Wikipedia Fights Back Against Socking

from the sock-it-to-them dept

The idea that Wikipedia is dying has become one of the Internet's recurrent stories. Because something used by so many people every day is completely free and dependent on the selfless dedication of relatively few individuals, there is perhaps an underlying fear that it will disappear, and it will be our fault for not supporting it better. However, alongside major issues like the need for an influx of new contributors from more diverse backgrounds, one of the lesser-known challenges Wikipedia faces is the rise of "socking", or sock puppetry. Here's how Wikipedia defines the term:

The use of multiple Wikipedia user accounts for an improper purpose is called sock puppetry (often abbreviated in discussion as socking). Improper purposes include attempts to deceive or mislead other editors, disrupt discussions, distort consensus, avoid sanctions, or otherwise violate community standards and policies. The term comes from sock puppet, an object shaped roughly like a sock and used on the hand to create a character to entertain or inform. In Internet terminology it is an online identity used for deception.
One of the most frowned-upon forms of socking involves payments. A fascinating article in The Daily Dot reveals a company called Wiki-PR that offers exactly that:
Wiki-PR is no secret. Wikipedia admins have been aware of the company for some time. It openly boasts of its service on its website. Wiki-PR claims to have a "staff of 45 Wikipedia editors and admins helps you build a page that stands up to the scrutiny of Wikipedia's community rules and guidelines."

It claims a roster of 12,000 clients and offers them this ironic warning: "Don't get caught in a PR debacle editing your own page."
It's ironic, because a PR debacle is what Wiki-PR seems to be experiencing thanks to a major Wikipedia clampdown on socking, announced in this post by the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Sue Gardner:
Editors on the English Wikipedia are currently investigating allegations of suspicious edits and sockpuppetry (i.e. using online identities for purposes of deception). At this point, as reported, it looks like a number of user accounts -- perhaps as many as several hundred -- may have been paid to write articles on Wikipedia promoting organizations or products, and have been violating numerous site policies and guidelines, including prohibitions against sockpuppetry and undisclosed conflicts of interest. As a result, Wikipedians aiming to protect the projects against non-neutral editing have blocked or banned more than 250 user accounts.
She goes on to explain why paid advocacy is a problem:
Editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature. Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a "black hat" practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.

What is clear to everyone is that all material on Wikipedia needs to adhere to Wikipedia’s editorial policies, including those on neutrality and verifiability. It is also clear that companies that engage in unethical practices on Wikipedia risk seriously damaging their own reputations. In general, companies engaging in self-promotional activities on Wikipedia have come under heavy criticism from the press and the general public, with their actions widely viewed as inconsistent with Wikipedia's educational mission.
What's interesting about this episode -- aside from all the details revealed by The Daily Dot investigation -- is that it raises some key questions about what Wikipedia is and what it is trying to do. For example, when does an article about a company become promotional material? What if a PR person is genuinely correcting incorrect info? Can they do so ethically? More generally, what kind of subjects should be included? Wikipedia uses the idea of "notability", but what does that mean? Would paying Wikipedia contributors help to bring in the much-needed new blood to re-invigorate the project, or would it simply lead to yet more socking? Those are questions worth pondering and answering because, for all the concerns about Wikipedia's future, few have any doubts about its value and importance -- both to the Internet, and indeed to modern society.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 24th, 2013 @ 3:16pm

    A PR person could contribute ethically - all it would require is honest disclosure.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 24th, 2013 @ 3:34pm

    open sites like wikipedia, reddit and others are being warped by these liars. I really wish corporate idiots kept their hands off our internet.

    At some point I think we will need to start banning corporate IP ranges from these websites. Thats what they like to have governments do. Maybe a little medicine is in order.

     

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      John Fenderson (profile), Oct 24th, 2013 @ 3:51pm

      Re:

      The problem is that corporations (and non-corporate entities such as ottermaton's distro) can have valuable things to add to an entry about their own stuff. If their input is excluded wholesale, WP suffers.

      The real issue is that what's written should be neutral (both in the non-advocacy sense and in the cover-all-sides sense) and factual. So long as those things are true, it doesn't matter one bit who it was that wrote it.

      After all, there are a lot of dirty rotten liars who aren't part of a corporation or PR department at all.

       

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    ottermaton (profile), Oct 24th, 2013 @ 3:36pm

    Sometimes the editors are over-aggressive

    I have some experience with Wikipedia editors and it left a bad taste in my mouth. A while back I was involved in a Linux distro and I prepared a Wikipedia page about it. A short one, just a few paragraphs. It was entirely 100% true and correct, not promotional in tone (just descriptive) and fully cited.

    A few weeks later the page was deleted because one of the editors saw posts from me on that distros forum. You see, I used the same username on both places because I wasn't hiding that I had involvement with the distro. That was the only reason.

    I tried to "appeal" but it all fell on deaf ears. I could barely get anyone there to even respond, much less help. A few weeks or months (not really sure) someone else made another page for the distro that was worded differently but had almost exactly the same content (and citations) for that matter. And that one was a-okay.

    At that point I let the matter drop, but I do recall feeling pretty pissed off and powerless at the time.

    Not sure there's really a point here, just sharing my experience.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Oct 24th, 2013 @ 5:10pm

      Re: Sometimes the editors are over-aggressive

      You see, you are not trying to hide anything YOU know that others don't, intentions are easy to conceal and they probably got burned more than once.

      So if that is the only reason, I wouldn't fret much about it, it seams reasonable to not let people to close to something edit things related to it, for all the well know reasons strong chance of unintentional bias distorting views, malicious intent, too much passion and so forth.

      Have you tried editing others that you were not part of it?

      God knows that there are many things that annoy me, but I learned to let go.

      e.g.:

      - Enforcement of "one topic per theme" on forums. Is dumb because forces users to find things and hope they are searching for it using the same terms others used to describe the same thing, needless to say this is not what happens in real life, further it deprives themselves from vital statistics about what is occurying, instead of deleting repeated threads count them and you get a picture of what is the most important issues at that time, how long it kept happening, how fast it did to happen etc. Losing all that information because you need to keep it "clean" doesn't seem that smart to me.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 5:43am

      Re: Sometimes the editors are over-aggressive

      Most WP admins are teenagers.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 8:33am

        Re: Re: Sometimes the editors are over-aggressive

        How the hell does that matter?! There is good and bad, responsible and irresponsible in every age group.

         

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      art guerrilla (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:12am

      Re: Sometimes the editors are over-aggressive

      if you read the comments on a slashdot post a couple days back where they were talking about how wikipedia wanted to recruit more contributors, there are PLENTY of 'horror' stories of what a clusterfuck the editing process has become...

      seems the 'admins' form a clique and use their positions to freeze out people/newbies they don't like, REGARDLESS of the content of their posts...

      seems like wikipedia is developing a gatekeeper problem...

      *beyond* that, there are some fundamental illogical flaws: everything has to be 'sourced' (which is kind of meaningless: the 'sources' can be Jim-bob's monthly newsletter, or Science magazine, both equally valid sources), as well as rejecting all kinds of info which is true and valid, but which they deem 'unsourced' or otherwise tainted...

      for example, there was one super-nerd guy who merited a bio on wikipedia who was trying to correct some factoids about HIMSELF, but they weren't accepted BECAUSE HE COULDN'T CITE A 'SOURCE' ! ! !

      art guerrilla
      aka ann archy
      eof

      art guerrilla
      aka ann archy
      eof

       

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        John Fenderson (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 12:08pm

        Re: Re: Sometimes the editors are over-aggressive

        Yes, the Wikipedia editing crowd is pretty much a horrorshow of hostility and elitism. It's the main reason why, although I love the idea of Wikipedia and it's the sort of thing I would ordinarily happily be a part of, I won't touch the actual WP with a ten foot pole.

         

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 24th, 2013 @ 3:52pm

    There aren't "PR People"

    They're spammers. What they're doing is no different, at a fundamental level, from what spammers do in email, on Usenet, on message boards, in IM, etc. all day every day. Sure, the details vary a bit, but they're abusing a legitimate service/system/network.

    They should suffer the fate of the Marketing Division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

     

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    McCrea (profile), Oct 24th, 2013 @ 5:04pm

    Socking?

    Who shortened the term to just "socking"? Simple "puppetry" says it all, and is more direct. I don't think anybody particularly cares whether or not it involves hosiery enough to be the defining characteristic.

     

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      Karl (profile), Oct 24th, 2013 @ 5:26pm

      Re: Socking?

      Who shortened the term to just "socking"? Simple "puppetry" says it all, and is more direct.

      "Socking" sounds dirtier, and vaguely masturbatory, and is therefore more appropriate.

       

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        Starke (profile), Oct 24th, 2013 @ 8:14pm

        Re: Re: Socking?

        Maybe I'm showing my age, but "socking" makes me think we're talking about poop socking. From the old MMO days where you didn't dare log off, because that incredibly rare boss you needed for your quest might spawn and get killed, while you were relieving yourself.

         

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          John Fenderson (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 9:28am

          Re: Re: Re: Socking?

          Then I'm showing my age even more, because when I read the term "socking", I immediately think it means punching somebody.

          I've always thought this was called puppetry.

           

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 24th, 2013 @ 9:19pm

    I think Wikipedia does a great job educating the world. I'm surprised how much in-depth information is available for everyone to read for free.

    I can tell someone who's an expert in a given field, has written quite a few articles on Wikipedia.

    Wikipedia embodies the best of humanity. Making education as low cost and widely available as possible. An organization looking to help humanity, not exploit it's people.

    I have no problem with the Wikipedia staff being payed a salary. Similar to how TOR is funded by donations and grants. Then the staff get's a salary for running the operation.

    Paying the community (world) to edit the very service that they themselves use, does seem to go against the spirit of the Wikipedia project. A little.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 12:10am

    Fight it or fix it ?? which would be better ?

    I wonder..

     

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    Ninja (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 3:03am

    Just as ottermaton experience (see comment above) showed us there's no real neutrality when you are dealing with human beings. We tend to assume that a person that works for company x will always say good things about that company to the point of outright lying. Which is not true at points. And then this assumption clashes with yet another bad human trait: ignore the ones that oppose us or that our own stereotyping say are "bad guys". See religions generally speaking or political discussions (or nuclear power discussions featuring Greenpeace in the middle of it). Often they derail into insults and some "verborrhage" devoid of any solid evidence, fact or real argumentation. I suspect that ottermaton fell for that problem as will many other people trying to do the same. Wikipedia pages have a discussion tab. If some PR person posts an article or makes a correction and throughly explains it backing with verifiable sources then it should be ok. Possible bias does not translate immediately into bias specially when the company knows better that trampling with the article may backfire badly.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 3:11am

      Re:

      If possible bias doesn't translate into bias, it shouldn't be treated like bias. Meritocracy is based on what's done, not who you are. Wikipedia's higher ups should recognize that and- heaven forbid- determine reliability based on existing policy.

      Several examples of utter failure to use consensus and standard verification of facts, omissions, and other user generated contributions exist on Wikipedia. Thank god it's done behind the scenes, or no one not already part of it would take it seriously.

       

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      ottermaton (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 3:21am

      Re:

      I suspect that ottermaton fell for that problem as will many other people trying to do the same.

      Not sure what you're trying to say. Kinda lost me there.

       

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        Ninja (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 5:07am

        Re: Re:

        Pardon my English, I mean you suffered with the problem I mentioned and that others that try to fix some information but have any ties or beliefs that may be interpreted as bias. Got it? Sorry again.

         

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      Alt0, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:47am

      Re:

      "We tend to assume that a person that works for company x will always say good things about that company to the point of outright lying."

      I always thought it was more common for people who didn't like something to edit it's page to slander it?

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 3:06am

    More importantly, give Wikipedia your money. They deserve it, because you use the internet. Clearly the internet wouldn't be where it is today without Wikipedia, and you not giving your money to them means they can't hire staff and imply they're paying for countless amounts of freely donated resources.

    Give Wikipedia your money, donations are open any time with seven week long campaigns every other month.

     

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    Kcits (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 5:08am

    The proof needed to be found guilty is low to coincidental.

    I have edited wikipedia. I made the mistake once of editing an article that was a point of contention, OOXML. I was immediately accused and found guilty of sock puppetry because some other editor happened to live in the Chicagoland area. The evidence needed to be found guilty is low, are you in the same area (100 miles) found by an ip address? If you live in a large populated area, and post on an article that has hundreds of editors, if another editor is within 100 miles of you, you are guilty!
    The thing is, later the person who accused everyone of being a puppet was found to be paid by Microsoft and had his account banned for numerous arguments and unrealistic edits. He was banned from Wikipedia. I now shy away from any hot topics.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 5:37am

    There are a lot of biased administrators on Wikipedia. It's digusting.

     

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