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Navigating the complex world of Wikipedia ethically

June 2024
 by Sarah Keeling

Navigating the complex world of Wikipedia ethically

June 2024
 By Sarah Keeling

When it comes to online reputation management, few things have a greater impact than a well-written, up-to-date and sympathetic Wikipedia article. As a highly visible, paywall-free and reasonably well-trusted source of information, it can create a powerful digital first impression. 

Not only do people use Wikipedia to familiarise themselves with a subject for the first time or to check a fact, it is also a prime source of information for widgets like Google’s Knowledge Graph and even large language models.

However, Wikipedia resists efforts to transform its articles into comprehensive and flattering profiles.

Front and centre on the homepage is the slogan “Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit”. The famous (or perhaps infamous) phrase has been both a central tenet of the site since its inception and for some, a warning that the information might not be reliable; even Wikipedia doesn’t officially recognise itself as a reliable source for citations. Within Wikipedia’s volunteer community, the motto is also very much not considered to mean “anyone should edit”.

Editing policies

Outside of Wikipedia, a great many people are unaware that the site strongly discourages editing an article about yourself, an employer or even a rival. Within the volunteer community, however, this policy is considered so self-evident that attempts to make changes to the site are often assumed to be intentionally subversive, especially if those changes mistakenly contravene a guideline.

There is a learning curve to the practical side of editing Wikipedia even before you consider the ethics of whether the citation you would like to add is a reliable source or not. Even people without an agenda are encouraged to start their editing journey by limiting their actions to simple, uncontroversial changes before attempting deceptively difficult tasks such as creating articles.

Following the rules      

Even though Wikipedia tries to discourage people from editing pages without declaring any ulterior motives, the spaces designed to accommodate those looking to respectfully submit changes for community discussion can be intimidating without expert advice.

Once you have grasped the technical basics like Talk pages, formatting markup and using templates, there are further challenges to overcome. Suggestions are expected to be written from a neutral point of view, include appropriate citations to verify the content, and meet other more subjective criteria, such as not resembling a CV or directory website. This assumes that someone making a request already has a solid working knowledge of where Wikipedia draws these lines.

Get support

The focus of Digitalis’s Wikipedia practice is studying and understanding the site’s many official policies and unspoken rules and advise clients on how to ethically engage with the Wikipedia community, avoiding common mistakes and helping to shape an online presence on the site within the limits and spirit of its rules.

We exist to help bridge the gap between those who need to manage their presence on Wikipedia, and the realities of navigating and operating effectively within the site’s parameters.

Pattern analysis

One of the most important tasks the Digitalis Wikipedia practice carries out is analysis of patterns of activity across the site.

Every edit on the site is recorded with a timestamp and the username or IP address of the individual who made the change. The same goes for the 89% of Wikipedia that isn’t an article[1].

Talk pages, policy pages and even deletion debates can offer valuable insights into what can or cannot be done in various circumstances.     

Analysing these trends can reveal both obvious and surprising insights. Understanding the different levels of protection available to an article can tell you whether a page will be safe from hostile intervention, and even how long that protection will last. Looking into the time and date of editor activity can reveal if an individual editing an article about you is a seasoned volunteer or a recently created “single purpose account” with an agenda.     

In 2017, a debate on the Reliable Sources noticeboard[2] led to the community rejecting the Daily Mail as a citation in most circumstances. In order to advise effectively on what kind of content can be added or changed on Wikipedia, it is important for us to know how Wikipedia regards all types of publications, including those not in English, which often lack an official consensus and require more intuitive interpretation, especially if these change over time following community discussions.

By cultivating relevant insights, Digitalis can advise on whether intended changes are in line with site policy as well as environmental factors which could affect response time and community reception.

Understanding the ecosystem of Wikipedia and its volunteer community can offer unique opportunities to safeguard reputation, especially as people increasingly recognise the need to scrutinise media and check sources. While the site has a wealth of systems designed to identify vandalism, protect against artificial networks and help report abuse, Wikipedia is not infallible to attack and manipulation.     

Through our extensive and ongoing research, Digitalis’s Wikipedia practice helps prepare clients to navigate this surprisingly complex website in an ethical manner. Whether wrong information persists in an article, a page has not been updated meaningfully for years, or even if an article shouldn’t exist in the first place, we can provide the information needed to help clients make the necessary steps with peace of mind.

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