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Wikipedia Suspends 381 User Accounts for Suspected Fraud, Extortion

wikipedia logoWikipedia’s greatest strengths is that anyone can edit it. Conversely, the online encyclopedia’s greatest weakness is that anyone can edit it.

The Wikimedia Foundation, parent organization of Wikipedia, revealed on its blog late Monday night that, following a months-long investigation, it had disabled 381 accounts for violating Wikipedia’s rules.

Their crime? The accounts belonged to users accused of secretly taking money to edit Wikipedia to suit third-parties:

With this action, volunteer editors have taken a strong stand against undisclosed paid advocacy. In addition to blocking the 381 “sockpuppet” accounts—a term that refers to multiple accounts used in misleading or deceptive ways—the editors deleted 210 articles created by these accounts. 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 edits made by the sockpuppets are similar enough that the community believes they were perpetrated by one coordinated group.

The investigation is detailed on an admin page on Wikipedia. It began in early July when one user, Orangemoody, was identified as a sockpuppet. The investigation expanded over the following month to include hundreds of related accounts that had been breaking the rules.

The socks all exhibit at least one of the following behavioural traits:

"Article creation" socks create articles in draft space or user space mainly based on submissions to Articles for creation that had been declined, or articles that had been added to article space and deleted as being too promotional. These articles do not give proper attribution to the original authors. There are occasional variations to this process. Most of the articles created in this way have been moved to article space; a few are still in draft or user space.
"Helper" socks will usually complete a series of useless edits in order to be autoconfirmed. They then continue making gnoming-type edits that will periodically include the addition of spammy external links. Some of these socks also participate in Page Curation, and they will “mark reviewed” articles created by the other socks.

Examples of "useless edits" include adding {{italictitle}} or wiki-linking words like Asia and United States, or making minor formatting changes.

This investigation only covers the accounts that had been used on the past three months, but the investigators believed that this was a well established operation that had been around for a long time. They concluded that the conspirators had been taking money to edit articles in some third-party’s favor, and also extorting money under the promise that the conspirators would protect an article from being vandalized.

The Wikimedia Foundation released a network map that showed the relationships between the banned accounts. In the graph below, the green dots represent accounts, and a connected yellow dot represents the IP addresses that an account used to visit Wikipedia:

wikipedia paid editor scandal

As I look over the graph again, I have to add that what you see in the image doesn’t actually mean much.

While I accept the Wikimedia Foundation’s word that there was a nefarious activity going on here, I also know that it’s all too easy to generate a graph like the one above and show a relationship that doesn’t exist.

For example, if you go online from a coffee shop, you will be sharing that IP address with hundreds if not thousands of users. If you visit Wikipedia from that coffee shop and then visit it from a public library, the resulting graph would look like that there was more than a random connection.

It would look like a conspiracy – if not for the fact that one would also know that both Wifi access points were public. But I digress.

This is not the first time that large-scale action has been taken against "undisclosed paid advocacy editing". Back in October 2013, hundreds of accounts related to the consulting firm Wiki-PR were blocked by Wikipedia volunteers because of the undisclosed relationship with the PR firm’s clients.

Furthermore, that incident led to new rules which clarified that the only problem was in allowing the relationship to remain undisclosed:

Not all paid editing is a violation of Wikipedia policies. Many museum and university employees from around the world edit by disclosing their official affiliations, and several prominent public relations firms have signed an agreement to abide by Wikipedia’s paid editing guidelines. Editing Wikipedia is completely free, and only requires compliance with the project’s editorial guidelines. If someone does have a conflict of interest or is uncomfortable editing the site directly, there are several other options to bring the subject to a volunteer’s attention.

Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia

via Ars Technica

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