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'Sockpuppets' Lurking On Wikipedia


Chances are if you want to look something up, you've first Googled it and then you've read about whatever it is on Wikipedia. But as with a lot of things on the Internet, how do you know that you can trust what you're reading? That's a question that occupies a lot of time for the people at the Wikimedia Foundation, which is the not-for-profit organization that operates the online encyclopedia.

Sue Gardner is the executive director leading the fight against the so-called sockpuppets, who might not have your best interests at heart, when you read certain entries. She joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Sue, thanks for being with us.

SUE GARDNER: Hey, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing well. What are these infamous sockpuppets?

GARDNER: Wikipedians noticed some suspicious editing patterns on Wikipedia starting, I don't know, about six months ago, I think. And what was happening was there were a bunch of user accounts on Wikipedia that were editing articles and seeming to insert promotional puffery language into them, and using a number of kind of deceptive-seeming practices. And so, just recently the investigation kind of culminated in the banning of 250 user accounts for sockpuppetry.

Do you know what sockpuppetry is?

MARTIN: I mean I'm thinking of a hand in a puppet and a lot of kids sitting around.

GARDNER: That's kind of the analogy. So what it is, is if I am one person, my name is Sue Gardner, I'm on Wikipedia, my user account is named Sue Gardner. I could also make a bunch of other accounts, you know, Sue Gardner 2, Jim Smith - whatever, right? Those are sockpuppets. And so, what it is, is when you use multiple accounts to mask the fact that you are one person making a bunch of edits. And sometimes sockpuppets do things, like, I might go into an article and say: Ooh, Sue Gardner 1, what a great edit. You are doing really well here. You know?

And so you can use multiple accounts to support your own actions and make it appear that there's consensus that your work is good, when it isn't good.

MARTIN: So are these rogue individuals or they're working for corporations who want to use Wikipedia as free advertising, propaganda?

GARDNER: That's not clear right now. What we do know is - so we have these hundreds of accounts and they've been making promotional edits on Wikipedia, and they've been using message to make those edits that are deceptive. Is it likely that somebody just really, really likes all these small companies and wants to burnish their reputations for fun - like as a leisure activity? That is not likely.

What's likely is that they are working for somebody - probably a black hat PR firm of some kind and they're engaged in bad practices.

MARTIN: So what's the punishment if you can identify these actors?

GARDNER: Yeah, they're banned. So they've all, you know, 250 of them have been banned. More will probably be banned. This is the largest sort of mass banning that has happened in our history for this purpose.

MARTIN: Was this just part of the deal? Is this just kind of the price of doing business with this kind of crowdsourcing?

GARDNER: I think so, yeah. And I mean, certainly all the studies show that every article in Wikipedia gets better over time, right? Time is what makes a good article, time and multiple editors. So if you look at Wikipedia, our best articles are articles on, for example, Barack Obama, right? It's been edited by thousands of people over many, many years. It is richly, you know, studded with citations. It takes you to the original sources where you can confirm what it says. It's a superb article.

Not everything on Wikipedia is going to be that level of quality today. The bargain, in effect, that you're making is that most people who edit the encyclopedia are doing a really great job, and they care about quality. They want to bring useful information to people. But the price tag on that is that it's open to everyone to edit. And so, yeah, I mean that creates some vulnerabilities - that's what we're seeing here.

MARTIN: Sue Gardner, she is the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the not-for-profit organization that runs Wikipedia. Sue, thanks so much.

GARDNER: Sure. Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.