I noted the apparent efforts by unknown actors to alter the history of MOOCs on Wikipedia in my previous post. Partially in response, Darren asks “Am I safe in assuming $ has something to do with so many anxious to rewrite history?”
I’m pleased to see that Audrey Watters is indeed looking into this process:
To respond to Darren’s question, I suppose it is possible that this effort is motivated by simple (or unfathomably complex) ego, but I think money is a far more likely explanation.
It brings to mind a fascinating discussion from Jimbo Wales’s User talk page on Wikipedia. Like so many questions of ethics and process on this platform, the discourse descends into an intertransdimensional series of rabbit holes that I find difficult to navigate. For you prudish types that wish to avoid a powerful sensory derangement experience, here’s a simplified version:
For the past year, Arturo Silva, a full-time employee at BP’s Corporate Communications department in Houston, Texas, has evidently been writing draft articles about BP and asking Wikipedia editors to upload his content to BP’s official Wikipedia page.
Silva, whose Wikipedia moniker is “Arturo at BP,” is the head of BP’s Wikipedia engagement team, which interacts with Wikipedia editors to improve BP’s Wikipedia page, according to a statement provided to The Huffington Post by Scott Dean, a BP spokesman.
Silva’s Wikipedia user page clearly labels him as a BP employee, and he appears to have stayed within Wikipedia’s guidelines by not directly editing the BP article himself. However, at least two Wikipedia editors posted his content to Wikipedia’s BP article and did not indicate that they had obtained the information from a BP employee.
A comparison of Silva’s draft articles to BP’s official Wikipedia page shows that some of the official BP article had been copied and pasted from Silva’s drafts, including sections on sensitive environmental topics and the controversial practice of drilling in the Canadian oil sands. Other sections appear to have been paraphrased from Silva’s content.
Attempts by various actors to influence Wikipedia articles are nothing new. To me, the most fascinating phrase here is “he appears to have stayed within Wikipedia’s guidelines”, a fact repeatedly argued in the Wales User talk page referenced above. Indeed, Arturo at BP insists “my affiliation with BP is abundantly clear to all parties I may interact with on Wikipedia.” His efforts have proven to be uniquely successful.
I can’t mount an argument one way or the other right now, but I’ve wondered for some time about ways that openness may in fact leave systems uniquely vulnerable to dedicated manipulation. As Stephen Downes notes, rewriting history favours “those with time and money to do so.” Just to say it again: British Petroleum has a “Wikipedia engagement team”. A team.
It’s not as if “closed” systems are particularly resistant to the influence of money and power. But resting assured that “openness is the best disinfectant” is likely to fail us as well.