It doesn’t really matter whether or not that’s true, because that’s the briskly developing perception, the word on the street, and it’s perception that matters which right now is that Wikipedia’s paid sock puppetry has evolved from isolated incidents for most of us to shrug off into a budding industry. What we are reading on Wikipedia may include not only trivial screw-ups and vandalism but large-scale professional fabrications. Things “antithetical to Wikipedia” as its founder puts it.

Wiki-PR, while, of course, immersed in the business of bullshit, whose leadership is apparently Southern Ivy Vanderbilt progeny, claims to have a “staff of 45 Wikipedia editors and admins that helps you build a page that stands up to [read: subvert] the scrutiny of Wikipedia’s community rules and guidelines,” claiming also to have twelve thousand clients. They are getting a lot of attention, and so are the increasingly abundant fruits of investigations of pervasive sock puppet activity. There are only thirty five Wikipedia accounts with greater access than admins, the very top of which belonging to founder Jimmy Whales, who himself parenthetically has a history of manipulating his own page while condemning the practice (hey, what’s the big deal – he’s human, and he’s got a tough week ahead of him).

IM_IN_UR_WIKI_RVRTING_UR_EDITS_lolcatIt’s one thing to realize an outfit like this proud Wiki-PR (SSL cert and everything!) may have control over dozens or hundreds of Wikipedia accounts with a credible history of various contributions, and some sort of means to dodge Wikipedia’s mechanisms that identify a single computer using more than one account (often for the purposes of promotion), but it’s another to realize that given the money and big name outfits (Viacom, Priceline) that patronize Wiki-PR’s services it’s plausible they do indeed have Wikipedia administrators in their pocket. Why wouldn’t they. They appear organized, financed, shrewd, well-educated, connected and aggressive.

Plus, man has a history of selling out – all 1,430 Wikipedia administrators, mostly volunteers with bills to pay, are probably not exempt from that axiom.

Wikipedia admins are relatively powerful. They are few in number and they are widely presumed to be trustworthy – only ten of them have ever been desysopped (stripped of gun and badge) for being involved in sock puppetry. They tend to behave. They can delete pages, lock pages, block users, ban IP ranges, access Wikipedia from banned IP ranges, unlock protected pages and, very importantly, provision user accounts as well as their own alternate accounts.

So it’s a big deal to have one or two of these accounts in your pocket if your business caters to the many people and businesses who would like their Wikipedia pages spruced up and are willing to pay thousands. It’s a bigger deal that we may be looking at a shift from a public perception of isolated incidents to a pervasive activity, or an “industry,” plaguing Wikipedia’s reputation suddenly. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Whales on the topic four years ago:

Just imagine the disaster for our reputation. Are we free and independent scribes doing our best to record all human knowledge? Or are we paid shills.

And it’s quite serious to the people who operate Wikipedia, all the little Wikipedians, people who read Wikipedia and people who want to manipulate Wikipedia their own page for vanity or your page for money that this has been called into question so front and center, a cancer that may have already quietly metastasized, snowballed much larger as word of this spreads – including, naturally, onto Wikipedia.  It’s a fertile, largely-untapped market with virtually no entry barriers to dive into. There was some smoke, now there’s both smoke and fire.

I’ll be impressed if Wikipedia can keep it mostly suppressed. It only takes a few bad apples to ignite these controversies or to keep the flames fanned and the one thing missing from all these links I gave you is even a vague indication, phrases like the “tip of the iceberg,” of how many bad apples they need to root out. This notion may make them cringe, but if the alternative is a devastating and irreparable blow to their credibility as the world’s go-to source of information, like Google and Facebook, Wikipedia could ditch editor anonymity.

Doug Simmons