The brilliance of Wikipedia is that a) it’s free—slogan: “The Free Encyclopedia”—and b) the editing is supposed to be done by dispassionate volunteers, so the content is presumably neutral and trustworthy.
Because Wikipedia is such a great, quick, incredibly accessible source for the world, much is at stake for the companies, products, and people catalogued on the site, which has nearly 5 million articles in English and millions more in dozens of other languages.
And sometimes, as an investigation by The Atlantic reports, those with interests in how they’re described on Wikipedia resort to paying freelance writers, PR firms, and assorted Wikipedia “experts” to make adjustments to the site. For example, there are celebrities and politicians who would prefer that scandals they have been tied to would disappear, or at least be toned down in Wikipedia entries. Businesses understandably want to have their products and services painted in the best light too.
But the editing done at Wikipedia is supposed to be done with no money changing hands. “Paid editing disrupts the values,” Katherine Maher, chief communications officer at Wikimedia (which operates Wikipedia), told the Financial Times earlier this year. “Wikipedia is a volunteer collaborative community. If it was paid it would be a different site.”
Yet the practice of paying for Wikipedia editing has been chronicled for years—in 2013 by the International Business Times, for instance, up through The Atlantic’s new report about “The Covert World of People Trying to Edit Wikipedia—for Pay.”
How much are people paid to massage clients’ Wikipedia pages, or to write them from scratch? There’s no set rate. Gigs listed at sites like elance might offer the vague amount of “Less Than $500” for creating a new Wikipedia page for a business. A freelance writer named Mike Wood, who is quoted in multiple stories about editing Wikipedia for cash, told The Atlantic that his clients pay him $400 to $1,000 per article. He also said that many of his clients are big shots:
A Wikipedia entry will be flagged if the tone is clearly biased, or if it is lacking in verifiable, reliable sources. So it’s not like these editors can write whatever they want without some checks and balances. What makes the services of these writers worth paying for, then, is the ability to walk the tricky line of sculpting the content in the favor of your client without going too far and getting busted. After all, as Dariusz Jemielniak, author of Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia, said to the Financial Times, “If paid editing is really smart, it won’t be detected.”