Corruption in Wikiland? Paid PR scandal erupts at Wikipedia

A Wikipedia trustee and a Wikipedian In Residence have been editing the online encyclopedia on behalf of PR clients. Add the discovery of an SEO business run on the side, and this tempest is out of its teapot.

Violet Blue
5 min read

Concerned Wikipedians raised the alarm Monday that two trusted men -- one a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation UK, the other a respected Wikipedian In Residence -- are allegedly editing Wikipedia pages and facilitating front-page placement for their pay-for-play, publicity-seeking clients.

Jimmy Wales is not pleased.

It began this week when an interesting discussion started on the DYK ("Did You Know") discussion page.

Roger Bamkin, trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation UK, whose LinkedIn page describes him as a high-return-earning PR consultant, appeared to be using Wikipedia's main page "Did You Know" feature and the resources of Wikipedia's GLAM WikiProject (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) initiative to pimp his client's project.

Bamkin's current client is the country of Gibraltar.

In August, Gibraltar was featured as a Wikipedia DYK front page feature an astonishing seventeen times - that's an unusual frequency of every 2-3 days.

Other than the Olympics, it is the only repeated topic throughout the month.

The "Did You Know" section on Wikipedia's Main Page publicizes new or expanded articles - the publicity viewership on Wikipedia's front page is estimated in the hundreds of millions per month.

Wales: "wildly inappropriate"

When Wikipedia's founder was told about Bamkin's client in relation to Wikimedia UK, Jimmy Wales wrote:

It is wildly inappropriate for a board member of a chapter, or anyone else in an official role of any kind in a charity associated with Wikipedia, to take payment from customers in exchange for securing favorable placement on the front page of Wikipedia or anywhere else. - Jimbo Wales (talk) 00:54, 17 September 2012 (UTC)

At the same time Bamkin's consulting work as a representative of Wikimedia Foundation reared its ugly head, Wikipedia community members exposed the SEO-focused, PR-strategy Wikipedia page editing business run by respected GLAM editor Max Klein.

Both Klein and Bamkin are "Wikipedians In Residence," a role held by Wikipedia editors in high esteem who liaison with galleries, libraries, archives and museums to facilitate information between the organizations and Wikipedia community editors.

Wikipedians In Residence are not allowed to operate if there are conflicts of interest and are not allowed to edit the pages of the organization they liaison with.

Maximillion Klein runs a consulting business called "untrikiwiki" whose self-description explains:

A positive Wikipedia article is invaluable SEO: it's almost guaranteed to be a top three Google hit. Surprisingly this benefit of writing for Wikipedia is underutilized, but relates exactly the lack of true expertise in the field. ... WE HAVE THE EXPERTISE NEEDED to navigate the complex maze surrounding 'conflict of interest' editing on Wikipedia. With more than eight years of experience, over 10,000 edits, and countless community connections we offer holistic Wikipedia services.
When the concerned Wikipedia editors asked Jimmy Wales about untrikiwiki (in the thread about Roger Bamkin) Wales commented:
I was unaware of this case, and haven't had time to look into it. If what you say is accurate, then of course I'm extremely unhappy about it. It's disgusting.--Jimbo Wales (talk) 00:54, 17 September 2012

No specific Wikimedia UK policy on "paid editing"

At this time, there is no Wikimedia UK policy against "paid editing" for Wikipedia pages, though Jimmy Wales has said that paid editing is against Wikipedia values and policy.

However, there's no doubt that the lack of a clear policy casts a shadow over the public's perception of Wikipedia's ethical standing.

If PR editing from Wikipedia's representatives -- paid or not -- were to be openly tolerated, Wikipedia's reputation will most certainly be harmed in a way that is different from the harm done from vandalism or covert PR editing.

In the case of Roger Bamkin, a director of Wikimedia UK is advertising himself, as a Wikimedia UK director, for paid consultancy jobs, and directs and engages in editing on Wikipedia in the service of his personal client.

Bamkin's LinkedIn page states:

Roger Bamkin's Experience 

Consultant Victuallers Ltd May 2012 - Present (5 months) 

I've been involved with QRpedia and Monmouthpedia which have delivered > £2m paybeack on £50K investment.

Bamkin's formal Declaration of Interests for Wikimedia UK states there is no conflict of interest (COI) with his role, access to Wikipedia resources and contract with Gibraltar as there is no official relationship between Gibraltar and Wikimedia UK.

But to the outside eye this might appear as a financial conflict of interest among the people who are handling the money donated to support Wikipedia. Not to mention how unfair it is.

You may be wondering how the country of Gibraltar ended up in the middle of a Wikipedia PR editing scandal. To answer that question, we can visit Wikipedia.

Monmouthpedia is a Wikipedia project that links Wikipedia and the town of Monmouth in South Wales by the use of smartphone scannable QR codes.

As the story is told, the idea for Monmouthpedia came when Roger Bamkin and Steve Virgin (former Wikimedia UK board member, current PR consultant and Bamkin's business partner) gave a TEDx talk about their Wikipedia QR-code project QRpedia. From the audience, Wikipedia editor Steve Cummings (also Bamkin's business partner) suggested they "do a whole town."

Wales Online wrote:

He [Bamkin] picked Gibraltar, at the southern tip of Spain, as his next project after being flooded with invitations from places around the world hoping to be the second Wikipedia town.

Enter Gibraltarpedia. In a feature yesterday, BBC News explained Gibraltarpedia as the way in which Gibraltar is using QR codes and Wikipedia to target and attract tourists.

While not as straightforward as untrikiwiki's open offer to navigate tricky Wikipedia conflict of interest rules as a service for for paying clients, Gibraltarpedia may be a cool idea but it still comes off as little more than free advertising for tourism - setting up a walled garden of articles all with an eye to promoting tourism - and potential investment - in Gibraltar.

Seventeen features on Wikipedia's front page in one month is in equal measures strangely admirable, somewhat saddening and completely worrying.

From a 2009 statement by Jimmy Wales:

It is not ok with me that anyone ever set up a service selling their services as a Wikipedia editor, administrator, bureaucrat, etc. I will personally block any cases that I am shown. (...)

(...) Would we block a good editor if we found out after the fact is a very different question. We have traditions of forgiveness and working with people to improve their behavior and ours whenever we can - things are never so simple. Of course it is possible to imagine a situation where someone can and should be forgiven... because that's very common.

That's not the same as saying that it would ever be ok, as a matter of policy. Just imagine the disaster for our reputation.

I think many people would consider the idea of "Did You Know" - and Wikipedia's front page - being successfully used in a for-profit commercial venture by any entity to be harmful to Wikipedia, reputation or otherwise. 

But then again, Wikipedia and alleged conflicts of interest are not known to be handled with practicality - or clarity. Just ask Philip Roth.