Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2020-03-01/From the editor

The ball is in your court: How to stop abusive commercial editing.

Last month Status Labs, a commercial paid editing company that has been banned on Wikipedia since 2013, was the main topic of this column. You should expect it to be mentioned here for a long time to come.

Following the column a request for comment was held and over the course of four days supported the proposal that “this RFC asks the Wikimedia Foundation to enforce the Terms of Use against Status Labs violations…” by a count of 100 to 2.

Ordinarily, such a lopsided vote would have prompted a snow close after the first day. It’s an important question - how do we enforce our terms of use against a company that absolutely refuses to recognize the authority of the community, or of the WMF, to enforce our rules? We need to take our time and consider how best to do this. WMF legal needs time to consider the best legal strategy. The Board of Trustees needs to sign off on any legal action. The WMF has been informed of the RfC both by Trustee James Heilman and by myself. They’ve promised to inform The Signpost promptly when there is an official announcement.

But the question is not "should we take action?" It is "how do we best take action?" Not taking action threatens the encyclopedia's very existence. If we allow a paid editing company to solicit rich customers to place anything they’d like into Wikipedia and we don’t enforce our rules against paid editing, then we no longer have any rules. Any rich person could put just about anything into Wikipedia and there’s little we could do about it. Wikipedia would no longer be an encyclopedia, rather it would be an advertising platform for rich people.

So what can we do while we’re waiting for the inevitably slow legal process to work? Here are a few suggestions.

WMF's role

A persistent problem seen at the conflict of interest noticeboard (COIN) is the number of companies which don’t realize that we have rules against advertising and undeclared paid editing (UPE). It’s in everybody’s interest to let them know. The Signpost can only do so much in publicizing Wikipedia's rules. It would be much better if the WMF actively took every opportunity to let companies know via press releases, speeches, and interviews. The WMF knows how to publicize its projects. Please make letting companies know about our rule against UPE a top priority.

The WMF should inform the community via COIN when they have reason to suspect UPE. There is little or no reason to keep this information secret. Editors can then check out the suspicions and come to their own conclusions.

A few cases might be kept under wraps while the WMF learns more about the problem. When they find a company that is clearly breaking our terms of use but wasn't aware of our rules, it could be useful to talk to them informally. Why do they try to advertise on Wikipedia? Is it just the low cost? Or is it the placement on Google search results? Perhaps they were solicited by a known paid editor? What commercial paid editing firm do they use? Finding out the specific reasons for paid editing may help design a program to discourage other advertisers.

Much of the WMF's proposed response to UPE involves developing software that would help identify these editors from the articles they write. First things first, however, there are some simple fixes that might work quickly and inexpensively. Please check with the admins who work in this area. MER-C, for example suggests improving the CAPTCHA function used at account registration to weed out spam-bots.

Artificial intelligence should be able to help identify UPEs, or at least editors who write like them. A good sample of editors identifying spammy articles is available from Deletion sorting/Companies going back to 2015.

Another method of identifying UPEs is to look at their known characteristics:

  • Almost all advertisers on enWiki use a particular form of the English language that anybody, even a 10 year old, can identify. We all know when somebody is trying to sell us something, but for whatever reason, advertisers cannot avoid using that lingo.
  • Adverts all point to the company or product that they are advertising. Just follow the links.
  • Advertisers on Wikipedia almost always have many references in the articles they write. Multiple bad references. Get a list of the 1000 most common references in Wikipedia and calculate the percentage of references in the article that don’t match these good references.
  • Other common characteristics include having a product list in the article, emphasizing the founder's or CEO's genius in running the company, or even having articles on both the company and the CEO submitted at the same time.
  • Identifying PR has a very long list of these characteristics.

Community's role

The community and its administrators should realize that we have most of the rules needed to enforce our paid editing policy. If you see advertising or spam you can remove it. You can report any suspected UPE at the conflict of interest noticeboard. You can nominate an article for deletion at WP:AfD. All of this takes time, so there are a few rules we should change to streamline the process of eliminating UPE.

Changing policies

There are many tweaks that we could make to policies and guidelines to streamline the process of showing UPEs off the premises. Go ahead and make proposals to tweak these policies, but let's concentrate on one big change. Our paid editing disclosure policy is an especially strong policy in a few key areas. Every paid editor must disclose their paid status. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. This is the policy of both the WMF and enWiki, and it is not easily changed. Any major change in this policy must undergo an RfC that is equivalent to that of establishing a new core policy. Let's keep it and build on it, adding a new policy on top of it.

The type of paid editors we are most concerned with are the commercial firms like Status Labs. Let's have an additional policy for commercial editing firms, those that edit Wikipedia as part of a commercial transaction. Wikipedians love to precisely define who is and who isn't covered by a policy. We can do that for commercial firms without changing our paid disclosure policy. We can require that any editor who works with them declare their commercial editing status in one place - on their user page. Thus we can keep track of them much better than paid editors who are allowed to switch between three choices of placing their declaration. We can prohibit commercial editors from working with firms that do not publicly declare in their advertisements that they will follow all our rules against ads, PR, promotion, spam, and UPEs in Wikipedia. We can maintain a blacklist of the commercial editing firms that do not follow our rules and link to them on their websites. We can establish a standard procedure to investigate especially blatant commercial editing and report the results and recommendations to the WMF for further action.

There are many prohibitions we could add to a new commercial editing policy, but let's keep it simple:

  • Nobody can edit Wikipedia who accepts money or works in association with a commercial firm that does not require its employees, contractors, and associates to follow all our rules about advertising and other promotion and UPE.
  • The commercial firm must let all its potential customers, employees, and affiliates know that strict compliance with our rules is required. The public should be informed via a highly visible link on the firm's website.
  • The firm must cooperate with investigations by the Wikipedia community of UPE abuses.

The future

The Signpost will continue to cover the Status Lab story in detail. We will cover major new paid editing scandals as they appear. Typically there are 3 or 4 each year. Our role is to cover the news and offer our analysis of it, so we don't plan to offer new policy proposals on any regular basis. Members of the community on all sides of the issue are encouraged to submit their opinions for publication and debate.