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Sony emails reveal corporate practices and undisclosed advocacy editing

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By Gamaliel

In November 2014, confidential data from Sony Pictures Entertainment, including thousands of emails and documents, were released on the Internet. Originally attributed to North Korean hackers, the incident prompted the scuttling of the planned Christmas release of the film The Interview. The incident may have also played a role in the departure from Sony of Amy Pascal, chair of the Motion Pictures Group of Sony and one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood, and Charles Sipkins, executive vice president of communications, a person described as "a crisis PR specialist".

Trade secrets and embarrassing revelations still are emerging from the mountain of leaked data, especially after a searchable database was created by WikiLeaks on April 16. A Signpost investigation of the released data has revealed Sony's corporate practices regarding Wikipedia and uncovered what appears to be undisclosed advocacy editing of Wikipedia by Sony employees and possibly by others.

Many of the emails contain harmless or positive uses of Wikipedia. A number of the emails contain links to Wikipedia articles as background information about intellectual properties that Sony was developing or considering developing, including Golgo 13, Q*bert, and the Suicide Squad. Some emails contain nothing apart from a link to a Wikipedia article, perhaps as a reminder for future consideration. There is even a 2013 email from Sue Gardner thanking Amy Pascal for her donation to Wikipedia.

Other emails indicate that Wikipedia is a standard part of film promotion for Sony. Numerous marketing strategy documents contain the instruction "Please create a Wikipedia (or other collaborative website) page if you are able", and Wikipedia is listed on other documents as one of their "standard tactics" for social media promotion.

The emails reveal that for some movies, the marketing tactics go beyond simply starting a new page for an upcoming film. In a late January 2014 email, director and producer David O. Russell inquired about his film American Hustle: "I had asked weeks ago how the wiki page is looking. Can anyone please tell me ? It can be maintained." A Sony employee responded with a list of changes made to the articles for Russell and the film, with special attention to awards nominations. (Hustle had been nominated for ten Academy Awards earlier that month but would receive no wins at the 86th Academy Awards in March.) The changes listed in the email coincide with a number of December 2013 edits from the IP address, which originates from Marina Del Rey, California—a short distance from Sony's headquarters in Culver City, California. The employee also complained that editing these articles is "not an easy task ... our changes are instantly changed back by the Wikipedia editors."

Sony employees also turned their attention to Wikipedia articles about Sony executives. In an April 2014 email that was forwarded to Sony CEO Michael Lynton, a Sony employee wrote: "We edited Michael’s Wikipedia page in order to provide more complete and updated professional information and also to reflect the personal information that Michael preferred was included." This coincides with a major expansion of Lynton's article by Monstermike99. The added material is sourced and formatted properly, but it also contains promotional language and praise for Lytton's "leadership", including a paragraph that begins "Lynton and Pascal are dedicated to environmental sustainability at Sony Pictures."

Later that month, the same employee wrote an email to Amy Pascal stating: "Your official Wikipedia entry has been edited to reflect the updated biography that you recently approved." This coincides with another major expansion by OnceaMetro. Like the edits to Lytton's article, the edits are properly sourced and formatted, but contain promotional language, including the sentence, "Lynton and Pascal are dedicated to environmental sustainability at Sony Pictures."

None of the edits were accompanied by a declaration of paid editing as required by Wikipedia's terms of use. The Signpost spoke with a representative from Sony, who declined comment on this matter.

The accounts Monstermike99 and OnceaMetro continue to edit Wikipedia, including a number of articles on CEOs, hedge fund managers, and other business and finance executives. According to the editor interaction analyzer tool, articles that both accounts have edited include those on investor Jonathan M. Nelson, Time Warner CEO Steve Ross, and hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen. A former Sony vice president founded an eponymous company in January that refers to itself as "a corporate, crisis and financial communications firm." The firm's public client list includes News Corporation, Yahoo!, and The Chernin Group. The founder and CEO of this firm did not return a request for comment from the Signpost by press time.

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Question from Julia

I am not sure how to use your user interface. So I am just going to put this here. Why does Wikipedia allow anonymous users in the registered accounts? I can understand anonymous users in the non-registered accounts that only use IP as a marker, which can be spoofed. Wouldn't it be better if it was based like linkedin or facebook where people are held accountable to their identity? (talk) Julia — Preceding undated comment added 22:21, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

Hi Julia. Editors are just as accountable as on social media, where accounts can be (and are) created pseudonymously, and users are not required to list all their affiliations.
We have a number of reasons for allowing pseudonymous accounts including:
  1. We have editors who live under repressive regimes
  2. Editors may have interests they do not wish to share with friends, family, colleagues or classmates
  3. Editors may feel uneasy publicly identifying themselves, for fear of attracting unwanted attention - indeed we actively discourage younger editors from identifying themselves.
  4. Editors may want to avoid being pressured by others (including employers) to bias their editing
All the best: Rich Farmbrough13:45, 26 April 2015 (UTC).


At this point, is there any reason NOT to block both of the named accounts for undisclosed promotional editing? They are still active as of a few hours ago. ☺ · Salvidrim! ·  23:02, 23 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

No, there isn't. If these accounts don't get blocked then corruption is afoot. Alternatively, we could try for a community ban of those accounts.

In addition, since it was mentioned, I never particularly felt that that movie was made with any good intention anyways. It is a personal attack towards, indeed, a cruel and unlawful tyrant, but nevertheless it is itself cruel, twisted and foul. I wouldn't have batted an eye if it had never gotten released, as it was a foul production from the beginning. But, then again, so many people love barbaric cravings like bloodlust and stark incivility, so I probably shouldn't be surprised that some ill-doers decided to make some foul film. Tharthandorf Aquanashi (talk) 23:36, 23 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

  • I would agree that a community ban would likely be the best response. I have a bit on my plate right now, but if no one else is willing to, I'd be willing to draft a discussion for ANI. Thanks, --L235 (t / c / ping in reply) 00:04, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Hear, hear! Tharthandorf Aquanashi (talk) 00:10, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
So here's the thing: many of those edits aren't horribly objectionable. This could be more of a learning experience and the beginning of a partnership if we play our cards right and avoid the we found a witch, may we burn her approach. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 00:56, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
The ed17 Tharthan Salvidrim! I would love to see a link to the emails which seem to indicate Sony involvement.
If it happens that any corporation is operating sockpuppets then usual response per Wikipedia:Sock puppetry would be to block the sockpuppet accounts and ban the puppetmaster. If the corporation is directing others to edit Wikipedia in a manner that is contrary to the community guidelines then I think it is fair to ban the corporation as a puppetmaster, demanding that they, their affiliates, and their contractors quit editing Wikipedia until and unless they agree to comply with the terms of service set by the Wikimedia community. It is completely unfair that a mega-corporation with access to a huge amount of resources and savvy staff should leverage the advantages it has in society to conspire to subvert the rules of community projects like Wikipedia. Larger corporations should be obligated more to respect community guidelines.
It may or may not be the case that banning Sony is warranted. I would want to see more evidence. If someone has something to share, could it be put at WP:SONY? Blue Rasberry (talk) 01:40, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
The problem with linking to the emails is that they contain real names, leading to problems with outing and blp. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 03:45, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

Devil's advocate (against ban)

So I am of two minds here. Yes, they should've disclosed their affiliation, but in the diffs/examples cited, I don't really see anything problematic. A few PR sentences, which I presume got deleted, but as the report states, most edits are mostly "harmless or positive". So it's a storm in a teacup, the edits from those accounts seem to be mostly positive. I don't see what we gain from banning them; rather, I'd ask them to review our policies, disclose their affiliation and avoid promotional marketing speech in the future. --Piotr Konieczny aka Prokonsul Piotrus| reply here 01:53, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

They aren't banned. They are blocked.
But yes, that sounds fair. So long as they would do it. Tharthandorf Aquanashi (talk) 02:18, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Yes, I do think that a dialogue could have been opened. Unfortunately this approach means that they will probably start socking. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 03:45, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Prior to publication I had a long discussion with a wikipedian experienced with these issues. They raised the point that as paid editing goes, this is largely pretty harmless and maybe even occasionally useful. I am against paid editing but its currently allowed by the community policies. As long as it is allowed, we need a better way to encourage paid advocates to operate according to the terms of service. Blocking the occasional account when they are accidentally discovered does not seem a particulary productive method of doing this. Gamaliel (talk) 04:12, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
It is solely their responsibility to be familiar with our Terms of Use -- which they continue to agree to with every edit they make and should have been aware of after the WikiPR saga and the well-publicised amendment that occurred as a result. I don't see any reason why we should assist paid advocates undermine the credibility of this encyclopedia. I have no problem with paid editing as long as the intention is aligned with our mission. Paid advocacy, which this is an example of, is not. MER-C 05:11, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
We are not an advertising platform for Zony. Many thanks to User:MER-C who blocked these accounts. If they wish to operate ligitimately they can disclose. Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 14:52, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
I agree, and I would have blocked them myself had I not written this story. But I'm looking at the larger issue: How do we encourage compliance with rules concerning advocacy declaration? I suspect that these accounts are only a small fraction of those being used, so I doubt that just blocking them when we find them will be effective in the long term. Unless we're going to ban paid editing altogether, i think we need a carrot to go with the stick. Gamaliel (talk) 15:17, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
The carrot is the ability to do the work they were hired for effectively without being blocked for it, embarrassing themselves and their clients. Along with this of course comes the reasonable increased scrutiny that any article from a declared paid editor will receive, but such scrutiny will lead to an WP article here that be more effective as an encycopedia article, which should be beneficial both to them and their client. And it will be quite different from the scrutiny than their undeclared work will inevitably receive if detected, which will by policy include the speedy removal of any further articles they may start under any username. DGG ( talk ) 15:52, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Not being beaten with a stick isn't really a carrot. ~ Ningauble (talk) 16:18, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Quite. The idea that unpaid, anonymous contributors will edit articles that are among the top Google links for those companies with the reader's, rather than their own, best interests in mind is not borne out by observed reality. I don't find that surprising in the least.
These accounts went about their business for years. They would probably never have been stopped without this leak. (If you look at Monstermike99's first few edits, it's really quite remarkable they weren't stopped then.) We should assume that whatever Sony has been found to engage in is exactly what the corporate world in general, whose emails we cannot read, engages in. I don't believe Sony is any way special here.
What Dan Murphy said this week with regard to political editing, in the context of the Shapps affair (see this week's In the Media), applies just as much to editing in the business field:
Though many people treat Wikipedia as gospel, the website's rules appear tailor-made to foster conflicts of interest. Anonymity is prized above all. Accusations of bias are generally treated as "personal attacks," which are banned. And there are no professional editors or writers vetting the content.
Editors like Monstermike99 or indeed Wifione are in many ways the backbone of this encyclopedia. Without them, large parts of Wikipedia simply would not exist. Wikipedia is quite consciously set up to enable and solicit the participation of light-averse creepy-crawlies like Monstermike99, all under the guise of maximising participation. Please let's at least stop pretending that it isn't so. Andreas JN466 17:09, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
"Accusations of bias" are essential - we just need to educate users on how to handle them without entering a battleground mindset. All the best: Rich Farmbrough13:33, 26 April 2015 (UTC).
  • My problem with the ban is the same one I had when I discovered these emails on my own (see section below). I guess it is the "fruit of a poisoned tree" factor. Should we be imposing bans based on the criminal or even just immoral act of a third party? I don't think so. Coretheapple (talk) 16:12, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

the problem with the block, is that it's whack a mole. doctrinaire approaches to COI, do not solve the problem. we all suspected COI editing about Hollywood, and here's the proof. you had a golden teachable moment, to discuss COI in a collaborative way, and invoke Donovan House statement [1] [2] instead you play gatekeeper, while the dysfunctional, below the radar, COI editing continues. you are part of the problem. Duckduckstop (talk) 19:00, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" is not a legitimate argument.

That dross should not and shall not fly. Tharthandorf Aquanashi (talk) 20:05, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]


  • This is funny (if that's the right word). I went through the Sony leak stuff when it first came out and found that email to Amy Pascal about her wiki biography. Much as I am opposed to paid editing, I did nothing about it, though I did mention it on-wiki at one point. See [3] This hasn't received any publicity, and I haven't made a fuss over it because I don't think it's appropriate, but the leaked emails include one strongly implying that her [Amy Pascal's] Wikipedia article was a subject of paid editing earlier this year. I am not surprised by what you're saying. Coretheapple (talk) 17:53, 30 December 2014 (UTC) See the rest of that section, where I go into more detail. I'm going to trot this out the next time anyone accuses me of being a fanatic on paid editing. Some things take precedence, in this case not knuckling under to North Korea or whoever it is who did the hack. It just gave me the creeps to carry water for a son of a bitch like that. This is not to criticize the Signpost for delving into this, as it is a legitimate avenue of inquiry. But just to to think: it could have been a Coretheapple Scoop! Coretheapple (talk) 00:31, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

Nice piece

  • Niece piece! That quote is pure gold. -- GreenC 01:05, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Yes, it is a nice piece. It should be understood as a case in point illustrating what is standard operating procedure throughout the corporate world. The only thing that is special about Sony in this regard is that their internal correspondence was exposed.

    In Wikipedia articles that are largely based on "industry news" that operates as a PR echo chamber, it is practically impossible to distinguish between contributors who find the topic interesting and those who have a conflict of interest. As long as Wikipedia allows itself to be part of a PR echo chamber, rather than developing more discriminating editorial standards, people engaged in PR will not just sit back and wait for the echo, will not disclose what they are doing, and will usually remain undetected once they learn the ropes. (As the quote indicates, it is an acquired skill.) ~ Ningauble (talk) 16:04, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]


Apparently, MonsterMike was associated with three sockpuppets in 2013: Wikipedia:Sockpuppet investigations/Monstermike99/Archive. Those three were all blocked, but not MonsterMike himself. Tdslk (talk) 02:36, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

Sue Gardner

The 2013 email is an automatic reply to a donation, not an actual email written by Gardner to Sony executives. --NaBUru38 (talk) 20:15, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

Automated ADVOCACY Flag for Promotional/Attack Language

As stated above, the Wikipedia is enriched by information from these folks and impoverished by the advocacy. The goal here is to encourage more information and discourage advocacy. To reach that goal, I propose that self-censorship is the most efficient. With consistent encouragement, self-censorship can be a habit.

To this end, I would like to propose a robot/flag file, the ADVOCACY flag, as follows: User BlabberMatt posts or edits an article with obvious promotional language. A Wikipedian discovers the language, flags it for ADVOCACY, and edits the text to Wikipedian standards (or deletes the page). It could be a statement anywhere from "our fine, patriotic, and heroic soldiers" to "those nasty babykilling marines," -- on any subject, for or against any entity. The byword is, "just the facts, ma'am." Each time the offense is flagged, the statement, user, IP, article, subject, date, etc. are logged. The list of ADVOCACY users can be monitored over time. Get bored after midnight, go run down the ADVOCACY list to see who is doing what lately, and are they holding the line. If a single user name or IP is flagged with a threshold number of offenses on the same page or subject, a gradient series of disciplines are applied to BlabberMatt, from warning to blocking to banning. And each penalty grade is relaxed to the lesser grade over time.

The policy is posted and the user is referred to the policy for each offence. When BlabberMatt is exposed and warned, the group he represents will help to reign in the BlabberMatt's enthusiasm. In that way, we do not lose BlabberMatt's contributions, we just discourage or eliminate his tendency to use Wikipedia like a paid ad on Page 5 of the NYTimes. Eventually, 'BlabberMatt gets the message, learns to use neutral language, and Wikipedia has a professional editor who turns out neutral text with up-to-the-minute material. Slade Farney (talk) 23:10, 24 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

Those pesky Wikipedia editors

Those pesky Wikipedia editors... perhaps the real problem is the lack of a reasonable delay between a supposedly notable bit of history occurring, and its appearance in the encyclopaedia. If we didn't allow any film to be listed until a year (or two) after its initial appearance, there might be less of a temptation to edit for reasons that we consider unencyclopaedic, and there would be less "chatter" about short-term matters too. Historians don't try to decide if a recent event is historic for ... decades. Fascinating piece, by the way. Chiswick Chap (talk) 12:36, 25 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]

The problem with that (likely sarcastic) suggestion (forgive me if it isn't) is that that would take away from the encyclopaedia in many of the areas that it flourishes in. Tharthandorf Aquanashi (talk) 19:07, 25 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
(More seriously) There is a real trade-off between the instant rush and the considered approach. The piece shows that the instant rush does certainly make an opening for exploitation; even quite a short delay in the life of an encyclopaedia would be a long delay for anyone seeking to exploit it commercially. Perhaps as little as waiting for, say, 6 weeks after the release of the DVD/internet streaming version (i.e. some time after the cinematic release), would be sufficient to put off certain kinds of hype and worse. It is extraordinary how large a percentage of GA nominations are film and music, for instance. Chiswick Chap (talk) 20:06, 25 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
That sounds fair enough. Tharthandorf Aquanashi (talk) 22:18, 25 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
While I understand the thoughts behind this approach, isn't that a bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 16:34, 26 April 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Indeed. One look at the traffic report shows that new releases are among our most popular articles every week. Powers T 13:07, 1 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]

..changed back by the Wikipedia editors...

If we could change the perception, so that this email had at least read "changed back by other Wikipedia editors" we might be one step further forward. All the best: Rich Farmbrough13:26, 26 April 2015 (UTC).


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