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Disinformation report

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By Zarasophos, Tilman Bayer and Smallbones
We get to have a little bit of fun with our disinformation this month.
What do some German politicians, a bad actor, and a fake-bacon maker have in common? They all pay people to put disinformation into Wikipedia.

An investigation by German news website netzpolitik.org (in German) and TV show ZDF Magazin Royale (in German) found several cases of paid and promotional editing on dewiki articles about members of the Bundestag (the federal parliament of Germany).

In the run-up to today's German federal election, the outlets investigated the edit histories of the biographies of all current Bundestag representatives. The main finding was that for nearly 90 of them, more than half of the article content came from a single account, often seemingly tied to the office of the article’s subject. This was sometimes made transparent, sometimes not. In many cases, the editing was mainly restricted to improving articles formerly lacking in scope.

Bayerischer Rundfunk quotes comedian Jan Böhmermann on the ZDF Magazin Royale program as saying "There is more manipulation on ... Wikipedia than on Elon Musk's hairline."

The German Wikipedia uses a system of account verification, where a person or organization that is the subject of an article can confirm that an account is theirs, by sending an email to the German Wikipedia's Volunteer Response Team. The article about MEP Margit Stumpp was edited by her verified account "Stumppma" (operated by "Team Margit Stumpp") several times. In one edit, it described her as an "expert on digital infrastructure" not one, not two, but three times.

Sylvia Kotting-Uhl edited her own article with the account "SKU". When netzpolitik.org asked her about this, she said she hadn't been aware that there were proper identification procedures for politicians in place. The account that edited Andrej Hunko's article wasn’t quite so transparently named, being called "MikeMuller1973".

The investigation also uncovered several accounts that had potentially broken rules. For example, the dewiki account "Office Steffen Bilger" deleted a passage from the article for Steffen Bilger several times, eventually causing the article to be temporarily protected.

Bilger eventually solved his wiki problem without edit-warring, according to a quote in netzpolitik.org: "My office contacted the organizer of the Wikipedia Bundestag project in 2014, Mr. Olaf Kosinsky. After his own research, he edited the article. The edits he made are still in the article to this day."

Olaf Kosinsky and Wiki Loves Parliaments

Kosinsky (right) at the "Wikipedians in European Parliament 2014" event (in conversation with an unidentified person, likely unrelated to his paid editing activities) Photo by Claude TRUONG-NGOC
Logo of Wiki Loves Parliaments
Volunteers taking photos of a state minister at the first parliaments event in 2009

ZDF Magazin Royale devoted particular attention to the undisclosed paid editing of User:Olaf Kosinsky, an experienced member of the German Wikipedia community. Kosinsky had been active in Wikipedia for over a decade on both English and German editions. According to his user pages, he had been an (or the) organizer for the "Wiki Loves Parliaments" events since their launch in 2009, where volunteer Wikimedians visit a legislative body to create freely licensed photographs of politicians. From 2012 to 2014 he was paid as a project manager for these efforts out of a WMDE grant, including the organisation of an event at the Bundestag. A 2014 event at the European Parliament that he helped run had a budget of 38,650 euros, including 10,000 euros paid directly by the WMF. The required final report for the project appears to be still overdue as of 2019, along with the return of 4,261 euros in unspent funds.

As noted back in 2009 in the Signpost coverage of the inaugural Wiki Loves Parliaments event - which took place at the state parliament of Lower Saxony, Kosinsky's home state - besides the main purpose of generating freely licensed photos, "the Wikipedians had many conversations with the politicians about Wikipedia and free content, fielded some reports of small errors in their Wikipedia biographies, and gave live demos of editing Wikipedia."

As pointed out by ZDF Magazin Royale, it appears that in Kosinsky's case, such helpful demos and corrections of "small errors" morphed into a full commercial business of helping politicians and businesses to influence Wikipedia to their liking. On the website of his company "Wikiberatung Kosinsky" ("Wiki consulting Kosinsky", now deleted), he described himself as being "among the TOP 30 editors worldwide" and claimed to have references from numerous business areas such as banks, chemistry companies, tourism companies or book publishers. Earlier this year, according to ZDF Magazin Royale, Kosinsky founded a separate PR agency called "PIWAC" ("Political Wikipedia Mentoring").

In 2019, other dewiki editors had already highlighted his consulting business, calling on Kosinsky to disclose any paid editing activities and to clarify whether his clients included politicians or parties that he had met as part of Wiki Loves Parliaments, with no response. After ZDF Magazin Royale reported how it had paid Kosinsky to add nonsensical terms to the article about a small political party (at 100 euros apiece), a checkuser case confirmed that Kosinsky had used a sockpuppet account to carry out those edits, in violation of policies. This swiftly led to his indefinite ban from the German Wikipedia (expanding a block Kosinsky had requested himself shortly after the launch of the checkuser request). A wider investigation uncovered further problematic edits on dewiki. He was also blocked on various other Wikimedia projects including English Wikipedia (where he had reviewed several hundred submissions to "Articles for creation"), Commons, French Wikipedia and Wikisource. Kosinsky had already been removed from the Volunteer Response Team earlier this year.

Wikimedia Germany reacted to the ZDF Magazin Royale report by clarifying that while Olaf Kosinsky had been on the chapter's board (Vorstand) from March to November 2011, as treasurer, WMDE had "ceased any support for Olaf Kosinsky by 2014 already. We are currently looking into member expulsion proceedings."

Public reaction in Germany

The reception of the investigation by the wider public is notable. Instead of generally blaming Wikipedia for being unreliable, easily manipulated and totally corrupt, at least the YouTube comments on ZDF Magazin Royale's video had quite a positive bent.

Whoever rejects the project itself does not honour the many authors, who, sometimes for years, contribute voluntarily and without false interests. Anger over inconsistencies should be converted into motivation to contribute. Wikipedia is a giant chance for society – we should use it!
— YouTube user commenting under ZDF Magazin Royale video

"With Wikipedia, it's like with democracy: Both live off contribution", writes another YouTube user.

Ongoing reform proposal

Meanwhile, discussion is ongoing inside the German Wikipedia on how to improve the systems that sometimes failed with the articles highlighted in the investigation. Sometimes, the systems in place worked: In the article about Margit Stumpp, a large part of the additions by her verified account had been deleted within an hour by another user, with the comment "PR out". MikeMuller1973, the dewiki account that edited Andrej Hunko's article, now states on their user page that they had been paid by Hunko for these edits, in order to satisfy the disclosure requirements of the Wikimedia Foundation's terms of use.

Some dewiki users have identified the lack of a complete ban on paid or PR editing as the root of the problem. In response, they have started a RfC ("collection of opinions") on a potential complete ban on the German Wikipedia. The current proposed wording is as follows:

The German-speaking Wikipedia community has, in a binding collection of opinions, decided to declare edits made by PR service providers for pay to be not permitted. Ceding a verified account to a PR service provider to this end is not permitted either. This is valid for all namespaces. Rule breaches will lead to a permanent ban of the used accounts upon becoming known.

PR service providers means persons or organisations that offer the creation or editing of a Wikipedia article for pay as a service to customers.


— dewiki RfC on prohibiting paid contributions by PR agencies

Like all things bureaucratic in Germany, the process is extremely complicated. As far as I can tell, the process has lost quite a bit of steam in the last few weeks but may yet come to a vote. – Z with additional reporting by H

Bad actor to plead guilty to Ponzi scheme, biographer with 20 socks indeffed

Zachary Horwitz, screen name Zach Avery, made an agreement on September 1, to plead guilty to one count of securities fraud for a Ponzi scheme where he took in $650 million, and failed to repay $231 million. He had lured 250 victims into financing non-existent film distribution agreements with Netflix and HBO by promising returns of 20–45 percent within a year. Five other counts will be dropped, according to the plea deal, which is expected to be completed at an October 4 hearing. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

According to the indictment, Avery spent about $125,000 of his ill-gotten gains on trips to Las Vegas, $1,843,000 on American Express credit card bills, $165,000 on automobiles, $137,000 for flying on private jets, and $54,600 on a "luxury watch subscription service". He also bought a house for $5.5 million.

Make no mistake about it, Avery is a real bad actor. He’s played bit parts in about a dozen movies, cast in roles such as “basketball player” and “Demon 3”. Vice and the Star put him on their D-lists.

So why was there a Wikipedia article on Avery before he was indicted? There is little indication of notability in early versions of the article. There was however a paid editor who declared his paid status after he was caught. Then he was indefinitely blocked with about 20 sockpuppets. He agreed to be interviewed via email by The Signpost if we promised not to publish his real world or user names or contact details. Let’s call him Tom for convenience.

Tom outlines the paid editing process as follows:

  1. New clients contact the company through their website, email or through personal references.
  2. Then, I checked new clients profiles and researched to see if they had potential to qualify for a new article
  3. If they had potential, they were asked to fill a questionnaire with the information they would like to be on the article and their press (this part almost never helped at all but ok).
  4. Then I wrote the article and sent it to AfC.
  5. Approval meant payment and decline meant retry part 4. Many times I could never get them on the wiki.

Tom seldom if ever spoke to a client and doesn’t know anything about Zach Avery that’s not in the article. It took him 2 to 4 hours to write an article, but there was also a lot of time spent at AfC or in discussions with admins. He published about 12 articles in article space and received $200–$400 per article, but only $200 for the Avery article. About 10 articles were never accepted, so he received nothing for them. Tom’s boss at the paid editing company told him he was their best employee and they didn’t want him to leave. Take this all with a grain of salt, but it's an interesting look at the flip side of our anti-promotional work. – S

Peddling fake news and fake bacon

This!, a British plant-based meat replacement company, vandalized the bacon article with pictures of its bacon replacement product, then advertised their stunt on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Readers may remember a similar case of an advertiser inserting brand photos in violation of Wikipedia’s rules and then boasting about it online. The North Face was caught doing this in 2019. They soon stopped their related advertising campaign and publicly apologized.

The Signpost emailed Andy Shovel, co-founder of This! and asked him to comply with our paid editing disclosure requirements. We told him that, for commercial gain, he was vandalizing an educational website run by a non-profit. We also asked him if he would like to apologize to Wikipedians.

The reply did not come from Shovel, but from a "Team Member". The text reads

Thanks so much for getting in touch – we're sorry it didn't hit the mark with you. We do however, believe it was harmless fun, and are of the view that cynical people in Russia – who pedal [sic] fake news – won't feel enabled or inspired by the plant-based bacon pic swap. I'm afraid we won't be apologizing for our actions at this time.

I hope you have a great rest of the week,


— email to Smallbones, September 2021

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That's true, but I really would have expected all comments tk be negative, in the vein of "you trust what you read on Wikipedia?" That anyone at all in YouTube comments came to our defense was quite unexpected for me, already. Zarasophos (talk) 23:01, 27 September 2021 (UTC)[reply]
Agreed. It was a much more positive set of comments than I've come across about Wikipedia elsewhere. The top comment is one of the largest cliches about Wikipedia, but not one of the most wrong. (And of course, the response is: no, you can't cite Wikipedia as a secondary source in a serious work, but you can use it as part of the research process, particularly as a way to find reliable references.) — Bilorv (talk) 14:08, 29 September 2021 (UTC)[reply]

German proposal

edits made by PR service providers for pay to be not permitted. Ceding a verified account to a PR service provider to this end is not permitted either. This is valid for all namespaces. Rule breaches will lead to a permanent ban of the used accounts upon becoming known. PR service providers means persons or organisations that offer the creation or editing of a Wikipedia article for pay as a service to customers.
I don't see how it could we could word it better. DGG ( talk ) 03:22, 29 September 2021 (UTC)[reply]
I'd support the basic German proposal here. But one problem is that we don't have "verified accounts" here. My understanding of this is that celebrities, paid editors and perhaps others submit contact information to the German VTRS, which they verify, perhaps via email or maybe even a phone call. That could solve many, many problems here, e.g the Philip Roth case. But it could also cause a few very difficult problems - think of what might happen if a movie star changes agents, or just the general Brittny Spears case. And would our VTRS volunteers even be willing to do the work? I'd support creating verified accounts if it was clear what VTRS or ordinary editors could do with them. I'd suppose the usual thing to happen would be something like this: a verified account goes to an article talk page and states e.g. "my client categorically denies that ..." to which the proper response should be - "get that fact reported in a reliable source, at at least issue a press release with their name and your contact on it, which we can quote."
This brings me to my basic complaints about paid editing. Other than the basic dishonesty of most paid editors (trying to slip in unnoticed an advert into an educational resource without paying for it), the main problem is that we "allow" them to publish unsigned, unverified press releases in the encyclopedia. Paid editing is like a press release in that it is a message (paid for by the company) by the company's representative (with an inherent COI) intended to promote the company (yes, that's why they have to pay for it), but we don't require that paid editors prove that they actually represent their presumed client. All real press releases will have contact info for further contact and detail. Of course they are usually useless to us. But an unconfirmed press release via a paid editor is even more useless. Smallbones(smalltalk) 15:03, 29 September 2021 (UTC)[reply]

Zach Horwitz pled guilty today [1] and will be sentenced on January 2, 2022. Smallbones(smalltalk) 00:26, 6 October 2021 (UTC)[reply]




       

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