OceanGate's Titan submersible was "an accident waiting to happen". On June 18, Titan imploded. Its wreckage – and the remains of its five occupants — sank to the bottom of the sea. OceanGate's management heard an assessment that Titan was not fit for use in January 2018 from David Lockridge, their employee who had the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the safety of all crew and clients. Lockridge was soon fired, and Oceangate began a series of advertisements on Wikipedia a month later.
This Signpost investigation shows that suspected OceanGate employees inserted text directly from OceanGate's website more than eight times. When this text was deleted by a Wikipedia administrator, OceanGate added more advertising material. This new text was deleted by a well-known Wikipedian because it was promotional and apparently added by an undeclared paid editor (UPE). A third attempt to add a large amount of promotional material, which increased the article size by more than ten times, was reverted by another administrator.
Of course, Wikipedia's revision histories do not allow us to be completely certain of an editor's true identity. For example, Joe's enemy Sue can just make an account called "Joe12345", make a scene, and blame it on Joe (in an appropriately-named "Joe job"). Nonetheless, the duration of the advertising campaign, and the amount of text added to the article, makes a Joe job seem quite unlikely.
This article builds on a revelation by Annie Rauwerda in her Depths of Wikipedia Tik Tok account. She shows the edit history of the OceanGate article had a series of edits by DanaOceanGate that were RevDeleted because of copyright violations.
The February UPE 2018 advertising wave, by an account named DanaOceanGate, increased the page length to 15,629 bytes. Most of this material was reverted by Diannaa, an unpaid volunteer administrator who specializes in patrolling and deleting copyright violations. She reduced the page length by 86% (to 2,237 bytes), removing the edits from public view (revision deletion) because of eight separate copyright policy violations.
In an interview with The Signpost, Diannaa notes that many paid editors simply do not know Wikipedia rules. They often refer to Wikipedia articles as "profiles", surmising that they can copy the company's media kit onto Wikipedia without a copyright release and dictate the article content. She was steered to the article by Wikipedia's automated copyright violation detection system. Almost all of the article was directly copied from OceanGate's website. "When I see something like that happening, I will typically check the entire article and keep cleaning it until I am satisfied that it's reasonably clean." It took her twenty minutes to clean up the article. "At that time my typical workload was around 60 reports per day." She usually doesn't have the time to file sockpuppet investigation reports, or to ask suspected paid editors to comply with the required disclosures. In this case, she did post template warnings at User talk:DanaOceanGate (for conflict of interest editing and WP:copyright). Five months later, she did follow up on that page with a short note. But DanaOceanGate did not respond.
Diannaa left two short sections in the article, one on the Titan submersible which imploded two weeks ago. That section had no references and presented very positive information on the Titan and its carbon fiber hull. "I don't know anything about carbon fiber or submersibles so there's no reason for me ... to suspect that there might be something amiss."
Five months later, the next wave of additions by DanaOceanGate increased the page length to 4,833 bytes. Kleuske quickly reverted with the edit comment "(WP:PAID WP:PROMO)", a reduction of page length by 54%. She also posted a warning at User talk:DanaOceanGate about advertising, promotions, and ’’neutral point of view’’ violations. DanaOceanGate did not respond. Kleuske told The Signpost that she doesn’t remember much about the five-year-old edits, but that "the username 'DanaOceanGate' may have something to do with the WP:PAID bit," and that she often reacts strongly to copyright violations.
Eleven months after that, Guideforcebd made their only two Wikipedia edits, increasing the page length to a whopping 29,969 bytes. None of that material was detected as a copyright violation, but appeared to violate our rules on advertising and neutral point of view.
Three months later, in September 2019, Smartse, an admin, reverted the new additions, reducing the page length by 92%. He told The Signpost that he arrived on the page by chance while checking the contributions of a disruptive editor. "It was apparent from even a very quick glance at the article that it had been rewritten entirely by someone working for the company, with much of the text being poorly sourced and promotional. Looking at the history obviously confirmed that, so I reverted. It's pretty unremarkable as COI editing goes to be honest."
The last round
By February 2023, with the last edit before Titan was reported missing, the article length had increased to 4,280 bytes, but the text was very similar to the versions last edited by Diannaa, Kleuske, and Smartse. The main difference was that four references were added, bringing the total to five. One of the references is now a broken link; two were to marginally reliable sources; and the one that linked to NBC news didn't go far beyond OceanGate's PR presentations; for example, there was little about safety.
It might have been difficult to find new information, at that time, about the safety concerns with the submersible, but there was some available back then, before the implosion. In OceanGate's own blog in 2019 they reported that the Titan was not "classified" for deep sea diving. While such a classification is not required in unregulated international waters, it is standard industry practice to have submersibles classified.
More direct information on safety problems was available from a CBS broadcast on November 27, 2022. Starting at 3:20 of the video CBS reporter David Pogue stated "I couldn't help noticing how many pieces of this submarine seemed improvised." Pogue then challenged OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush that "it seems like this submersible has certain elements of MacGyvery jerry-riggedness." Rush's response was less than satisfactory.
A technical knock-out or a split decision?
So how well did Wikipedia cover OceanGate before the implosion? Diannaa, Kleuske, and Smartse should be thanked for doing a great job on a difficult, time-consuming task. If the purpose of the article was to present information released by OceanGate about its subs, while eliminating obvious PR and UPE efforts, they did a nearly complete job. They eliminated the most obvious PR efforts three times, reducing the article size by 86%, 54%, and then 92% in the process.
But there was no time for the offending editors to be blocked. A warning template for readers never made its way to the article page. Paid-contributor warning templates were not placed for other editors on the talk page. If the purpose of the article was to present a neutral point of view from multiple independent reliable sources, the result could have been better, but there were not enough editors working on the article with enough time to complete the task. Finding multiple independent reliable sources can be difficult, and volunteers rarely have as much time or motivation to research obscure companies as their own employees do – after all, we do it for free. Volunteer motivation may be further decreased due to the time required to patrol multiple violations made by paid editors on the same article, and due to the time required to go through the article deletion process.
We could always use a hand.
- ^ According to David Lochridge, whose contract stated that he was ultimately responsible for "ensuring the safety of all crew and clients" until he was fired in 2018, quoted in Taub, Ben (1 July 2023). "The Titan Submersible Was 'an Accident Waiting to Happen'". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2 July 2023. (paywall)
- ^ The copyright violations are archived off-wiki as follows: archived June 25, 2018; archived February 25, 2018; archived June 25, 2018;
archived June 13, 2018; archived June 3, 2018; archived June 1, 2018;
archived May 31, 2018; archived June 19, 2018.