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Anyone planning a trip usually searches for the destination on Google. The image that the search engine displays in its hit list comes from Wikipedia. Because Google extracts information from the online encyclopedia in order to be able to display the most accurate results possible. The advertising agency of the outdoor outfitter "The North Face" made use of this mechanism: They placed an advertising photo in the Wikipedia entry of a Brazilian national park showing a hiker with North Face products in front of a picturesque landscape. So if you googled the national park, you saw: surreptitious advertising.

The agency also smuggled advertising material into Wikipedia articles for other landscapes such as the Cuillin Hills in Scotland or Huayna Picchu in Peru. And afterwards boasted in a video: "We hacked the results to get to one of the most difficult places in the world: the top of the world's largest search engine." Then there was criticism from all sides.

It is not the first time that the online lexicon has been the target of PR campaigns. A few weeks ago, a user called "Verlagsleitung BILD Gruppe" in the Wikipedia entry for Picture on sunday Critical paragraphs deleted and promotional statements added. For example: "Aim of the Picture on sunday it is already on Sunday to set the topics that Germany will talk about during the week. "In addition, the circulation losses were pimped up. The case that the watch blog bildblog.de made public shows how vulnerable Wikipedia is to manipulation. Although the original version could be restored, which indicates a robust moderation and deliberation process, a note under the heading "Criticism" ensures transparency. Still, paid editors are a serious problem for the encyclopedia's credibility.

Wikipedia is one of the most grassroots and participatory knowledge projects that has ever existed in human history: anyone can take part in the encyclopedia. But that is also the problem: Because not everyone does this for an idealistic motive like the thousands of honorary editors. Companies hire a number of PR writers to remove beautiful or critical passages from Wikipedia entries on their behalf. And agencies like Wiki-PR or WikiExperts have specialized in creating and changing Wikipedia articles.

Critical paragraphs have been deleted in the article on "Bild am Sonntag"

Research by journalist Marvin Oppong for the Golem.de portal shows how companies, associations and politicians systematically use verified accounts to manipulate Wikipedia articles. He describes how WWF Germany changed the Wikipedia entry about the global umbrella organization WWF in July 2015. For example, criticism of the expulsion of indigenous peoples has been weakened. And he describes how the CDU / CSU parliamentary group in the German Bundestag even landed on the vandalism reporting page for "spam-like use of web links".

As early as 2014, Oppong examined the influence of corporations on the lexicon in a study for the Otto Brenner Foundation. For example, changes were made to the Wikipedia entries "Biblis nuclear power plant", "RWE" and "fuel element container" from an IP address that can be assigned to the energy company RWE.

"Export of nuclear waste" became "Return of fuel rods" and "Incident" became a "reportable event". In the article "Daimler AG", passages on the car manufacturer's Nazi past were deleted from a company's own IP address.

Try to discredit the gambling law

Peter Wuttke is a professional for this type of image polishing. With his agency "Simply make Hamburg" he has carried out "order edits" for numerous companies such as Edeka, Holidaycheck, Vorwerk and Burda-Verlag. On the agency website it says about Wuttke: "With his know-how he advises companies on how they can present their company seriously, taking into account all Wikipedia rules." Wuttke also writes in the German-language Wikipedia under the pseudonym "Atomiccocktail", where, after research by Oppong, he also accepts orders, contrary to his claims.

"Simply make Hamburg" published an article in June 2017 for the gaming provider Lottoland. This can only be seen in a tiny note in the version history: "Paid Edit. Client is Lottoland Limited, Gibraltar." Because the company registered in the tax haven is not licensed in Germany. The version history shows how "Simply make Hamburg" tries again and again to discredit the State Treaty on Gambling, which prevents Lottoland from obtaining a license. Advertising links are disguised as references, whitewash corrections are made, readers who expect neutral information are misled.

The Wikipedians fight back by repeatedly undoing the changes. But the PR writers are persistent - and in turn revise the changes. It goes back and forth like an endless game of ping pong.

As early as 2006, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales warned: "The big problem with paid editing on Wikipedia is not that someone gets paid for writing, but that it creates an obvious conflict of interest and the appearance of inappropriate behavior." Wales had called the MyWikiBiz service at the time, which was selling Wikipedia articles for less than $ 100.

In 2012 it became known that PR consultant Roger Bamkin was using his post as Wikimedia board member to prominently place his client, the Gibraltar Tourist Office, on the Wikipedia homepage. In August 2012, the small British overseas territory appeared 17 times in the "Did you know?" on. Bamkin had to go after the scandal, and in 2014 Wikipedia tightened its rules: Paid commissioned work must be disclosed. Not much has changed since then, criticizes the Wiki-Watch office at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt (Oder): The obligation for paid writers to identify themselves as such "has not brought about any substantial improvement".

Wikipedia is not about presenting solely valid knowledge, says a spokesman

At Wikimedia Germany you can see it more calmly. "Since the start of Wikipedia, there have been repeated attempts to influence the content," said spokesman Jan Apel on request. PR activities such as editing the Wikipedia article on Picture on sunday are indeed "a burden for the volunteer community, which is committed to the greatest possible neutrality in their representation of the world".

But they also showed "how effectively the community principle protects against influence and glossing over". Volunteers would have "reacted quickly and reset non-neutral edits". Wikipedia does not claim to always present "sole valid knowledge". "It is the community of volunteer authors that forms the backbone for adhering to and enforcing the Wikipedia principles."

The only problem is: the online encyclopedia is losing authors. The number of articles that Wikipedia itself marks as out of date is increasing. Fewer and fewer people have the time and inclination to write articles or fend off attempts at vandalism. So the lexicon is faced with a dilemma: willy-nilly, it has to integrate PR writers into the author network.