Predators unconcerned with Wikipedia's wellbeing may be closer than you think.
- Smallbones has worked on articles impacted by paid editing throughout his 11 years as a Wikipedia contributor, including the topic explored in this special report. He has written on the subject for the Signpost. He has a Ph.D. in finance and professional experience in legitimate financial markets.
From 2013 until its demise in January 2017, Banc De Binary (BDB), a financial broker based in Israel, drew an international stream of accusations and regulatory penalties. Following a lawsuit and negative media reports about the company, a cohort of mostly undisclosed paid editors sought to influence the firm's coverage on Wikipedia.
Given the multiple, time-consuming deletion requests, sockpuppet investigations, and content disputes, it is clear the effort took its toll on Wikipedia's volunteer editors and functionaries. Can we quantify how much such an incident costs Wikipedia? Certainly there's the cost in editor time that could be used better elsewhere. There's the cost of administrative time spent in investigating sock puppets, banning editors, and the like. There's the cost of a diminished reputation for accuracy. And there can be significant costs to our readers from trusting an article or acting on the information in it.
BDB advertised itself as a leader in binary options, an industry viewed with great skepticism by many regulators and journalists. Exposés of scam artists in the industry now abound with titles like 80% losses guaranteed!, Ex-binary options salesman: Here is how we fleece the clients and The unethical sellers of dreams.
One victim, after losing $113,250, told her BDB broker that she had no more money left to send him, according to computer records obtained by the Financial Times. The broker answered, "Don't you have a kidney? Sell it."
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office has called for a worldwide ban on binary options trading.
Article creation by sock puppets
A 2013 sockpuppet investigation led to the determination that the initial version of the article had been created by a sock puppet. Scubadoofeck re-created the article, but was then banned as a sock puppet of User:Morning277. Morning277 had been a central figure in the 2013 Wiki-PR paid editing scandal, in which over 250 accounts were blocked or banned. The article has been deleted twice, has been the subject of at least three additional deletion requests, and has been the subject of extensive edit warring. A biography of the company's CEO was also deleted three times in 2013.
The Cyprus Securities and Exchange Commission (CySEC) licensed BDB as a broker in January 2013, allowing BDB to trade in many European Union countries. Though BDB was fined four times by CySEC, BDB kept its license until January 2017, when the company closed.
In June 2013 two US regulators, the SEC and the CFTC, filed civil suits against BDB and jointly issued a warning against the entire non-US binary options industry.
An external link to these civil suits was placed in the article two days later, prompting a protracted edit war. In May 2014, an editor nominated the article for deletion; that editor was blocked as yet another sockpuppet the next day. During the intervening 11 months, nearly 500 edits were made. An IP editor (traceable to Israel) claiming to be BDB CEO Oren Shabat Laurent, made five identical edits in the same day, all of which were reverted, to include highlights of Laurent's biography, and lists of products and countries served. He also reduced the coverage of the regulators' lawsuits and buried it at the bottom of the article. The article was protected due to edit warring, and vacillated between semi- and full protection until June 2014.
In May 2014, an editor observed changes in web search results relating to BDB, and asserted that the Wikipedia efforts might be part of a search engine optimization (SEO) effort to remove and de-emphasize coverage of the company's bad press from the web. The Times of Israel later noted, under a headline decrying the "wolves of Tel Aviv", that SEO "expertise has plainly been applied by fraudulent binary options firms, whose affiliated sites show up high in Google searches — sending unsuspecting and naive clients their way."
The article was kept after an Articles for Deletion discussion, despite the participation of User:BDBJack, who had declared he was working for BDB, and eight other editors whose comments were discounted as "obvious single-purpose accounts and socks".
User:BDBIsrael, later indefinitely blocked along with BDBJack, also stated that he was paid by BDB. In June he began relaying messages from the BDB board of directors, clearly stating that BDB had been a customer of Wiki-PR and naming several editors who either worked for BDB directly or through Wiki-PR. One of the editors who worked directly for BDB, User:Notsosoros was indefinitely blocked along with 37 related accounts for sockpuppeting. Most of these socks were apparently "sleeper accounts"—deceptive accounts being prepared to be used later—which hadn't yet edited the BDB article.
Word was posted on Wikipedia that BDB had advertised a five figure fee for "crisis management" of the article. This posting rallied Wikipedia editors to fight for an unbiased article.
A sock puppet started the editing in June 2014 with a request for speedy deletion . 106 edits and six days later, the article was placed under full protection. On June 4 a well-known paid editor, who told the Signpost that he never accepted money from BDB, started another article deletion request, but the article was speedily kept. Three days later, he deleted 88% of the article text. The article talk page was even busier, with about 450 edits that month.
2016 was a rough year for BDB. In January Israel changed its law to make trading binary options with its citizens illegal. In February BDB settled the US regulatory cases with $11 million in fines and restitution, and an agreement not to trade with or even indirectly solicit US residents. The Times of Israel ran a series of detailed exposés on the binary options industry, starting with "The wolves of Tel Aviv: Israel's vast, amoral binary options scam exposed" One article focused on BDB. The prime minister’s office condemned the whole industry, and the Knesset scheduled hearings on stopping all binary options trading in Israel. CySEC fined BDB four times and there were other regulatory setbacks in Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium, and Belize.
This did not appear to stop the undisclosed paid editing on the BDB article. Four accounts, later banned or permanently blocked, removed content from the article in 2016: FoCuSandLeArN, Tianderni, Beranpolti, and Euclidthalis.
BDB fought hard to push its advertising into the article, and to remove news of its regulatory problems. Wikipedia editors and administrators fought harder and did a good job under the circumstances. Perhaps Wikipedia editors, myself included, could have been clearer: a reader skimming the article might have drawn the erroneous conclusion that BDB was a legitimate business with just a few problems with regulators. Of course we are constrained by what reliable secondary sources say – we could not have written, for instance, "BDB is a scam" unless several sources had printed that.
Coverage of BDB in Wikipedia's German, Greek, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish editions was less informative than in the English edition. All the articles were created from 2013–14. They appear to have been translated from one of the English article versions written by BDB; all but one had a small paragraph on US regulation buried at the bottom.
The creator of the Spanish article got his account globally locked as a "spam only account", but the article stayed pretty much the same until December 2016. The Greek and Russian articles stayed much as originally written. The German and Portuguese articles started in 2013 with word of BDB’s regulatory problems in the lede, but those sentences were deleted in June 2014.
The bottom line
A prolonged conflict around an article impacts Wikipedia's most valuable resource—volunteer time—and impacts the quality of information conveyed to its readers. All of these should be regarded as significant costs to the Wikipedia project. Furthermore, to whatever extent Wikipedia's readers take detrimental action based on faulty information from Wikipedia, those individuals share in the cost, as well.
In total, three editors of the English-language article were banned as sock puppets of Morning277, and 17 others were banned or indefinitely blocked. These editors all pushed BDB's point of view. A couple dozen more were blocked as sock puppets of a BDB employee before they could edit the BDB article.
With 781 edits to the article and 870 edits to the talk page, BDB likely consumed hundreds of hours of our editors' time. Eight related deletion requests, two massive edit wars, 20 banned or blocked editors, and years of page protection likely used hundreds more hours of administrators' time.
The Israeli binary options industry is reported to take in more than US$1 billion per year. BDB reported unaudited revenues of $100 million in 2014. How much of that came from Wikipedia readers can only be guessed. But given the time and money BDB spent trying to manipulate the article on Wikipedia, it must have been a very large amount. Maybe we should all count our kidneys, and keep our eyes on the wolves.