People trust Wikipedia. The free online encyclopedia is now the fifth-most visited website in the world and is a pipeline of information for digital assistants like Alexa and Siri. Ask your iPhone what a lynx is and up pops an information box with content pulled from the open platform. (It’s a medium-sized wildcat named for the “luminescence of its reflective eyes,” by the way, at least according to the 1,668 people who have edited the page since 2001.)
Because the encyclopedia has millions of pages filled with dynamic content, Google’s algorithm typically includes relevant Wikipedia pages near the top of its search results. Though the online encyclopedia isn’t by its own admission perfect, the tech companies have in effect anointed Wikipedia, which is monitored, fact-checked, and filled with material from a community of volunteer editors.
That’s the idea, anyway. Because Wikipedia is so ubiquitous and widely trusted—by tech corporations who build it into their products, or the British readers who said they trusted it more than newspapers in a 2014 poll—the “volunteer” aspect has become a little fuzzy. A market of pay-to-play services has emerged, where customers with the right background can drop serious money to hire editors to create pages about them; a serious ethical breach that could get worse with the rise of—wait for it—cryptocurrency payments.
“This guy’s got enough money to last multiple lifetimes, and he’s just really conscious of his weight on his Wikipedia page,” Brendan Gibson tells me. Gibson, a 34-year-old American expat, is sitting across from me at the Slow Boat Brewery in Beijing. He’s the founder of What About Wiki, which professionally writes and maintains Wikipedia articles for paying clients.
In the three years since Gibson founded What About Wiki, his favorite client remains a pro baseball player who contacted him with a very specific request. “He didn’t want anything changed except for his photo because he had lost a lot of weight,” Gibson said. When the athlete tried to change the photo himself, someone undid his edit. So he sought professional help.
Gibson laughed as he remembered the story. In order to make the change, Gibson’s team deployed some of their more than 50 sock-puppet user accounts to convince other editors on Wikipedia that the skinnier picture was more representative of the athlete’s career.
“This guy’s got enough money to last multiple lifetimes, and he’s just really conscious of his weight on his Wikipedia page.”
His company’s services typically cost a client between $3,000 and $5,000, according to Gibson. Last year, his company earned more than half a million dollars, which he split with other team members and writers based in the United States and Hong Kong. Clients include small businesses, giant corporations, Fortune 500 executives, Olympic athletes, and award-winning authors.
And there’s a special 10 percent discount for any customer who pays in bitcoin. Although cryptocurrency transactions are recorded on a public ledger, they are linked to an electronic address without any personal information. Gibson says he likes that anonymity. If the transactions are harder to trace, that’s gravy for What About Wiki.
The volunteer Wikipedia community sometimes describe covert paid editors like Gibson as “black hat” providers, a name originating from villains in Western films that has developed its own history in hacker culture. Paid editors bristle at the description and may prefer to think of themselves as “underground” or “clandestine.” Other names include “mercenaries” or “hired guns.”
This isn’t a new problem exactly. Back in 2006, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales described interactions with MyWikiBiz, a service creating Wikipedia articles on behalf of corporations for less than $100 apiece. Early clients included hotels, resorts, and golf courses trying to grow their internet presence. Wales was concerned that providers like MyWikiBiz could damage the integrity of the site and blocked the pay-for-play company from editing Wikipedia.
Money wasn’t the issue, per se. In a notice to the Wikipedia community, Wales wrote, “The big problem with paid editing on Wikipedia is NOT that someone is getting paid to write, but rather that this causes a rather obvious conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety.”
A few Wikipedia editors interviewed for this story expressed concerns that the Wikimedia Foundation has been unable to devote sufficient legal and technological resources to enforce its policy against undisclosed pay-to-play. Others suggested that the Federal Trade Commission should step up and directly prosecute undisclosed paid editors for engaging in deceptive trade practices. In any case, monitoring an encyclopedia edited almost 350 times per minute is no small task. For now, the site’s volunteer editors shoulder the responsibility.
The U.K.-based editor “Smartse” is one of those Wikipedians who has focused on conflict-of-interest-related issues for the past 10 years. For him, it all comes back to Wikipedia principles, like What Wikipedia is Not and the neutral point of view policy, which state that the encyclopedia is not to be used as a means of promotion and must be written based on reputable sources.
“It is important that while ‘anyone can edit,’ we also restrict the ability of people to use Wikipedia’s reach and reputation for their own benefit,” Smartse said. “If it wasn’t for the efforts to remove paid content, Wikipedia’s reputation would be damaged.”
Smartse was reluctant to divulge many specifics because he was afraid it would give paid editors the upper hand in evading detection. But he said there were a few tell-tale signs that an editor has a conflict of interest, such as a narrow field of interest or only editing content about businesses and people. He and other editors hope to eventually automate the inspection process by using machine learning techniques to identify suspicious new articles.
Detection basically means game over for hired guns. Most paid editors interviewed for this story noted that they had signed mutual nondisclosure agreements with their clients and insisted on anonymity for them and their customers. Volunteer Wikipedians suspecting foul play could put the undisclosed paid badge of shame on their handiwork, which would infuriate their clients.
So how do hired gun editors operate successfully? According to underground providers, it starts with choosing clients carefully. Gibson accepts only 20 percent of potential customers who reach out to him via his website. Other paid editors accept less than 10 percent.
Most potential clients have not yet received the depth of coverage on other platforms required to earn an entry on the encyclopedia. They need more than a passing mention or a name drop.
“You basically have to tell the client you have a lot of work to do to in terms of PR and notability to get to have the kinds of reliable sources that are necessary to have a surviving Wikipedia article, to have any hope,” said one former paid editor. “You have to say, ‘Don’t even try to do a Wikipedia article now because it’s going to be obvious that you aren’t notable enough.’”
Detection basically means game over for hired guns.
Taking on less-than-notable clients poses too much of a liability, underground providers say. When the page is deleted, any further edits from that user account will be watched with suspicion. Multiple paid editors said it was almost never worth it to take on a client who’s been burned before. But that’s hard: One former editor told me that about 40 percent of his clients had tried and failed to create a Wikipedia page with some other service provider. A lot of people list Wikipedia projects on freelance worker platforms like Upwork, but requests like these are likely to lead to trouble. Diligent Wikipedians alert the community via the site’s Conflict of Interest Noticeboard. Volunteer editors are on the lookout for these commissioned pages to remove them immediately.
There is a way around all this subterfuge. While the 2014 update to Wikipedia’s terms banned paid editing in secret, the rules do not prohibit paid editing when the relationship is disclosed. David King founded Ethical Wiki as an attempt to operate within the disclosure requirement. For example, when King proposed edits to Yelp’s Wikipedia page, he added the notice that CorporateM, his username, “had been paid by Ethical Wiki on behalf of Yelp.”
Among his changes to the Yelp Wikipedia page were edits to the section on “Astroturfing,” the practice of businesses leaving fake reviews on the site. Since 2011, Ethical Wiki, which markets itself as “Taking the High Ground,” has taken on big-name clients like Bain & Company and Qualcomm.
But King identified several challenges to the ethical approach. He receives about 500 inquiries per year from people looking to create a new page on Wikipedia. Almost all of them insist they meet Wikipedia’s notability guideline to qualify for a page, but only about 1 percent of them do. The ethical approach requires turning away most potential business.
Even when King has secured notable clients, like Yelp, he has observed that Wikipedia editors have a bias against corporate interests. Some edits where he had a connection (and disclosed it) have been opposed as corporate whitewashing; other nearly-identical edits where he had no connection have been supported without challenge. Clearly, there’s a reason King’s competitors do not notify the community that they’re being paid. “Covert editing is faster, easier, and more profitable,” King said. “Compared to my little business, they make a killing.”
High risk, high reward, in other words. But while most hired guns admitted that risk comes from violating Wikipedia’s terms, many said there’s nothing morally wrong with their work, even without disclosing the business relationship.
The ethical approach requires turning away most potential business.
“Paid content, if factual, is just as good,” said one source. “Judge the content, not the contributor.”
Gibson argued that paid editors were likely to produce higher quality Wikipedia articles than non-paid editors because of their experience. Underground providers have practice writing with an unemotional encyclopedic tone of voice, something traditional marketers found challenging.
The most cynical hired guns suggested they were simply following the laws of the jungle. “Internet marketing is a certain type of warfare,” said one paid editor. He pointed to the common practice of buying link placement for SEO purposes, even though link schemes are against Google’s policies. But is it morally acceptable to treat Wikipedia—the so-called “ray of light” and the only nonprofit in the global top 10 websites—like the rest of the commercialized internet?
Some underground editors suggested it was misguided to investigate their roughly million-dollar industry when billion-dollar tech companies use Wikipedia to improve their products. Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri scrub Wikipedia to answer your questions; Google uses Wikipedia for fact-checking; and YouTube and Facebook link to Wikipedia to combat “fake news.”
“The paid editor is adding content that other companies are going to repurpose, and at least they’re making some small scratch for it,” said one hired gun. “The volunteer editors are insisting that nobody get paid to edit, while Google and Amazon laugh all the way to the bank. So who’s the dupe here?”