“Full” and “disclosure”: they’re two words that go together like peanut butter and jelly. Disclosure is meaningless unless its scope is appropriate. Has anybody called for Hillary Clinton to pick whichever email messages she’d like show to the public? No! If you need my home address to send me something, will it help you if I just give you the street number, without the street name? Of course not! The scope of any disclosure has to enable others to meaningfully evaluate something. If it doesn’t, the act of disclosure is pointless.
When it comes to editing Wikipedia for pay, though, some believe that the mere disclosure that a conflict of interest exists is sufficient when advocating for changes. And that little details like who’s cutting the checks can be left aside.
While the strong consensus for substantive disclosure should not come as a surprise to those who follow the issue, it is important for two reasons: (1) The ethical constraints that have long been held by a broad consensus of parties are now spelled out in greater detail, and with a finer point, than before; the links above should make worthwhile reading for anybody interested in conflicts of interest and Wikipedia. And (2) Paid Wikipedia editors, who proclaim their expertise in ethical Wikipedia engagement when marketing their own business enterprises — but whose routine practices violate the basic rules of the site — have now received a very clear message, and now have reason to adjust their practices. As we discussed yesterday, several are already doing so. We at Wiki Strategies are taking the opportunity to review and refine our practices, as well.
But this case is also important to us, in that it highlights the crucial difference between our approach — which was designed to not merely meet, but to greatly exceed Wikipedia’s standards, and that has not changed since we incorporated in 2009 — and that of Wikipedia writing and editing agencies, who frequently aim for the bare minimum disclosure, and as a result often come up short. (I discussed several such agencies in yesterday’s piece.)
Since the founding of Wiki Strategies in 2009, we have used a model in which we do not make edits to Wikipedia — not to articles, not to talk pages — on behalf of our clients. Nor do we lobby on their behalf by other means, e.g. by privately emailing Wikipedia editors on their behalf. We work exclusively with clients who clearly disclose their conflict of interest (COI), and who proactively seek feedback for substantial changes. In nearly every case, our clients use their real names as their usernames, or prominently listed on their user pages; and they state unambiguously who they work for. This was our practice for five years before the ToU required it, and it has not changed. (See more in this previous blog post , and in our statement of ethics.)
I should note the one thing that is rarely disclosed in our projects: our involvement. We are of course proud of the work we do, and in an ideal world, would be happy to talk about it; but for the most part, our clients prefer not to invite a public discussion around how they have learned to engage with Wikipedia. The decision to hire us should not subject a company to greater scrutiny than anybody else gets (nor to less scrutiny), so we typically advise our clients not to bring it up. We train our clients in how to improve articles, jump through Wikipedia’s many technical hoops, interpret Wikipedia jargon, and more, while adhering to a high standard of integrity.
I began this week’s blog series to explore the implications of Wikipedia’s, and the Wikimedia Foundation’s, clarification of the ToU update requiring disclosure. But unexpectedly, the “Bright Line” concept was thrust into the forefront by a news story. The Bright Line — which would prohibit paid editors from working directly on Wikipedia articles — was proposed and rejected as an update to Wikipedia policy in 2013; but a story in the Financial Times repeated a mistake often made in media reports, conflating this failed proposal with the actual policy passed in the ToU amendment.
Since this confusion does not seem to be going away, I’ll explore it in greater detail. Next week, I will compare our approach, various Wikipedia policies, common Wikipedia practices, and the Bright Line (which many firms do adopt, in spite of its not being required).