How billionaires rewrite Wikipedia
- In this article I report on editing that was apparently paid for by Greg Lindberg, who is now in prison following his conviction for bribery and fraud. I have participated in editing the article about Lindberg. The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the rest of the Signpost staff or of other Wikipedians.
"The rich are different from you and me—they have more money." Like the rest of us, billionaires are people whose behavior does not necessarily reflect that of others, even among those with similar-sized bank accounts. The only conclusion we can draw about billionaires is that they have more money—and thus more power—than most Wikipedians. They do not appear to edit articles themselves; instead, they pay editors to edit on their orders. In this article, I examine three current or former billionaires who appear to have paid editors and the changes these editors made to related Wikipedia articles. Based purely on Wikipedia edit histories, it is impossible to prove that an editor has been paid to edit for a billionaire, even in cases where the paid editor claims to work for the billionaire. We are nevertheless able to present strong evidence of a paid-editing relationship in at least two of the following cases.
The three main individuals discussed below, Greg Lindberg, Robert T. Brockman, and Robert F. Smith, have all recently had brushes with the law. Lindberg reported to federal prison on October 20, 2020, following his conviction on fraud and bribery charges.
Brockman was indicted on allegations of tax evasion, "the largest U.S. tax case ever against an individual". Smith was involved in the same case, but reached a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department following his payment of $139 million to the U.S. Treasury, and is expected to testify against Brockman.
In December 2019, The Wall Street Journal published a report, "How the 1% Scrubs Its Image Online", about five rich people who were believed to be employing Status Labs, the successor of Wiki-PR, to whitewash Wikipedia articles. Their suspected clients included U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Jacob Gottlieb, billionaire financier Kenneth C. Griffin, the fraudulent blood testing company Theranos and its CEO Elizabeth Holmes, and Omeed Malik. According to the Journal, Status Labs created fake news sites to remove negative news about these people from Google searches.
A December 2019 Special Report in The Signpost covered other whitewashing tactics in detail, focusing on Theranos Labs and edits by Status Labs' apparent employee User:Jppcap.
Lindberg's net worth was estimated between $860 million and $1.46 billion after subtracting a loss of $400 million resulting from the legal actions against him. He commissioned this estimate from Berkeley Research Group for an August 2020 legal filing.
He attended Yale University, where in 1991 he started his first business, a healthcare newsletter. He is still the sole owner of this business, now known as Global Growth. By the early 2000s he was worth $12.8 million. In 2013, before he went on a spree of buying insurance companies, Lindberg reported a net worth of $340 million. By 2017 he reported a net worth of $1.7 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal. Lindberg has sued the WSJ over this and other articles.
The purchase of insurance companies provided Lindberg with much of his cash. Insurance companies typically invest their customers’ premiums in low-risk investments, such as U.S. Treasury bonds, to ensure that they will have money to pay future claims. Lindberg moved many of these safe investments to more risky "affiliated investments" in companies he controlled. While small amounts of affiliated investments, less than 10% of total assets, are fairly common in the insurance industry, companies Lindberg controlled had over 40% affiliated investments, and much higher in some cases, raising questions as to whether he was using these insurance reserves as his own personal piggy bank. In total, his insurance companies made over $2 billion in affiliated loans.
North Carolina law, unlike that in most states, allowed the state insurance commissioner to determine the amount of affiliated investments on a case-by-case basis. As his insurance empire grew, Lindberg became one of the largest political campaign donors in North Carolina, including funding the campaign of Mike Causey's predecessor as insurance commissioner. When Causey was elected to the office in 2017, Lindberg began complaining that the commission's decisions about his company were unfair and asked that the state employee in charge of supervising his company be replaced. Subsequently he asked for a Global Growth employee to be assigned as supervisor. Lindberg then began offering campaign donations to Causey. Causey contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and met with Lindberg, with the meetings secretly videotaped by the FBI.
Lindberg was indicted in March 2019 for bribery and wire fraud. He was tried and found guilty in March 2020, and is serving an 84-month sentence.
While Lindberg appears to have paid four editors, only one, User:Mikec85, declared that he was paid by Lindberg, and then only after making 23 edits. Four of those edits reverted edits of mine that removed unsourced statements or fluff, such as a photo taken from Lindberg's website of a preteen Lindberg with a caption beginning "Remember the creativity and limitlessness of youth". On Mikec85's user talk page, he writes:
I can confirm I am a SPA and that I'm a paid editor as I am the webmaster/administrator for www.greglindberg.com. I have the authorization to cite any material from his website. I am paid by a company called Apex International LLC. (bold in the original)
Apex International, a firm Lindberg owns, is something of a jack-of-all-trades in the security business. Besides apparently editing Wikipedia for Lindberg, it was kept busy guarding his many mansions and protecting Lindberg and his family. His ex-wife believes that Apex spied on her after their divorce.
On February 7, 2018, User:Sarah G Eli, later known as Green Beans 721, started Lindberg's Wikipedia page in their user sandbox. Their only previous edits were made the day before—three quick edits to unrelated articles, and three edits to Eli Global, the company Lindberg owned, now known as Global Growth. Green Beans 721 was a single-purpose account (SPA), with nine of their 12 edits made on the two Lindberg-related articles. The original article contained clichés such as calling Lindberg a "bootstrap entrepreneur" and "as a leader, Lindberg focuses on finding and investing in the right people."
The next year, another SPA, User:MT9429, defended Lindberg after an article in The Wall Street Journal reported that Lindberg had diverted $2 billion from insurance company reserves for his own use. MT9429 improperly cited a press release as a reliable source and stated that Lindberg "refuted" the WSJ story, rather than just "disputed" it. I reverted that edit, but they restored the PR source to the article.
Starting in November 2019, User:Mikec85 made 32 edits to the Lindberg article, including one where they presented detailed, though unaudited, financial information based on a single press release. They later admitted that they were an SPA and paid editor. Their final edit, in April 2020, was a request for arbitration against me. It was rejected within a few hours as "premature".
After Lindberg's conviction in March 2020, another SPA, User:Jumpingjacks67, made 17 edits, generally removing information about Lindberg's conviction or adding information on his philanthropic activities, including this series of edits.
The Signpost contacted Lindberg's legal representative requesting comments on this section. He declined to comment on any question of fact.
Robert T. Brockman was the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Reynolds and Reynolds, a major software provider to auto dealers, until this month. He was indicted in October on 39 counts of tax evasion, wire fraud, money laundering, and other offenses, arising in part from the allegation that he hid $2 billion in capital gains income in a series of Caribbean accounts. More than $1 billion in his Swiss bank accounts has been frozen. Prosecutors called this "the largest U.S. tax case ever against an individual". (Please remember that indictments and allegations are not proof of guilt and that he should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.)
Brockman is publicity-shy and there was no article about him on Wikipedia until I created a redirect from Robert T. Brockman to Reynolds and Reynolds. He may not have hired undeclared paid editors to edit the article about his company, but anonymous editors can be traced by their IP addresses from the Reynolds and Reynolds article to the firm. He or his firm did apparently hire a paid editor, CorporateM, formerly known as Corporate Minion, who declared that he was paid by Reynolds and Reynolds.
Brockman founded Universal Computer Systems in 1970 and the firm has remained privately owned since then. UCS bought Reynolds and Reynolds in 2006 and the combined firm took the name Reynolds and Reynolds.
After the buyout, many of Brockman's employees expressed disagreement with the new management's policies. The Reynolds and Reynolds article reflected this "culture clash" in the section Merger issues, which included three solid references—to the Houston Business Journal, the Austin American-Statesman, and the Dayton Business Journal—plus one weaker reference, to Glassdoor.
Working slowly, CorporateM ultimately removed almost all this information. First he accused a couple of editors of edit warring in August 2015. There was no evidence of edit warring, so he may have just wanted to scare newer editors away from the article. Then in February and March 2016, he created a draft to replace the whole article. CorporateM gives an example of how he works in creating draft articles with a client, likely a different client, at his website ethicalwiki.com. "I hammered out the content of the draft with the client over several weeks, sometimes line-by-line or word-by-word."
He then discussed the draft with two well-known Wikipedia administrators. In April 2016 one of the admins replaced the entire article with the draft. Three months later, after 26 edits by CorporateM and four edits by an anonymous editor traceable to Reynolds and Reynolds, the section was gone except for two sentences as a faint reminder.
CorporateM does not violate Wikipedia's paid editing disclosure policy as he declares his paid status on the talk pages of affected articles. He nonetheless remains bound to uphold Wikipedia's other policies and guidelines, including the neutral point of view policy, and the policy prohibiting using Wikipedia for advocacy, promotion, advertising, marketing or public relations. CorporateM does work to get approval from other editors to insert his paid-for text, but that doesn't mean that those editors have the time or expertise to vet every editorial choice CorporateM or his employers make. And sometimes our busy volunteer editors just make abysmal mistakes that they wouldn't have made if a paid editor weren't pushing them to include specific wording.
In September 2012 CorporateM edited his new user page, placing this text at the top of the page: "I consider myself to be a good corporate lapdog and welcome editors who choose to invite me to take the corporate stance on an issue." As long as our policies permit good corporate lapdogs to edit for pay, we'll continue to have problems with billionaires whitewashing our articles. It's time we reconsider those policies or just ban paid editing altogether.
Robert F. Smith
Robert Smith is by all accounts a remarkable person. With a net worth of over $7 billion, he is likely the richest Black person in the U.S. In his 2019 commencement speech at Morehouse College, he promised to pay off the student loans of all Spring 2019 Morehouse graduates, costing him $34 million.
He has also paid $139 million and agreed to forgo a $182 million tax refund to help settle a tax evasion allegation and reach a non-prosecution agreement from the Department of Justice. He is expected to testify in the tax evasion case against Brockman. There is some evidence that Smith or his private equity fund Vista Equity Partners paid for editing on Wikipedia's articles on Smith and Vista.
In 1997 Smith started his first private equity fund with Brockman, investing $1 billion as its sole investor. Part of their agreement was that Smith would conceal part of his earnings in an offshore trust. According to Smith’s signed statement to prosecutors, Brockman "presented this unconventional business proposal as a 'take-it-or-leave-it' offer, dictating the unique terms and unorthodox structure to the arrangement. Despite any misgivings, Smith accepted [Brockman’s] offer, viewing it as a unique business opportunity he eagerly wanted to pursue."
User:Lilil399 was an single-purpose account (SPA) with 20 edits focusing on the Robert F. Smith (investor) article they created, two edits to Smith's firm Vista Equity Partners, and two others—later deleted—to create other articles related to the firm. Only their two edits to Mack McLarty had no obvious connection to the firm. Their edits were not blatant advocacy, but low-key updates of Vista's capital, awards, and philanthropy. One edit that stands out was the removal of the fact that Smith's wife had been a Playboy Playmate. Lilil399 did not declare that they were a paid editor.
About a year after Lilil399 stopped editing, User:Johnny.thesn began editing the same articles, adding comparable content in a similar but not identical style. Johnny.thesn is not a classic SPA: they had actively edited pro wrestling articles and the Mack McLarty article for a year before starting to edit the articles on Smith and Vista. For the next 18 months, with the exception of two edits, they edited only articles related to Smith. Johnny.thesn did not declare themself to be a paid editor.
The similarity of the editing of Lilil399 and Johnny.thesn convinces me that both were working for the same person or business. All articles edited by Lilil399 were also edited by Johnny.thesn, including the seemingly unrelated article on Mack McLarty. The type of content they added or deleted from the Vista-related articles was similar. Still, I would be surprised if an administrator blocked them as sockpuppets, since they didn't edit the same articles at the same time, and due to the modest nature of their edits, it's unlikely that they would be blocked for advocacy. Proving paid editing typically requires a bit more for our administrators, who usually have fairly strict evidentiary standards.
What can be done?
The three billionaires described in this article are very different, and each appears to have had a different method of rewriting Wikipedia's articles about himself. Lindberg's paid editors were blunt and aggressive. Brockman's paid editor avoided the limelight as much as possible, but planned the rewrite in advance and took his time. Smith's apparent paid editors were extremely low-key, to the extent that some might not even believe that they were paid editors.
Can Wikipedians stop billionaires from using paid editors to whitewash the articles about them? It was difficult and time-consuming, but in Lindberg's case we did. We might just have been a bit lucky in this case. There was excellent information from a reliable source, The Wall Street Journal, co-written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. While the legal system can seem agonizingly slow, it worked faster than usual in this case. Several unpaid Wikipedians worked together to overcome Lindberg's advantages. Perhaps it was just that Lindberg wildly overestimated his abilities and those of the people he hired. But people who are tempted to edit Wikipedia's articles about themselves should remember: even a billionaire's whitewashing can be stopped and exposed.
Brockman's situation is a bit scarier than Lindberg's. The paid editor declared his conflict of interest and his actions were right in front of our eyes the whole time. It may be that only Brockman's tax case indictment led us to examine the case anew. But with our blinders off and five years' distance providing perspective, it's clear that the Reynolds and Reynolds article was whitewashed. We should never let professed "corporate lapdogs" edit for pay.
Was the editing done for Smith actually a problem? Was it against our rules? The editing itself might seem harmless, but if you agree with me that the editing was paid for, then the editors certainly broke our rules by not declaring that they were paid. Supervision of paid editors, if we want them here at all, is definitely needed in all cases.
What could we have done better? I recommend that other editors finding themselves in the position I was while editing the Lindberg article contact the Conflict of Interest Noticeboard early on. Working together is the only way Wikipedia editors can stop those who attempt to corrupt our articles the same way they try to corrupt public officials. Perhaps we could form a new WikiProject focusing on the biographies of billionaires. There must be a couple of thousand billionaires who are tempted to remove embarrassing bits from time to time.
But did we really do anything about the paid editing in the cases of Brockman and Smith? It seems they got away scot-free. But now their paid editing arrangements have been exposed. With the benefit of hindsight we were able to track their paid edits fairly well. Other billionaires who are tempted to hire paid editors should understand that almost all edits on Wikipedia are permanently saved. Whether it's five, 10, or 20 years later, your edits can be tracked, perhaps by technology that has not yet been developed.
We need to better publicize that we have rules against undisclosed paid editing and self-promotion. The Signpost is not capable of doing this job alone. The Wikimedia Foundation must take an active role in letting billionaires and others know we have rules that must be followed. Flouting our rules has consequences, such as exposure to the general public. We also invite press around the world to expose those who would corrupt Wikipedia.
- ^ While this quote is often attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, the truth may be more complex. See Dow, Eddy (November 13, 1988). "The Rich Are Different". New York Times. Retrieved 23 August 2020.
- ^ a b Maremont, Mark (October 10, 2020). "Insurance Executive Ordered to Prison on Seven-Year Sentence". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
- ^ a b Voreacos, David; Weinberg, Neil (15 October 2020). "Houston Tech Mogul Indicted for 'Largest-Ever Tax Charge'". Bloomberg. Retrieved 21 November 2020.
- ^ a b "CEO of Multibillion-dollar Software Company Indicted for Decades-long Tax Evasion and Wire Fraud Schemes". United States Department of Justice. Retrieved 21 November 2020.
- ^ Hilton, John (August 12, 2020). "Judge Upholds Greg Lindberg Bribery Conviction". Insurancenewsnet.com. Retrieved August 23, 2020.
- ^ a b Eanes, Zachery (13 April 2019). "Who is Greg Lindberg? The man at the center of the NCGOP bribery scandal". News and Observer. Retrieved 12 October 2020.
- ^ a b Maremont, Mark; Scism, Leslie (February 28, 2019). "Financier Who Amassed Insurance Firms Diverted $2 Billion Into His Private Empire". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved August 23, 2020. (paywall)
- ^ Robinson, Gary D. (February 15, 2020). "Political corruption trial of big N Carolina donor to start". Associated Press. Retrieved March 16, 2020.
- ^ Maremont, Mark; Scism, Leslie (October 3, 2019). "'Active Interest': Insurance Tycoon Spied on Women Who Caught His Eye". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved August 23, 2020. (paywall)
- ^ Miller, Hugo; Weinberg, Neil (6 November 2020). "Swiss Freeze More Than $1 Billion Held by Tech Mogul Robert Brockman". Bloomberg. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
- ^ "Robert Brockman: Technology mogul charged in largest ever tax fraud scheme of $2bn". The Independent. Associate Press. 16 October 2020. Retrieved 21 November 2020.
- ^ "Biography". bobbrockman.com. Archived from the original on 16 July 2020. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
- ^ "Our Leadership". Reynolds and Reynolds. Archived from the original on 22 July 2020. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
- ^ "Ending an Edit-War". ethicalwiki.com. 20 July 2015. Archived from the original on 23 November 2020. Retrieved 23 November 2020.
I hammered out the content of the draft with the client over several weeks, sometimes line-by-line or word-by-word.
- ^ a b c Whoriskey, Peter; Torbati, Yeganeh; Alexander, Keith L. (13 November 2020). "A dodgy deal helped make him a billionaire. It worked, until now". Washington Post. Retrieved 22 November 2020.
- ^ Smith, Robert F. (18 October 2020). "Robert F. Smith's Letter to Investors". RobertSmith.com. Archived from the original on 18 November 2020. Retrieved 22 November 2020.
Discuss this story
Thanks for the well-written piece. I've said this before, but I'm still a firm believer that we should ban all editing for pay or other remuneration (even if that would terminate our successful partnerships with other organizations). — Javert2113 (Siarad.|¤) 17:58, 29 November 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Language matters: Paid editors or promotional editors
Hi Smallbones, thanks for a very detailed interesting piece. Thanks too for your kind words about Wikipedians-in-Residence. ("I won't go so far as saying that paid GLAM Wikipedians-in-Residence should be banned. Their input is really needed, and there seems to be controls"). Speaking as a (former) WiR, I feel frustrated that the language used about this issue tends to skew the argument. People use the term "paid editing" but the problem that they oppose might more accurately be described as "promotional editing".
Every WiR I've met would agree that writing with the intent to introduce bias is undesirable. Use of the term "paid editing" lumps together a WiR who adds unbiased high-quality information about a topic (e.g. medicine, fashion) and someone who tries to whitewash or promote a person, company, or product. Yes, they're both paid. No, they aren't (by definition) both promotional.
I see the appeal of thinking in terms of "paid editing" -- Whether or not someone is paid is relatively easy to determine. Whether or not someone is promotional is more difficult to establish, and can involve lots more argument. -- The term "paid editing" makes it easy to oversimplify the issues involved. Mary Mark Ockerbloom (talk) 03:45, 4 December 2020 (UTC)Reply[reply]