Sockpuppetry and Wikipedia – a PR transparency project

Wikipedia image by Octavio Rojas

Wikipedia image by Octavio Rojas

Last month you may have read the story of lobbyists editing Wikipedia entries to remove criticism of their clients and smear critics. The story was a follow-up to an undercover report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Independent on claims of political access by Bell Pottinger, written as a result of investigations by SEO expert Tim Ireland.

Ireland was particularly interested in reported boasts by executives that they could “manipulate Google results to ‘drown out’ negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour”. His subsequent digging resulted in the identification of a number of Wikipedia edits made by accounts that he was able to connect with Bell Pottinger, an investigation by Wikipedia itself, and the removal of edits made by suspect accounts (also discussed on Wikipedia itself here).

This month the story reverted to an old-fashioned he-said-she-said report on conflict between Wikipedia and the PR industry as Jimmy Wales spoke to Bell Pottinger employees and was criticised by co-founder Tim (Lord) Bell.

More insightfully, Bell’s lack of remorse has led Tim Ireland to launch a campaign to change the way the PR industry uses Wikipedia, by demonstrating directly to Lord Bell the dangers of trying to covertly shape public perception:

“Mr Bell needs to learn that the age of secret lobbying is over, and while it may be difficult to change the mind of someone as obstinate as he, I think we have a jolly good shot at changing the landscape that surrounds him in the attempt.

“I invite you to join an informal lobbying group with one simple demand; that PR companies/professionals declare any profile(s) they use to edit Wikipedia, name and link to them plainly in the ‘About Us’ section of their website, and link back to that same website from their Wikipedia profile(s).”

The lobbying group will be drawing attention to Bell Pottinger’s techniques by displacing some of the current top ten search results for ‘Tim Bell’ (“absurd puff pieces”) with “factually accurate and highly relevant material that Tim Bell would much rather faded into the distance” – specifically, the contents of an unauthorised biography of Bell, currently “largely invisible” to Google.

Ireland writes that:

“I am hoping that the prospect of dealing with an unknown number of anonymous account holders based in several different countries will help him to better appreciate his own position, if only to the extent of having him revise his policy on covert lobbying.”

…and from there to the rest of the PR industry.

It’s a fascinating campaign (Ireland’s been here before, using Google techniques to demonstrate factual inaccuracies to a Daily Mail journalist) and one that we should be watching closely. The PR industry is closely tied to the media industry, and sockpuppetry in all its forms is something journalists should do more than merely complain about.

It also highlights again how distribution has become a role of the journalist: if a particular piece of public interest reporting is largely invisible to Google, we should care about it.

UPDATE: See the comments for further exploration of the issues raised by this, in particular: if you thought someone had edited a Wikipedia entry to promote a particular cause or point of view, would you seek to correct it? Is that what Tim Ireland is doing here, but on the level of search results?

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4 thoughts on “Sockpuppetry and Wikipedia – a PR transparency project

  1. hobson

    “The lobbying group will be drawing attention to Bell Pottinger’s techniques by displacing some of the current top ten search results for ‘Tim Bell’ (“absurd puff pieces”) with “factually accurate and highly relevant material that Tim Bell would much rather faded into the distance” – specifically, the contents of an unauthorised biography of Bell, currently “largely invisible” to Google.”

    Wait, his campaign plans to attempt to manipulate Google’s results? Is this any better than what the PR is company is doing in the first place? Do you think it’s different because you agree with his cause, Paul?

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Read Tim’s post in full and you’ll see the argument behind the methods. I don’t think he’s claiming that his methods are any different – he’s claiming that if Tim Bell really thinks Bell Pottinger’s covert methods are fine, then he won’t mind other people using the same methods to ‘shape public perception’ of Tim Bell. He also makes it very clear that the information they will be blogging about will be relevant (so in that sense it’s actually not exactly the same). From a journalistic POV, I think he’s making visible information which is so far not visible online, which is for me one of the roles of journalism in a digital age.

      I’ve not said whether I agree with the tactic or not – because I’m not entirely sure myself. I’m not entirely sure if the aim is to change Tim’s mind, to show others that he cannot shape public perception, or to create a media spectacle where Tim starts criticising others for exactly the same techniques that he’s been defending. Perhaps it’s all three.

      But I think it’s interesting – and that’s why I’m posting about it. I’ve written before about SEO as a public service, and I think this raises the same question: is it justified to seek to make search engine results more reflective of the evidence on a particular issue, person or organisation? Put another way, if you thought someone had edited a Wikipedia entry to promote a particular cause or point of view, would you seek to correct it? Is that what Tim Ireland is doing here, but on the level of search results?

      Reply
      1. Tim Ireland (@bloggerheads)

        To be clear: I intend no gaming of the system in any way. People who publish extracts of the book will produce posts that will each be judged according to their merits (while collectively we will be judged on our collective merit). All of this material is relevant to queries specific to Tim Bell, and am confident that Google will offer enough diversity in the top ten so as to not inconvenience other Tim Bells currently competing in the UK for this space (presently hovering just outside the top 8 in Google UK).

        Further, unlike Bell Pottinger’s Tim Bell and his associates, I will be both overt and transparent in my efforts. I cannot speak for others, but that is a risk that Tim Bell chooses to take if he considers covert publicity to be a reasonable tactic; support for use of anonymous accounts to publish extracts will fall away sharply if it is seen to be unfair, and that can only happen if Tim Bell embraces transparency.

        Thanks for your interest in the project. Judging by today’s indications, Tim Bell plans to tough it out, so shortly I expect we will move on to proof on concept on the Very Big Stick, before speaking quietly to major PR bodies and players in the hopes that their positive response to transparency in Wikipedia edits this will echo down through the ranks.

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