department apparently approved this access, but I'm curious to know why, given the company's role in selling an 'Online Reputation Management' product. This looks bad to me."

"Go Fish Digital is a company that whitewashes Wikipedia" explains McBride. On its website at "Online Reputation Management" (July 22 edition via the Internet Archive), Go Fish claim:

The primary platforms that define your online reputation include:

  • Google Search
  • Google Autocomplete
  • Wikipedia [Editor's note: "Wikipedia" since redacted]
  • Yelp, Google Reviews, and other review websites

With Online Reputation Management, we work hard to make all of the positive information easy to find. At the same time, we use many different strategies and tactics to diminish the visibility of negative content, or in some cases, remove it from the web altogether. The end result is a positive online reputation because when people search your name or brand, they immediately find positive content.

The page continues, stating:

We have custom-built a number of tools to help us with very specific monitoring activities. We can see Wikipedia updates as they happen, track the smallest of changes in search results, and monitor online reviews in real-time. These capabilities allow us to quickly assess changes in your online reputation and adjust strategy as needed to triage any immediate problems. [Editor's note: As of publication, this is still on their site.]

Smallbones saw through the poorly veiled college-taught marketing technique and helped Wales' talk page readers to understand: "GoFish has not said directly – in any of the quotes here – that they are available to edit 'your Wikipedia article' for pay, but their meaning is clear. It's not a case of being able to read between the lines, just of being able to translate AdSpeak to English."

Photograph of Dan Gary smiling in 2017
Dan Garry,
Lead Product Manager for Editing

Dan Garry (Deskana), Lead Product Manager for Editing and a Wikimedia employee since 2013, is responsible for "build[ing] and maintain[ing] the editing experiences on the Wikimedia wikis." He stated in a late-April Phabricator ticket titled "Access to Google Search Console for Go Fish Digital" that "[t]he Audiences department is currently engaging with Go Fish Digital to help us improve our understanding of search engine optimisation." He goes on to specify that "[t]hey have signed a master service agreement which fully covers our privacy policy, data retention, and data security requirements, and the agreement received signoff from Jim Buatti (in Legal) and Toby [Negrin] (the Chief Product Officer), amongst others."

Photograph of Gregory Varnum smiling in January 2016
Gregory Varnum,
Communications Strategist

Garry can probably be forgiven for being in the dark about Go Fish's actual commercial objectives. He concluded the ticket with a suggestion to "creat[e] an account for them with access to these tools, so that access can be easily revoked at a later date, but I'm happy to go with whatever the best practice is here." And who would be accessing them? "I don't know specifically who at Go Fish is going to access the console", replies Garry in early May, "I've spoken to probably around 10 people there, and any one of them might access the console."

Communications Strategist Gregory Varnum later denied that such a request had been made, stating that "they did not request or receive access to any Wikimedia user data." However, in the Phabricator ticket, Go Fish Digital were given access to the Google Search Console for the various encyclopedias' data (including the English Wikipedia's mobile version) over two months earlier, granted by Operations Engineer Rob Halsell. Admitting yet another gross Foundation blunder, Varnum replied with a press release–style letter:


Thank you to everyone that has provided thoughtful and constructive input on this discussion, and to the volunteers who are investigating the possible policy violations. We have some additional information on this vendor relationship and on steps being taken that we believe will be helpful to this discussion.

The Wikimedia Foundation entered into a short-term contract with Go Fish Digital to conduct a search engine optimization (SEO) audit on Wikipedia. They were contracted to provide information needed by the Audiences department to improve how our sites communicate with search engines and services which provide data to devices like artificial intelligence (AI) assistants. Overall, SEO performance is a strength of our projects, but we were able to identify areas for improvement, and the audit was helpful for Audiences to more effectively focus their efforts. During discussions about Wikimedia values and activities that were held in selecting the vendor, they did not disclose anything which raised suspicion, and we failed to identify this specific concern and question them about it more.

The Foundation's Legal department received the proposal after it had been approved by Audiences and drafted a contract for this agreement following standard procedures. This included a privacy review, which resulted in the inclusion of extra privacy and security protections in the contract. Their activities did not involve reputation management services, and they did not request or receive access to any Wikimedia user data. The contract concluded last month.

As we are now aware of the vendor's possible violations and feel they should have shared this information with us during discussions, we will not be pursuing any future working relationship with Go Fish Digital and will be requesting that they honor our contractual agreement by not discussing their past relationship with us for promotional purposes. Additionally, we are reviewing the way that this vendor was selected in an effort to see if we can identify what led to this issue and better identify these types of concerns when identifying future vendors and executing agreements with them. Finally, as they regularly do, our Trust and Safety team in Community Engagement are working with the functionaries investigating the possible policy violations.

Again, we appreciate the attention provided to this by the functionaries and others who raised these concerns. We agree that the Foundation should avoid working with vendors who violate our policies, and hope the discussion around this will help reduce the chances of this happening in the future.

Thank you,


Gregory Varnum,
Communications Strategist,
Wikimedia Foundation

On the Wales talk page thread, TonyBallioni – who, like Cullen328, is also known for his restraint – spoke out, evoking Orangemoody and the connection to the BurritoSlayer sock farm mentioned by MarioGom, who discovered that the article on 1776 (company) was created for a confirmed Go Fish client:

Smallbones added: "We can also stop the noise about firing lower- and medium-level WMF employees. The problem IMHO lies near the top – senior managers need to get the word out that paid editing is a very serious business that is a very serious problem on Wikipedia. They need to take a look at the length of the sock puppet investigation and how much editor time was put into just the investigation."

The Signpost deputy Editor-in-Chief, Bri – currently on a wikibreak – joined the discussion, saying that "I added Go Fish Digital to the PAIDLIST on December 12, months before the Phabricator tickets were opened, giving the firm access to our logs. At that time the evidence of activities on-wiki in contravention of ToS [Terms of Service] was suspected, based on their own advertising. Now the connection to the BurritoSlayer sockring is known. And I agree that this should be treated with utmost seriousness, as a de facto data breach of PII [Personally Identifiable Information]. One that was preventable."

As of publication, neither Maher nor Wales have offered a comment – not even to decline giving one.

The above user quotes have been slightly modified for style, semantics, and clarity. The original text is available in the original discussion.

Wikimedia moves to WordPress

Screenshot of the new website's English-language home page in August 2018
WMF's new WordPress website

The new Wikimedia Foundation website was announced on 1 August in another mailing list missive by Gregory Varnum. The Signpost editors came across the site by coincidence while researching early this month for the lead article above. Looking for the current staff list, they had to use Google to find it, and were unable to decide whether the large German text was an error or an embellishment.

Built on WordPress, a free and open-source CMS software which was initially developed for blogging, it took a team of "over 100 individuals around the organization and movement" and "many months of work" to come up with the concept and creation. The new website came under criticism from MZMcBride, who says that "[m]any people, including employees of Wikimedia Foundation Inc. and volunteers, repeatedly raised objections to this decision to move to WordPress and they were ignored. I think this type of behavior by the communications department is really inappropriate, unbecoming, and inconsistent with Wikimedia's values." From ED Katherine Maher, there is again no comment, not even "no comment"; due to her travel commitments, she may have been unaware that it was being made.

In a step which combines the flexible creativity of web design beyond the constraints of MediaWiki with their move from their traditional software originally developed by Magnus Manske and deployed in 2002 to run the Wikipedia encyclopedia, the WMF distances itself yet further from its volunteer communities, ensuring also that the WordPress site has no talk page and is only editable by its approved webmasters. Perhaps if the Foundation's communications department were to use that time and funding to give those encyclopedias a more modern look, the complaints would not be so loud, so many, and so critical.

Further information about the 2017–18 WMF website update can be found at its documentation page and feedback can be provided here. The Signpost welcomes readers' views on the design.

Wikipedia still has cancer – where does the money go?

In July, Guy Macon updated his user essay on the transparency of Foundation spending, "Wikipedia has Cancer", with the following:

Bar graph of the WMF's financial development from 2003 to 2017 that measures (1) "Support and Revenue", (2) "Expenses", and (3) "Net Assets at year-end"; and depicts a steep growth that begins to accelerate in 2009 and shows no clear sign of plateauing
WMF's financial development shows no clear sign of slowing down

Observations as of July of 2018:

  • It is difficult to derive a trend from one year's data, but it appears that the rate of spending is beginning to level off. How much influence this page (and the previous posting of the same argument on various pages) had on this is an interesting question.
  • We still have a marked lack of transparency on spending. For example, [1] has numbers for "Grants and awards" and "Professional service expenses" but there is no obvious way of finding out the details of those expenditures (please note that this information may very well be in one of the many, many documents the WMF publishes each year).
  • All efforts to persuade the WMF to enact any spending cap, even "limit spending to no more than double last years spending" have failed.
  • We appear to be building up our endowment, but it is unclear whether the WMF has structured the endowment so that the WMF cannot legally dip into the principal when times get bad. Without this we have no protection from a sudden drop in revenue while the WMF maintains the current spending levels in the hope that revenue will recover. It is also unclear whether the endowment is legally protected against a large payout as a result of a lawsuit. The current management of the WMF appears to be committed to making immediate and drastic cuts to spending if revenue suddenly drops. Hopefully we will never have to find out.

This follows up on his original analysis, which The Signpost published in the "Op-ed" of its February 2017 issue.

Close calls at RfA – a new trend?

Apparently, our recent three-part series in The Signpost on adminship fell on stony ground (May, June, July). This month sees both Requests for Adminship (RfA) closed balancing on a knife's edge.

In one of the most hotly debated runs for adminship in Wikipedia history with a total of 318 participants, it included opposers evoking antics on Wikipedia hate site Wikipediocracy and an old spat with an arbitrator who graciously and magnanimously supported the bid for the mop. Jbhunley, author of the user essay "Identifying nonsense at NPP", stoically awaited closure. After a belated closing freeze (~11 hours) with the final tally being 196/86/10 (69.5%), a Bureaucrat discussion reached a 7–3 verdict (1 recusal) of 'no consensus to promote'.

A week later, another new perennial topic thread was started on Jimbo's talk page titled "Term Limits for Admins", following a discussion at last month's "Op-ed". In the thread at Jimbo's talk page, the RfA was mentioned as yet another example of how RfA is broken. Jimbo chimed in, agreeing completely with Carrite's point earlier in the thread that a system which considers 70% support a "rejection" is broken.

The second RfA to close this month was Philafrenzy's, which ended on time with the result 'no consensus to promote' at 143/80/19 (64.1%) with a total of 263 editors participating.

Brief notes

  • 40,000 biographies missing for academics:
  • New blocking tool: The Wikimedia Foundation's Anti-Harassment Tools team is currently developing the ability for partial blocks to be possible on Wikipedia. According to the Foundation: "Sitewide blocks are not always the appropriate response to some situations. Smaller, more tactical blocks may defuse situations while retaining constructive contributors. The goal of this project is to give wiki administrators a more robust set of tools to be able to better respond to different user conflict situations." New wireframes have been posted for users to comment on and its development is currently being discussed on the talk page of the Community health initiative's documentation for "Per-user page, namespace, and upload blocking".
  • New user-groups: The Affiliations Committee has announced (diff) that "[i]n the coming weeks an Affiliate Data survey will be launched to reach out to update key information about all affiliates."
  • Milestones: The following Wikipedia projects reached milestones this month:
    • The Santali language Wikipedia, India's first tribal language to have a Wikipedia in its own script, went live on Thursday, August 2.