Ghostwriting on Wikipedia involves organizations and individuals bypassing the conflict-of-interest guideline by supplying approved drafts of articles about themselves. They may write the material in-house or hire external PR professionals. Volunteer editors copy the material into the encyclopaedia as though it had been written independently.
Wikipedia has no mechanism for signalling to its readers that an article has been ghostwritten. The practice is not against Wikipedia's rules, but is controversial. Sections of the community regard it as unethical. Others defend the practice, arguing that what matters is content, not authorship.
Editors who add this material to articles are expected to check it for balance, accuracy and appropriate sourcing, but because of scarce volunteer time, a lack of expertise, and a desire on the part of editors to be helpful, company-approved drafts may be carried over into articles with few checks, if any.
Public relations and Wikipedia's culture
Wikipedia seeks to provide an atmosphere of positive collaboration for its contributors, especially new ones, through policies such as "assume good faith." Thus a contributor is assumed to be well-intentioned. The community takes a relaxed view of conflicts of interests (COI), and has few safeguards against COIs that are openly disclosed. Corporate officials and public-relations representatives who disclose their conflicts may find themselves welcomed as good-faith editors whose contributions are valued.
This culture of acceptance leaves Wikipedia at a disadvantage. For most editors, Wikipedia is a hobby. Many are dilettantes in the most favorable sense of the word, flitting from article to article. Editing is often a distraction from paying work. For public-relations persons and corporate officials assigned to edit Wikipedia, working on articles is their paying work. It is their job to deploy their expert knowledge about their employer to advance that employer's interests.
To vet the accuracy and completeness of material provided by corporate editors, volunteers must sacrifice their valuable spare time, without pay, to counter the efforts of editors who are paid well. Paid editors may be lauded by other editors simply for having disclosed their COI, while unpaid volunteers, if they voice concern about COI involvement, may be criticized for failing to assume good faith.
Offering approved drafts
The PR rep of a large company, or an employee tasked with interacting with Wikipedia, may create an account identifying himself, then post on the article's talk page to say he wants to abide by the rules, but that the article is full of errors. When asked to supply a list of these errors, he declines, offering instead to write drafts in his user space. The aim is to insert company-approved language into the article, which will downplay the negative, highlight the positive, and use sources the company has chosen and may have helped to structure through earlier PR efforts.
The rep may ask editors to make suggestions by editing his drafts, so that the default position is that the draft will be added in some form, and the job of helpful Wikipedians is to supply the company with suggestions.
Once the desired material has been installed, the rep may request that the draft be deleted, so that the provenance of the ghostwritten text disappears.
The rep may identify Wikipedians who he believes will support him, and will introduce himself to those editors separately on their talk pages. This can serve to make them feel important or beholden to him. The rep is usually at pains to present himself as an editor like any other, one of the group. He is extremely polite and friendly to editors he deems potentially helpful, but is slow to respond to others, and may ignore them entirely. This approach exacerbates existing tensions on the talk page, and alienates editors deemed unhelpful by the group, which by now consists of the PR rep and editors willing to assist him. Editors who object to the dynamics are told by other Wikipedians to "assume good faith," and "comment on content, not the contributor."
The PR rep may make multiple requests for edits to the article, which has the effect of overwhelming the volunteers who watch the page. If editors are not responsive to requests on the article's talk page, the rep may ask on noticeboards that the edits be inserted, or will approach individual editors on their user talk pages. Any editor who has offered support may be approached: "You seemed to agree with my suggestions last month. Would you mind making the edit? I want to abide by Wikipedia's rules and best practice, so I am unable to do it myself." This process can continue for months until someone gives in and adds the material.
Supporters of talk-page involvement by corporations argue that the latter have the right to voice their concerns about the accuracy of articles, much the way they might write letters to the editor of a newspaper. Critics of such practices contend that it is analogous to companies participating in the daily editorial meetings of the New York Times, injecting their opinions about the placement, composition and direction of articles about their companies, and writing drafts for reporters.
Corporate involvement with Wikipedia is of special concern when litigation is ongoing. An innocuous-sounding request from a corporate editor, or utilization of sources favoring the corporate narrative, could have an impact on the outcome of the case if read by a jury unaware that the company helped to write the article.
- Lennard, Natasha. "BP edited its own environmental record on Wikipedia", Salon, 21 March 2013.