On 12th October 2010, I published an article containing the warning: “…it is only a matter of time before the culture of subterfuge and deception at Wikipedia results in a scandal.” My prediction has come to pass…
By John Donovan
Jimmy Wales is to be congratulated on being the joint founder of Wikipedia and for the non-profit basis on which the organization is operated. He is obviously a man of integrity deserving of the highest praise.
Unfortunately, many contributors to Wikipedia do not share his high ethical standards and take full advantage of the fact that it is possible to edit Wikipedia corporate articles completely anonymously for financial reward, removing or suppressing negative information. Parties can completely hide any trace of their identity and motive, even their ISP addresses.
The cloaked editing is completely at odds with a claim attributed to Jimmy Wales in November 2009 that: “We have an ongoing trend towards openness which is getting more open.”
Editors of non corporate articles are individuals attracted out of genuine interest, often with expertise in the particular subject. It is a completely different matter when corporate articles are surreptitiously modified by employees of a featured corporation, or by specialists supplying an online reputation clean-up service to the corporation. There are numerous firms offering this service.
Because of the huge popularity of Wikipedia, the content of a Wikipedia article about a business is important because it can have a positive or negative impact on the reputation of the business. This in turn can impact on its value.
Like countless millions of people, I use Wikipedia on a daily basis. It is a great free resource. It is however deeply flawed in relation to articles that have a commercial connotation. Money really is the root of all evil. The editing of such articles is mired in widespread deception, trickery and cowardly tactics.
There are Wikipedia articles about every major business. Under Wikipedia rules, a company is not permitted to edit any Wikipedia articles about itself. Royal Dutch Shell for example is supposedly not allowed to edit Wikipedia articles about itself, but as will be seen, has engaged in all manner of skullduggery in relation to its online reputation.
There is no reason to think that Shell is alone in such activity and every reason to believe that such underhand practices are in fact epidemic. There is information freely available on the Internet providing a blueprint of how to infiltrate Wikipedia utilizing the policy which permits concealment of identity and background. It advises on a stratagem of deception to disguise true intent. This includes editing a wide range of articles to avoid being identified as a one topic contributor. It discusses implications relating to IP addresses. The objective being for an organized group of infiltrators to edit target articles without detection. I will not go into detail for obvious reasons.
Wikipedians who choose to openly disclose their identity and background as editors are at a huge disadvantage to the vast majority who hide behind a pseudonym. Such individuals can be very unpleasant. Because identities are concealed, it is not practical for anyone editing under their own name to take legal action in the event of defamatory comments being made against them on Wikipedia by an anonymous party.
Although Wikipedia etiquette requires editors/contributors to act in a civil way towards one another when discussing issues which inevitable arise, the fact that people can hide behind an alias means that they sometimes adopt a dictatorial aggressive and even bullying tone that they would never use under their real name.
On 12 October 2010, I published an article (extracts included herein) containing the warning: “…it is only a matter of time before the culture of subterfuge and deception at Wikipedia results in a scandal.”
This is the complete paragraph:
Commonsense suggests that anyone who wishes to edit a Wikipedia article in which monetary considerations are involved should be compelled to disclose their identity and background so that the information can be exposed to public scrutiny. Otherwise it is only a matter of time before the culture of subterfuge and deception at Wikipedia results in a scandal.
My prediction has come to pass in a recent blaze of publicity about the “dark arts’ practiced by PR firm Bell Pottinger, partly in relation to Wikipedia articles.
The following is an extract from a current article headlined: “PR Firm Rewrites Clients’ Wikipedia Entries“
So much for reliable Wikipedia content. A high-powered British PR firm routinely rewrites Wikipedia content relating to its clients, reports the Independent. Bell Pottinger made hundreds of changes in Wiki entries over the last year, either adding positive comments or deleting negative ones about clients. At least ten contributing writer accounts linked to the firm have been suspended by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who blasted the firm’s “ethical blindness,” reports the Financial Times. Undercover reporters for the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism posing as clients were told by representatives of the PR firms that “sorting” Wikipedia entries is part of the service the company offers, notes the newspaper.
Removal of negative information means that the public, including current and potential shareholders, are presented with incomplete, censored information, providing a distorted picture of a featured company.
Within hours of publishing my prediction, I was contacted by the founder of “MyWikiBiz“.
This is a quote from what he said:
As the founder of MyWikiBiz, I am someone who has, and continues to, manipulate information in Wikipedia on behalf of paying clients. Call it dirty work, but for the most part, I think the way the Wikimedia Foundation is scamming the public about how it is (not) governing the worlds knowledge is a far worse state of affairs.
My own comments are based on my experience over several years of originating and editing Wikipedia articles relating primarily to Royal Dutch Shell. It is obvious from moves made by Shell that the oil giant attaches great value to its online reputation:
- Shell appointed a specialist agency to carry out a makeover of Shell’s online reputation.
- Shell was obsessed by my editing of Wikipedia articles relating to the company and wanted to edit the articles itself, but was concerned about being caught.
- Shell employees were caught doing so from Shell premise.
- Shell secretly censored postings made on its own Internet forum set up on the basis of inviting “open and transparent dialogue”.
- Eight Royal Dutch Shell Group companies buried a Shell whistle blower in injunctions following postings of revelations and leaked Shell internal documents on our website, some relating to the reserves fraud.
- Shell has made attacks on a website I edit (see below), attempting to seize the domain name and close the website down.
Details are printed below under the heading: “ROYAL DUTCH SHELL & THE INTERNET”.
I always edit using my own name when contributing to any website, including Wikipedia, where I declared at the outset my long and sometimes acrimonious relationship with Shell. With my almost 95 year old father, Alfred Donovan, I operate a website - royaldutchshellplc.com – focused on Royal Dutch Shell. It has achieved some measure of success in holding the company to account.
It is a completely non commercial website with no advertising. Unlike Wikipedia, we do not solicit or accept donations, declining for example to accept funding from a Russian source at the time of our intervention in the Sakhalin Energy project that cost Shell its majority stake in the venture. (See Nikkei BP article sub-heading: “The fate of Sakhalin 2 was changed by two British men“)
I am aware of the difference between writing a blog on my own website and making edits on Wikipedia. I have always strived to operate within Wikipedia guidelines. This includes ensuring that information added is neutral, accurate, and can be verified by reference to cited independent reputable sources. In other words accurate verifiable information written without bias on the part of the editor.
Wikipedia articles are supposedly written by open and transparent consensus. In reality, as I have indicated, Wikipedia is built on a platform of secrecy and concealment which leaves articles wide open to censorship and manipulation by anonymous parties, with commercially driven motives.
Unpaid volunteers who act as administrators and editors are supposedly the bedrock on which Wikipedia has been built. It is a mostly-secretive community in which the vast majority of volunteers edit using aliases and are free to edit any articles, without anyone having a clue about who they are and what their background is. Thus it is impossible to determine if they have a potential conflict of interest.
Editors using aliases are able to comment on the editing work of other contributors (including those editing on a full disclosure basis) and vote on the deletion of Wikipedia articles.
Consequently this cloaked army has power and influence, but no realistic accountability. If, due to some transgression, a Wikipedian is banned from editing (as I am for threatening libel proceedings) they can return under a new alias using a new IP address, with no bad odor attached. In other words, a completely fresh start.
The strange Wikipedian culture has some similarity to the Ku Klux Klan (fortunately without the racist element) but is actually more secretive. The privacy of those choosing to keep secret all information about who they are is maintained within the Wikipedia community, which is even developing its own unique language, partly in response to skulduggery by some editors.
NO ADEQUATE DISCLAIMER
Since Wikipedia corporate articles are wide-open to whitewashing and many have been surreptitiously whitewashed, all should carry a prominent disclaimer stating that they should not be replied upon in making financial decisions. The current notice of disclaimer is the last but one word in the small print at the foot of each article. It is a link to a general disclaimer with a headline:
“WIKIPEDIA MAKES NO GUARANTEE OF VALIDITY”.
The explanation for the disclaimer states:
“The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalized or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields.”
There is however no reference to the surreptitious removal of negative information from corporate articles by corporations or their paid agents, which is the subject of my comments.
Despite knowledge of the systematic laundering of corporate articles, Wikipedia has not placed a prominent warning on each corporate article, nor has it taken adequate measures to properly protect the integrity of the published information.
I am not a lawyer, but under the circumstances, if I was working for Wikipedia, I would be concerned at the possibility of class action law suits against Wikipedia by parties who have purchased shares based on such misleading/incomplete information published by Wikipedia.
As a result of the strenuous efforts by dedicated people, information about Royal Dutch Shell on Wikipedia has been transformed. Negative accurate information supported by newspaper articles, government agency publications, court documents etc has vanished. Instead there is just a collection of sanitized propaganda about Royal Dutch Shell Plc. Most of which looks like it could have originated from Shell’s PR/Media Department.
ROYAL DUTCH SHELL AND THE INTERNET
I first raised suspicions of such underhand editing and manipulation in an article I published in October 2007. The article contained reference to a section I had inserted in a Royal Dutch Shell article Wikipedia article – “Wiki-face lift for Shell” – revealing the secret editing by Shell employees.
We publish our own carefully researched articles about Shell e.g. “How Royal Dutch Shell saved Hitler and the Nazi Party”. Our activities have attracted media attention. Prospect Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Guardian, have all published major articles about us: “Rise of the Gripe Site”;“Two men and a website mount vendetta against Shell’ and “92-year-old’s website leaves oil giant Shell-shocked.
Shell management has for many years taken a great interest in our activities, particular in relation to the Internet.
The was obvious from a Press Release about my father and I issued by Shell Media Relations in March 1995. Shell was concerned about its online reputation even at that early stage.
In 2005, Shell issued proceedings attempting to seize a number of Shell related gripe site domain names from us, including royaldutchshellplc.com, but lost the case.
A more recent indication of Shell’s concern came in June 2006, when Shell appointed a digital agency with experience in turning around corporate reputations. The headline is self-explanatory: “Shell seeks agency for online makeover“. The brief issued by Shell web communications division in The Hague, included content strategy, website editorial and online branding.
Our related article: “The Internet battleground for Shells reputation” is also relevant. In the article, we made plain our suspicions about underhand activity by Shell, in reaction to a critical posting about Shell on our website originating from a Shell whistleblower, Dr John Huong. Shell lawyers buried him in multiple injunctions collectively obtained by eight different Royal Dutch Shell companies from the UK, the Netherlands and Asia. Shell even sought his imprisonment.
The degree of Shell interest in my editing of Wikipedia articles became shockingly apparent after we made a series of subject access requests to Shell under the UK Data Protection Act. It is fair to say given the content of the numerous internal communications on the subject, that Shell was obsessed by my editing of Wikipedia articles about Royal Dutch Shell.
Links to relevant Shell internal communications and documents are printed at the foot of this article. As can be seen in the documents, Shell was trying to figure out how it could edit my contributions to the articles without being caught. Concern was expressed about this prospect.
In April 2008, I published a discussion from our Live Chat facility revealing that WikiScanner had detected that Wikipedia articles relating to Royal Dutch Shell had been anonymously edited from Shell premises. According to a posted comment “Information critical of Shell was systematically removed”.
An allegation was also made about an alleged “Shell dirty tricks unit” busy trying to smother our website. That allegation proved to be true. Shell had set up a counter-measures team and did surreptitiously, briefly close it down. Shell internal documents I also revealed that Shell had mounted a global spying operation as part of the counter-measures.
DON’T TELL SHELL
Shell was even caught secretly censoring postings on “Tell Shell”, its own innovative online forum inviting “open and transparent dialogue” and “lively debate” allowing Shell to respond to public concerns and criticism in an open and transparent way. In August 2005, Shell was caught secretly censoring the forum. In October 2005, we drew public attention to the “slow death” of the forum. In November 2005, Shell suspended the forum but promised that it would return “shortly” and previous debates would still be available to view. Despite the pledges, “Tell Shell” and the related archive vanished from the internet. In an email dated 11 November 2005, Shell General Counsel Richard Wiseman confirmed that Shell had indeed censored the forum. He sent copies of his email to Royal Dutch Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer and his executive director colleague, Malcolm Brinded.
LINKS TO SHELL INTERNAL EMAILS & DOCS IN WHICH ROYAL DUTCH SHELL WIKIPEDIA ARTICLES ARE MENTIONED IN RELATION TO JOHN DONOVAN
1 March 2007
2 March 2007 16:13 & 18.56 Plus 3 March 18:01
2 March 2007 16:51
19 March 2007 18.43 20 March 2007 8:10
23 March 2007
6 June 2007 12:51
SUNDAY 29 July 2007 11:31 & 30 July 2007 8:19 AM
30 July 2007 22:38 & 7 August 2007 14.24
31 August 2007 16:17
12 October 2007 15:21 & 15:58
16 October 2007
26 December 2007
19 February 2008 4 Pages
4 April 2008
9 March 2009
8 April 2009
8 July 2009
18 December 2009 11.34:
18 December 2009 12.07
Shell Focal Point document Donovan Campaign Against Shell
- Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikipedia Edits: New York Times
- The dark arts: Wikipedia founder attacks Bell Pottinger: The Independent
- S Lanka under fire over PR firm 06 DECEMBER 2011, ASIA
- Bell Pottinger, Google and Wikipedia 06 DECEMBER 2011, TECHNOLOGY
- Financial Times* Wikipedia probes edits by Bell Pottinger
- The Independent: Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM
- The Independent: Wikipedia founder attacks Bell Pottinger for ethical blindness
- BBC News: Wikipedia investigates PR firm Bell Pottingers edits: 8 December 2011
- Revealed: The Wikipedia pages changed by Bell Pottinger? Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- Wikipedia suspends accounts over Bell Pottinger claims? Telegraph.co.uk
- Bell Pottinger targeted environmental campaigner on Wikipedia: Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- When reputation management goes wrong: Research Magazine
- Wikipedia investigates unethical edits by PR firm, Bell Pottinger: The Next Web
- Wiki Tweaks: PR firm takes questionable steps online: Marketing Magazine
- Wikipedia Starts Investigation of Bell Pottingers Edits, Suspends 10 Accounts: ITProPortal
- PR Firm Rewrites Clients Wikipedia Entries: Newser
- When reputation management goes wrong: Research Magazine
- DOCTORING THE INTERNET: DAILY MAIL
- Reader Submissions of Interesting Finds at Wired
- Wikipedia Editing From Anheuser-Buschs Network
- Anheuser-Busch Editing of Sea World Entry, Before and After
- Talk Page for SeaWorld Entry on Wikipedia
- Edits From Pepsi-Colas Setwork
- Deletion of Pepsi Health Information From Pepsi-Cola Network
- Deletion of Criticism in Diebold Entry From Diebold Network
- Changes to Exxon Valdez Information From Exxon Network
- Wikipedia Editing From Wal-Marts Network
- Wikipedia Editing From the Network of The New York Times Company