Bad news for publicists seeking to tweak Wikipedia entries to make their clients look better: The user-generated encyclopedia has blocked nearly 400 accounts for “black hat” editing. In other words, those Wikipedia editors agreed to undisclosed paid advocacy, altering the content of Wikipedia articles to paint businesses and individuals in a positive light in exchange for money.
In a blog post, the Wikimedia Foundation–Wikipedia’s parent organization–wrote that more than 380 accounts were blocked from editing content after an investigation that lasted several weeks. Along with the ban, 210 articles created by those users were also deleted. Entries that were given the boot include Wikipedia pages for bitcoin casinos, small startups, minor actors, and vacation home rental businesses.
“Most of these articles, which were related to businesses, business people, or artists, were generally promotional in nature, and often included biased or skewed information, unattributed material, and potential copyright violations,” the blog post said. “The edits made by the sockpuppets are similar enough that the community believes they were perpetrated by one coordinated group.”
Katherine Maher, chief communications officer of the Wikimedia Foundation, told Fast Company that the banned accounts can still view Wikipedia pages but will no longer be able to edit them.
Partisans for various causes, ranging from public relations professionals representing clients to nonprofit organizations supporting one cause or another, regularly alter Wikipedia articles and either add or delete content to support their causes. In 2014, Wikipedia revised its terms of service for editors following alterations by Capitol Hill lobbyists. A cottage industry of companies like Wiki-PR also edit Wikipedia content to portray their clients–or, in many cases, the clients of PR agencies they collaborate with–more favorably.
Paid editing is allowed in certain cases, provided it is accompanied by a disclaimer; museum employees, for example, may be asked to edit their organization’s Wikipedia page, and can do so as long as they disclose their position.