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Wikipedia deletes accounts of 250 "sockpuppet" editors paid to promote products

Wikipedia has deleted the accounts of over 250 editors who were apparently being paid to promote commercial products on the online encyclopaedia.

Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation released a statement yesterday explaining the problem, and the actions that the site is taking in order to correct the damage done.

"Our readers know Wikipedia's not perfect, but they also know that it has their best interests at heart, and is never trying to sell them a product or propagandize them in any way."

Gardner went on to say that, "editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature."

She was also careful to differentiate between more innocent instances of bias, such as "a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise," arguing that paid editing for promotional purposes violates "numerous site policies and guidelines, including prohibitions against sockpuppetry and undisclosed conflicts of interest".

The statement went on to say that "in general, companies engaging in self-promotional activities on Wikipedia have come under heavy criticism from the press and the general public".

So far, Wikipedia hasn't disclosed which companies were allegedly paying for "sockpuppets" to promote their products.

The investigation has come after The Daily Dot reported on alleged instances of sockpuppetry to promote a company called CyberSafe.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia, entrusts a small team of admins with the responsibility of hunting down sockpuppet accounts, and allows them to use a tool called CheckUser to run an IP-check on the editor.

By the end of September, the Wikipedia talk page on which the investigation took place included over 1000 edits, from more than 50 authors. 323 user accounts were flagged up as sockpuppets, with 84 also under suspicion. This is the largest network of sockpuppets ever found on Wikipedia.

Sue Gardner praised their efforts, saying "We are grateful to the editors who've been doing the difficult, painstaking work of trying to figure out what's happening here."

Most of the pages created by the puppets had similar characteristics. They were usually about companies or living people, they were generally positive and promotional, and they cited articles from websites that anybody could contribute to.

In 2006, a user called Gregory Kohs was banned from Wikipedia for setting up a company called MyWikiBiz, which offered to create and curate a page for a person or company as a paid service.

The company's slogan was "Author your legacy".

Wikipedia has suffered from similar problems in the past, with so-called "editing battlegrounds" breaking out over contentious articles.

Image: Flickr (Kalexanderson)