Wiki edits: not the worst of the dark arts

University press offices’ changes to Wikipedia are simply part of a long tradition of spin, argues Chris Hackley

December 5, 2013

In 1929, public relations pioneer Edward Bernays blurred the lines between editorial and propaganda by paying debutantes to light up Lucky Strike cigarettes as newsreel footage of New York City’s Easter Parade was being filmed.

Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, believed that American women would have their own penis-equivalents if only they could be persuaded to defy the social stigma against female smoking.

It is not known if PR officers make use of phallic symbolism in university branding, but some seem to share Bernays’ view that manipulating the content of authoritative and ostensibly independent media vehicles is an effective way of shaping public opinion.

As this magazine recently reported (“WikiTweaks”, 21 November), press officers at several UK universities have been caught anonymously editing Wikipedia content that might cause reputational damage to their institution’s brand.

How should academics react to this revelation? With a surge of righteous vindication as university branding is revealed in all its futile mendacity? With pity for the put-upon PRs so stressed out by their vice-chancellors’ misspeaks that they forgot that their office PC leaves digital fingerprints all over unattributed Wikipedia entries? Or with a shrug as the celebrated neutrality of Wikipedia is shown, yet again, to be vulnerable to professional spinners?

To be sure, PR professionals who delete inconvenient truths or insert flattering falsehoods into Wikipedia at the behest of their employers deserve to spend eternity chained to Alastair Campbell. But spin-meisters with higher standards merit a little more sympathy. After all, a large proportion of universities’ primary audience, the under-35s, get all their information via the internet. For all its shortcomings, Wikipedia is a trusted media brand, and what appears in it matters to a vast global audience. What is more, overzealous weaselling of wiki entries is common PR practice.

Wikipedia itself states that no less a person than its founder, Jimmy Wales, edited his own biography to remove an unwelcome reference to “porn” in relation to an earlier business venture. And this transgression, if that is what it was, seems rather innocent compared with the huge scale of disingenuousness with which Wikipedia is beset. In 2011, the press reported a story about PR firm Bell Pottinger making hundreds of surreptitious Wikipedia edits on behalf of its clients, while in 2012 it emerged that Portland Communications had deleted a reference to the unfortunate colloquial name for its client’s lager brand, Stella Artois – aka “wife-beater”. Perhaps surprisingly, PR firms are sanguine about editing Wikipedia. They claim that they do so ethically by declaring their conflict of interest, in keeping with Wikipedia’s own rules on paid advocacy.

For many PRs, dealing with Wikipedia’s passionate and principled contributing editors is frustrating, because they do not share the working values of professional journalists. But for their part, many in Wikipedia’s community of committed geeks feel that professional advocates should not be allowed anywhere near its editing process. PR trade bodies are terribly keen to legitimise their use of Wikipedia by supporting codes of practice that forbid anonymous posting and confine advocacy to fact correction. Some of the geeks have pointed out that fact correction is selective and still leaves a lot of scope for subtle linguistic persuasion.

Correcting misinformation or deleting libellous and malicious comment is all very well, but other parties have engaged in full-blown “astroturfing”, creating ostensibly disinterested content that is anything but. The CIA, the National Rifle Association, the Vatican, Al Jazeera and the Church of Scientology are just a few of the organisations accused of anonymously editing Wikipedia content that they found uncongenial.

PRs are employed by universities to show the institution in its best light for a wide audience of students, parents, government, media and more. Most would say that their communication is scrupulously honest, while the mere idea of Damian McBride’s antics would scare your average university PR officer to death. But they really cannot win, as there will always be the senior common room Lucky Jims who yearn for more innocent times and who, like many Wikipedia contributors, hate everything they think PRs stand for. Bernays coined the term “public relations” because he knew that the word “propaganda” would be unpalatable to the public in peacetime. As it turned out, he left an ethically confused legacy for his own discipline.

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