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Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2019-06-30/Opinion

Why the Terms of Use change didn't curtail undisclosed paid editing—and what might: To reduce the incentives driving undisclosed paid editing, Wikipedia could simplify the process and meet outsiders halfway

For more than a decade, I have worked with clients of all kinds to help improve the quality of information about them on Wikipedia. I began by offering simple changes at my employer's behest, applying my experience as a volunteer, and later started my own digital marketing and PR firm, Beutler Ink, which counts Wikipedia engagement as one of its key services.

Given this background, readers may be surprised to learn that I am not a proponent of "paid editing" as such. I agree very much with editors concerned that COI editing poses a risk to Wikipedia's credibility and reputation for neutrality. That is not to say I've never edited client articles myself, but I have long preferred sticking to discussion pages, making suggestions for volunteer editors to consider on the merits. My last direct edit for a client was in late 2011.

When the Wikimedia Foundation announced its update to the Terms of Use prohibiting undisclosed paid editing in June 2014, I was a prominent advocate. Earlier that same month, I had helped to create a statement signed by ten major PR agencies committing to follow Wikipedia's rules, and I had already been publicly supportive of the WMF's decision.

From my perspective as a guideline-compliant COI editor, the Terms of Use change was the best endorsement that I could have asked for, and the dynamics surrounding disclosed paid editing have since improved. The COI guideline now recommends using the "request edit" template, and a small group of volunteers have largely kept up with the resulting queue.

But in another sense, both the Terms of Use change and PR agency statement that I led have fallen short. Though there is no reliable estimate for how much undisclosed paid editing occurs, it obviously remains a problem. Even Wiki-PR, the company whose undisclosed sock puppet operation inspired both initiatives, simply rebranded as Status Labs and kept right on going.

Indeed, undisclosed paid editing is notoriously difficult to detect and impossible to stamp out entirely. Despite the valiant efforts of volunteers on the COI Noticeboard, it's long seemed clear to me that the whack-a-mole approach is not a solution, but a stopgap.

What should be done now? I am careful to offer suggestions, as I realize some Wikipedia volunteers disapprove even of the disclosed, hands-off style of Wikipedia engagement that I specialize in. Caveat in place, I have years of experience with this topic, and strongly believe there are actionable steps the community and WMF can take to create meaningful change.

First, I believe that many COI contributors do not intentionally set out to break Wikipedia's rules. The problem is that they know little about the rules if they even know they exist, and certainly don't know how to follow them. Of course there will always be bad actors, especially those who view Wikipedia from a purely SEO perspective—*cough* The North Face *cough*—so the COI Noticeboard's role is assuredly safe.

Second, it's a mistake to think COI contributors will ever learn to engage with Wikipedia exactly as the community would like. The rising number of queries on the edit request queue proves that the interest is there, but it's simply too difficult for most outsiders to learn how to ask effective questions. Unfortunately, too many of these requests are TLDR or have unrealistic goals. This wastes volunteer time, and doesn't resolve the underlying issues.

The current edit request system, wherein someone with a COI posts a message on a talk page, affixes a template, and the request goes into a queue for a volunteer to consider at an unknown date according to unspecified criteria, is confusing to uninitiated outsiders and frankly not even that user-friendly for experienced volunteers.

Making matters worse, Wikipedia currently maintains approximately a dozen pages that serve as a possible starting point for advice to COI contributors. Should one follow the "Plain and simple conflict of interest guide" or "Best practices for editors with close associations" or "Suggestions for COI compliance"? Who's to say?

To improve the situation, Wikipedia should simplify the process and meet outsiders halfway. And to be effective, the solution will have to look less like a Wikipedia project page and more like a customer feedback form.

At the very least, the public-facing advice pages should be streamlined and the edit request system turned into a full-fledged WikiProject. Another solution might be the development of a "wizard" tool asking COI contributors to fill out input fields explaining their issue or problem, proposing a solution, and providing links to journalistic sources.

A predictable and transparent process would be helpful not just to COI contributors with realistic goals, but perhaps even more so to those whose requests cannot be satisfied. For them, simply feeling that they were heard and the system worked, even if it didn't achieve the desired result, may soften the blow and reduce the likelihood they will turn to the dark side.

Since amending the Terms of Use, the WMF has mostly shied away from COI topics, yet it still has a role to play here. After all, the WMF is used to working with outside organizations in a way that individual Wikipedians are not. It could appoint a small team to help the community evolve the process, and be a powerful voice to recommend its adoption to the broader public.

Finally, although the PR industry and communications field is no monolith, and the types of COI actors are as varied as the Wikipedia pages that concern them, I can vouch that there is considerable demand for an accessible, reliable means of interfacing with Wikipedia.

Wary as Wikipedians may be to normalize or publicize the fact that outside interests can influence Wikipedia, there's little to be gained by avoiding the obvious. And as much as I agree that direct paid editing is problematic, I hope I can persuade skeptical volunteers that a well-organized system for reviewing and adjudicating COI requests can be part of the solution.