A BP oil platform, from its Wikipedia page.
According to a statistic I just submitted for review on Wikipedia, Wikipedia provides the average American with 88% of their knowledge. And for some time now, corporations have been well aware of that; and they've often pounced on the opportunity to exploit the website's editorial guidelines to get their brands shown in a positive light. In 2007, WikiScanner found that major corporations like Walmart and Exxon—along with government branches like the CIA—were heavily involved in editing their own sites.
Apparently, the practice hasn't abated—it's just become more carefully organized. Case in point: CNET's Violet Blue just broke the news that BP has been avidly working to manipulate the information displayed on its Wikipedia page. It is doing so by persistently seeding BP-friendly materials to the site's editors, to "correct" depictions of the myriad accidents, spills, and instances of corporate malfeasance that the company has been involved in.
Here's how it works. A BP employee, who goes by the user name Arturo of BP, takes information he claims is provided to him by "subject matter experts," and submits it for consideration by other editors. It appears that he has a sympathetic ear somewhere in the Wiki-space—editors are uploading vast swaths of the text unedited, and unattributed to BP. The company is not merely directing users to its own statements and releases and quotes as evidence, either, say, via links to BP's webpage. No, readers who come across the page would have no idea that BP had any say over the page's construction.
One editor notes that on BP's Wikipedia page, "Overall, at least 4,055 words written by BP were added to the article between 5 July 2012 and 1 March 2013. The article is 9,215 words long as of 19 March, so assuming BP's text is still in it, around 44 percent of the article has been written by BP."
Perhaps most interestingly of all, BP admits openly to the practice, claims no wrongdoing, and says it's been at this for over a year now. Here's the statement they sent to CNET:
BP operates within Wikipedia's guidelines for how company representatives should interact with the site's editors. For nearly a year now, we have been fully transparent, never directly editing any copy and always disclosing that any suggestions we offer to Wikipedia's editors have come from a BP representative.
They're not breaking any of the rules, they say—they're simply making articles more accurate.
The story here isn't that BP is being sneaky or behaving unethically or such—the oil giant's already got plenty of ne'er-do-welling to its name—it's about the process by which the corporation is exploiting one of the most popular channels for information consumption in the world.
Wikipedia editors are warring over the issue: some genuinely appear to believe that there's nothing wrong with a PR agent be a chief source of information about the company he works for. They argue that Arturo of BP is an established Wiki editor, and his material is as valid as anyone else's. Arturo himself writes, in his own defense, that "As far as I have been aware, I have been following the guidelines regarding conflict of interest and I have purposefully refrained from making any edits to articles, instead presenting information here for editors to review."
Other editors can, after all, ask him for further edits. Others are vehemently opposed. Editor Smallbones sums up his concerns on the Wikipedia Talk page. I'm going to quote him at length, as he nails the controversy (emphasis mine):
There are some significant issues raised by the editing of User:Arturo at BP on the BP article talk page. I don't want this discussion to be about Arturo's behavior, but rather on the issues raised. Indeed it may very well be the case that he is editing according to the letter of our rules, but not in the spirit that any non-paid Wikipedia editor would recognize.
The issue - BP, through Arturo, is providing the content for the BP article, especially in regards to its environmental performance, by posting a notice on the talk page, which is followed by Wikipedia editors putting the content "as is" into the article. Notice he is not editing the article directly himself. Arturo is not exercising independent judgement during this process. He states on his talk page: "The information I present from news sources is verified by the various subject matter experts within the company. I am not an expert myself on all of the topics..." In other words, the material is cleared by higher-ups first. Probably the most worrisome problem here is that our editors don't appear to be exercising independent judgement either, just posting the material "as is."
It should be clear to everybody that having BP write up the BP environmental record for Wikipedia in a way that is not transparent to our readers is completely unacceptable for Wikipedia, and it should be completely unacceptable for BP as well. Somebody over there hasn't thought this through very well. BP has every opportunity to present its side of the story as often as they want in adverts, press conferences, etc. Putting material in Wikipedia (where the author can not be easily disclosed to the public) is going to be viewed as trying to pull the wool over people's eyes. There definitely is a conflict of interest - and not just in the way Wikipedia defines it - because of things like all the environmental lawsuits BP is involved in.
That sparked an outrage from the editors implicit in copying the BP-approved text word for word. Here's a sample of that vitriol:
"Probably the most worrisome problem here is that our editors don't appear to be exercising independent judgement either, just posting the material "as is."
It's best not to try to make this personal. I certainly haven't mentioned any names. But when I describe the general situation, I'll call 'em as I see 'em. There has been a tremendous lack of independent judgement on this matter. Smallbones(smalltalk) 02:48, 19 March 2013 (UTC)
You don't need to name names, you've already clearly stated that anyone involved in Arturo's userspace drafts or other talk page suggestions is who you're referring to. So, namely, myself, Beagel, Petrarchan47, Rangoon11, Martin Hogbin, and BozMo. I might be missing a few people. Are you seriously accusing all of us of lacking "independent judgement"? SilverserenC 03:12, 19 March 2013 (UTC)
But Smallbones is right. Arturo may technically be playing by the rules, but he's violating what Wikipedia stands for—transparent, community-sourced fact-gathering. It is indeed "a tremendous lack of independent judgement [sic]" to let paid PR agents game the system. The website's great strength has always been drawn from its freedom from corporate influence. But if its editors begin to allow paid employees, acting on behalf of their employers, to submit to Wikipedia pages as though they were unbiased entities, the site's credibility will plummet.
Ordinary Wikipedia editors don't have 8 hours a day to suggest changes and provide text from "subject matter experts"—especially not to push back against those who do. Which is why this should boil down to a simple conclusion: If you're a corporate spinmeister—e.g., if you work in a public relations or marketing department—you should be cut off from writing about your company. Period.
Right now, Wikipedia is a wonderful and improbably accurate source of information. If the trailblazing site hopes to maintain that reputation, it will have to kick out the flacks.