Suppose your company, boss or political candidate discovers that
their Wikipedia article is wrong, or has subtle inaccuracies that
nonetheless paint them in an unfavorable light? Most people unfamiliar
with how Wikipedia works consider only two solutions: edit the article
or sit on their hands. Unfortunately, neither approach typically
results in the optimal outcome: a factually accurate profile containing
Search marketers and reputation management professionals should
know that there are legitimate ways to correct errors in Wikipedia.
Knowing the right way to fix things is even more important now that
Wikipedia results frequently appear in the top listings of Google
search results. The good news is that Wikipedia actually offers a broad
range of options for correcting inaccurate or negative entries, and
even better, all are easy to use and take little time to implement.
My last column
looked at examples of inappropriate editing originating from a United
States Congress IP address—meaning one politician’s staff was
attempting to use Wikipedia for less than ethical purposes. This time
we’ll confront the opposite problem: an anonymous vandal inserted false
information to the biography of United States Congressman Steve
LaTourette of Ohio. For four months, Congressman LaTourette’s staffers
were aware of the falsehoods but did nothing to fix them because, as
spokeswoman Deborah Setliff told the Plain Dealer of Cleveland, they feared a PR backlash if they edited the page.
The most serious problem occurred in the second paragraph. According to the Plain Dealer story:
“LaTourette’s anonymously authored biography on one of the
world’s most visited Web sites claims he once disrupted a law school
assembly honoring England’s Prince of Wales.”
The exact text as it appeared in Wikipedia was:
“A graduate of the University of Michigan, LaTourette
studied law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and had the
dubious distinction there of disrupting a school assembly honoring
Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. LaTourette was roughly removed by
the Secret Service.”
The really damaging aspect of that allegation is how it bears a
tangential resemblance to the truth. There actually had been a student
disturbance when Prince Charles visited that law school. LaTourette was
enrolled at the time but had nothing to do with the incident.
Wikipedia and its volunteers do care about edit vandalism and the Biographies of Living Persons
policy makes this problem a special priority. LaTourette’s staff could
have e-mailed the Wikimedia Foundation, either directly or via the Open Ticket Request System (OTRS) that creates a tracking number for each query.
As a Wikipedia administrator I see the opportunity to go deeper than
OTRS and fix the underlying problem: this article obviously wasn’t
being watchlisted. Watchlists
alert active editors of changes to particular pages. These are among
the most powerful tools for combating vandalism. To solicit more
volunteer watchlisting, LaTourette’s staff could have contacted two
projects that are interested in the article: WikiProject Biography and WikiProject U.S. Congress. Most article talk pages contain links to one or more WikiProjects. A good general contact point is Wikipedia’s Counter-Vandalism Unit.
Inappropriate edits usually vanish within minutes when enough editors
watch a page. Best of all, the site’s volunteers will solve future
problems while you sleep.
Wikipedia also maintains noticeboards to address specific issues.
Here’s a short list that every search marketer or reputation management
professional should keep for reference.
- Requests for Page Protection:
if a series of controversial edits hit an article within a short time,
a week or two of edit protection usually resolves the problem
- Administrator Intervention Against Vandalism: administrators prevent continued disruption by blocking persistent vandals
- Biographies of Living Persons Noticeboard: an informal alternative to OTRS for biography articles
- Administrators’ Noticeboard/Incidents: addresses urgent problems that don’t fall within the scope of other noticeboards
Site administrators insist on reports that include page diffs like the one displayed above for the vandalizing edit. These are accessible through the tab at the top of each article. Here’s the history of the Steve LaTourette article.
Each date-stamped line provides a (last) option at the second
column from left. Selecting that leads to a visual display of the
difference between that page version and the previous one. That, in
Wikipedia jargon, is the diff. It shows exactly what happened,
which account or IP performed the edit, and when the change occurred.
Cut and paste the relevant diff URL whenever you need to present
evidence. Standard wikimarkup is to enclose URLs in single brackets.
Now here’s where this knowledge becomes especially valuable: a
little wikisleuthing sometimes turns up other interesting information
that a reputation management professional can put to creative use. From
the diff of the vandalizing edit I get a full list of this IP address’s
That shows a pattern of gossipy edits to biographies, mostly of Ohio
politicians. Some Wikipedia vandals exhibit a pattern of ideological or
profit-motivated edits. If I had noticed this IP during its spree of
March 6 and March 7 I would have blocked it from editing for a while.
Any editor can issue warnings
for clear policy violations. A word of caution: no matter what your
opinion about a user’s conduct, keep the legal angle offsite. Wikipedia
doesn’t mind if you actually take someone to court, but threats of a
suit have a stifling effect on discussion and could end your site
editing privileges. Other strategies may yield swifter and more
Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota got an unexpected
boost to her reelection campaign last year after an anonymous vandal
attacked her Wikipedia biography. Several strange claims entered the
article including a baseless charge that she was pregnant by a
nonexistent staffer. It’s uncertain whether the opposing campaign
coordinated the vandalism, but shortly afterward its campaign manager
sent an e-mail to several of the state’s bloggers
that cited the vandalized Wikipedia biography and added an accusation
that Herseth was a “home-wrecker.” Rather than damaging Herseth’s
reputation, the tactic backfired on challenger Bruce Whalen to such an
extent that the Rapid City Journal editorial board called for a public apology from the Whalen campaign. Herseth won the election.