Paid advocacy has become a largely debated topic in recent years. Paid editing—also known as sock puppetry or black hatting—is when individuals or companies pay writers to create and edit reference material for promotional purposes. This practice is troublesome because it blurs the distinction between editorial content and advertising. A notable example of this dilemma involves, Wikipedia, a collaborative website allowing anyone to contribute and modify reference articles (Shirky, 2005).
In August 2012, one of Wikipedia’s editors removed a page representing an internet security company- CyberSafe– after discovering that the article’s linked citations were relevant to internet security, but did not specifically reference the company (Owens, 2013). After the page was removed, numerous users expressed opposition, constructing arguments that were similar to those on the CyberSafe page. This coincidence raised suspicions in the Wikipedia editor, causing him or her to submit five user accounts for “sock puppetry investigation” (Owens, 2013). The analysis confirmed that they were in fact “sock puppet” accounts and that black hatting was happening far more often than they thought.
Executive director of Wikipedia, Sue Gardner, explains that in addition to violating the website’s core principles of providing unbiased and credible information. She argues that editing-for-pay produces content that is often prejudiced and misleading. Moreover, Gardner (2013) explains that paid advocacy is a breach of Wikipedia’s editorial policies regarding “neutrality and verifiability” (Gardner, 2013).
After a lengthy investigation, Wikipedia announced that it would block “381 user accounts for paid editing” (Earhart & Barbara, 2015). Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, explained that the decision was made after Wikipedia discovered an embezzling scam involving a network of users with fake accounts. These phony accounts were used to solicit individuals and businesses into paying a Wikipedia editor to create their page and have it protected from negative editing (Dredge, 2015). Hundreds of people were deceived because the “faked accounts” impersonated senior Wikipedia editors and falsely claimed that their practices followed Wikipedia guidelines.
As a result, those who paid for editing services were surprised to discover that their pages were deleted for guideline violations. Wikipedia’s investigation into black hat accounts revealed that “more than 200 individuals and businesses have fallen victim to the fraud” (Owen, 2015) and around 250 pages were deleted (Owen, 2015).
In response, Wikipedia has asked the public to contact them if someone offers to create of protect a page in exchange for money. Furthermore, Wikipedia emphasizes that “decisions about content. . . are made by the community of volunteer editors – they edit and maintain Wikipedia for free, so everyone can access free, reliable knowledge,” (Owen, 2015).
Deceptive marketing practices permeate several aspects of digital media. Paid advocacy is especially problematic in cases where the members generate content through consumer reviews. Over the years, the media has started to focus on consumer reviews, exposing stories where companies pay individuals and/or employees to write reviews that enhance reputation. Paid editing is becoming increasingly common in consumer reviews, as expressed in a 2012 Gartner study, estimating that “one in seven recommendations or ratings on social media sites like Facebook would soon be fake” (Streitfeld, 2013).
For businesses, online reviews carry significant value and greatly influence their current and future success: : “In a 2011 Harvard Business School study, a researcher found that restaurants that increased their ranking on Yelp by one star raised their revenues by 5 to 9 percent” (Streitfeld, 2014). To counteract the negative effects of paid advertising, the FTC has started conducting investigations on companies that pay for product or service reviews and fail to disclose this affiliation with consumers. For example, the chief executive of US Coachways was exposed for hiring freelance writers and mandating his staff to create fake accounts so they could write positive comments to downplay the negative reviews. After the investigation, US Coachways was fined $75,000 and agreed to stop writing fake reviews (Streitfeld, 2014).
On November 7, 2015, CBC Marketplace News aired a story about a man who was fighting to have his online review removed from TigerDirect.com. The man explains that he wants his review taken down from the website because the company edited his review to make it appear more positive.
In other cases, companies are supportive of banning paid advertising and have started to take action to prevent it. Amazon, the largest online retailer, is using the U.S. legal system to crack down on paid advocacy. An NBC News story explains that Amazon has filed a lawsuit against 1, 114 individuals that were paid to post reviews for products found on their website. The company claims that writing fake reviews “tarnishes their brand,” and damages its reputation as an online retailer. Amazon hopes this lawsuit will serve as a future deterrent and help the company rebuild trust with customers.
Paid advocacy is a growing concern for many people- do you think it will cause users to become distrustful or skeptical of customer reviews? Does paid advocacy ‘devalue’ online ratings and other informational content? Do you think the FTC will have the resources to effectively monitor fake reviews? Does Amazon have the right idea in taking legal action against those paid to write positive reviews?
Dredge, S. (2015, September 6). Wikipedia Founder Backs Site’s Systems After Extortion Scam. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/sep/06/wikipedia-founder-backs-sites-systems-after-extortion-scam
Earhart, E., & Barbara, J. (2015, August 31). Hundreds of “black hat” English Wikipedia accounts blocked following investigation « Wikimedia blog. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from https://blog.wikimedia.org/2015/08/31/wikipedia-accounts-blocked-paid-advocacy/
Gardner, S. (2013, October 21). Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner’s Response to Paid Advocacy Editing and Sockpuppetry. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from https://blog.wikimedia.org/2013/10/21/sue-gardner-response-paid-advocacy-editing/
Owen, J. (2015, September 11). Wikipedia Senior Editors Impersonated in Scam which Tricked Hundreds into Paying for Content to Go Online. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/wikipedia-senior-editors-impersonated-in-scam-which-tricked-hundreds-into-paying-for-content-to-go-10496801.html
Owens, S. (2013, October 8). The Battle to Destroy Wikipedia’s Biggest Sockpuppet Army. Retrieved on November 17, 2015, from http://www.dailydot.com/lifestyle/wikipedia-sockpuppet-investigation-largest-network-history-wiki-pr/
Shirky, C. (2005). Epilogue: Open Source Outside the Domain of Software and Source. In Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software (pp. 483-488). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Streitfeld, D. (2012, January 26). For $2 a Star, an Online Retailer Gets 5-Star Product Reviews. Retrieved on November 18, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/technology/for-2-a-star-a-retailer-gets-5-star-reviews.html
Streitfeld, D. (2013, September 22). Give Yourself 5 Stars? Online, It Might Cost You. Retrieved on November 18, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/technology/give- yourself-4-stars-online-it-might-cost-you.html?_r=0