Wikiscanner is watching

When controversial British comedian Bernard Manning died in June 2007, one national newspaper published an obituary that he had written for himself. Few in the public eye are afforded such opportunities for partial appraisal – but that doesn’t stop people from trying.

A new tool for examining entries on the popular Wikipedia website has uncovered a trend of employees massaging information presented about their companies on the site. The tool in question, WikiScanner, developed by Virgil Griffith, a computer science graduate in the US, publishes a list of some 34 million edits made on the popular online encyclopaedia and matches them to the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the editor.

Most of the edits detected by the scanner were correcting spelling mistakes or factual information but a significant number showed signs of corporate mala fides. In one case, changes made to the entry for oil company ExxonMobil played down the environmental impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster. The changes came from an IP address that appeared to be connected to the company. ExxonMobil has subsequently banned staff from making changes to its Wikipedia entry without prior approval.

Elsewhere, salary information in the entry for US retailer Wal-Mart was changed to look more favourable; links critical of coffee shop Starbucks disappeared from its entry; and accusations of installing spyware were removed from Dell’s pages.

In the world of Web 2.0 and social networking, such whitewashing is clearly frowned upon. Nowhere, it seems, is this better understood than at computer maker Apple. The evidence from WikiScanner shows that its employees are clearly far too busy to polish their company’s reputation – instead they spend their time increasing the length of the Microsoft entry – by adding nasty things.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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