Astroturfing on Wikipedia

On: September 22, 2009
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About Niels de Hoog
I received my bachelor's degree in Communication Studies from the VU University Amsterdam and I am currently a New Media MA student. My interests stretch from new media to film, arts, music, and pretty much everything else.

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http://www.nielsjonathan.nl    

As Wikipedia is currently the number 7 most visited website in the world according to Alexa, and a major source of information for all layers of society, it makes sense to engage in a critical review of its benefits, risks and impact on knowledge formation.

Many different critiques can be heard on Wikipedia’s model of free and open, such as the domination of the western rational worldview, the exclusion of the disconnected and the (in)accuracy of facts. Another, more practical problem that caught my attention is the occurrence of astroturfing on Wikipedia. The term astroturfing, inspired by AstroTurf, a brand of artificial turf (at least according to Wikipedia), is used to describe political, advertising or pr-campaigns that are made to look like spontaneous, grassroots behavior. Applied to Wikipedia, it refers to professional entities like corporations, religious groups and states hiring specialists to edit or remove critical comments and/or information that is harmful to them.

astroturfA well-known example of this is the case of Microsoft, who paid a blogger to edit ‘incorrect’ technical articles on Wikipedia. Both Microsoft and the blogger in question claim that it was simply a matter of making sure that certain technical processes were accurately described. It is however naive to think or claim that someone who is paid to make claims about the company hiring him can be objective on the matter.

This is just one case, but who knows how many organizations are hiring people to secretly enhance their reputation on Wikipedia. We often don’t know how en when we are being manipulated, especially on the web. Marketing and public relations agencies get paid millions, if not billions to make you change your attitude towards their products and services, often in a non-obvious manner, such as with viral videos. In the blog post ‘The Secret Strategies Behind Many “Viral” Videos’, Dan Ackerman Greenberg, co-founder of viral video marketing company The Comotion Group explains in detail how they promote a viral video using astroturfing techniques. For viral videos, using these techniques seems rather innocent, but when it comes to Wikipedia, a major knowledge base on almost any topic, the issue becomes more serious.

I suggest more research should be done on this topic, possibly in cooperation with the Wikimedia Foundation, so that we get an overview of the extend to which these techniques are being applied by organizations to enhance their reputation and distort factual information on Wikipedia, and also to which extent this affects Wikipedia’s general credibility and/or accuracy. Astroturfing is, of course, difficult to research, since by its very definition it tries to fly under the radar. By using today’s technology however, it should be possible. With the use of advanced algorithms, we could keep track of changes that appear suspicious or irregular. Inspiring in this sense is The Quick Brown website, which keeps track of any changes that FOX News makes to its online articles, thereby making visible the underlying motives that are at work. If we could apply this principle to astroturfing research on Wikipedia, then there also, we could make the invisible visible.

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