The dark underbelly of paid Wikipedia editing

Wikipedia's growing role as a verification source has made it more lucrative for paid editors.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

There's a fascinating piece on Medium about paid Wikipedia editing, and how it's being driven by tech companies — such as YouTube — essentially outsourcing verification to the site:

Because Wikipedia is so ubiquitous and widely trusted—by tech corporations who build it into their products, or the British readers who said they trusted it more than newspapers in a 2014 poll—the “volunteer” aspect has become a little fuzzy. A market of pay-to-play services has emerged, where customers with the right background can drop serious money to hire editors to create pages about them; a serious ethical breach that could get worse with the rise of—wait for it—cryptocurrency payments.

This resonated with me, because I was approached by a paid editor a few weeks ago. Wikipedia used to have a page about me but it was deleted at some point in the last couple of years, as I'm — apparently — a non-notable businessman. I won't argue with the non-notable point, but I'll admit that I was faintly insulted to be described as a businessman… It was horribly out of date, and focused mainly on my old gaming work, so I wasn't terribly sad to see it go.

However, a couple of weeks ago, I was emailed by someone who offered to upgrade the page about me (held in draft here, where some kind but misguided soul tried to get it listed again) and get it back into Wikipedia — for a price.


I checked your Wikipedia declined draft;

I am an experienced Wikipedian.
I will do online research and rewrite the content in encyclopedic tone, format the draft according to Wikipedia guidelines and get it approved, I will forward the final draft for you to review before submitting.

I politely declined, pointing out that it was explicitly against what Wikipedia stood for — and, indeed, as I understand it, you're not meant to get involved in your own page at all, let alone pay someone to do so — and never heard back.

Wikipedia: An MMO for bureaucrats

I do wonder, though, if Wikipedia's arcane bureaucracy around who is notable and not might be opening the door to this sort of abuse. When someone about to be awarded a Nobel Prize doesn't meet the notability requirements, I suspect something's wrong…

Having discussed this with a few people rather more knowledgeable than I about Wikipedians, it seems that a combination of deletionists (Wikipedians who believe only the most important subjects should be on the site) being in the ascendency and a reliance on mainstream media sources for proving authority are causing the problems. Clearly, there are great swathes of human endeavor that are not reported by mainstream media, leading to those parts of Wikipedia being rather underdeveloped.

What's interesting is that this is one of the weaknesses paid editors attack, working to generate reliable source mentions before submitting the Wikipedia page:

“You basically have to tell the client you have a lot of work to do to in terms of PR and notability to get to have the kinds of reliable sources that are necessary to have a surviving Wikipedia article, to have any hope,” said one former paid editor. “You have to say, ‘Don’t even try to do a Wikipedia article now because it’s going to be obvious that you aren’t notable enough.’”

In other words, personal profiles on Wikipedia are becoming a PR game, and that's a shame, because it undermines the potential of the site.

I suspect that the volunteer moderators will have a hard time holding back the tide of paid professionals who have a much stronger motivation to keep trying.


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.