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?