Something Wiki This Way Comes

Web 2.0: It’s a fast-paced, interactive free-for-all. On Web 2.0 platforms, Internet users generate their own content. They create massive virtual communities around shared interests. And it’s growing by leaps and bounds.

Many people have embraced Web 2.0. Many have not. But whatever they think of Web 2.0, donors should be aware of how social media affects their public image. And few things affect public image as much as Wikipedia, the free, online, interactive encyclopedia.

Tens of thousands of volunteers are writing and editing Wikipedia’s three million–plus articles at any given time, and in September 2009, English Wikipedia enjoyed 67 million unique visits. If you Google something that has a Wikipedia page, Wikipedia is almost certain to be in the top five results—drawing more traffic, which in turn makes Wikipedia even more likely to sit atop search results.

It’s worth paying attention to Wikipedia. If anyone, anywhere, writes something false or tilts a Wikipedia article unfairly about you, your foundation, or your founding donor, you need to know when it happens—and what to do about it.

For instance, some people have found themselves the target of a deliberate smear or error. Recently, radio host Rush Limbaugh was dropped from a group seeking to buy the St. Louis Rams after he attracted flak for allegedly making racist comments, one speaking fondly of Southern slavery and the other praising James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.

The problem? The racist quotations were entirely unsubstantiated. They first appeared on Wikiquote, a Wikipedia sister site, in 2005. They were debated and then permanently removed after a few months. In the meantime, an author used the quotations—without sourcing them—in a book critical of Limbaugh. They were eventually reported as fact by CNN, the Huffington Post, and other major news and commentary outlets. Then, in a twisted circular logic, the unattributed quotes resurfaced on Limbaugh’s Wikiquote page—this time sourced to the critical book.

By the time the error was corrected in October 2009, the damage had been done. Limbaugh was savaged in the media, and the National Football League piled on. “I would not want to see those comments coming from people who are in a responsible position in the NFL—absolutely not,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Limbaugh’s partners in the Rams bid took the hint and dropped him from the group.

In Wikipedia’s defense, glaring errors about important subjects and persons are often corrected within minutes. But thanks to Wikipedia’s influence, an error left unattended for even a short time can cause major damage.

Most of the problems with Wikipedia entries, however, are not outright errors, but rather outdated information, inappropriate emphases, and “weasel words” that distort the record. For instance, an entry on a Manhattan hedge fund manager and philanthropist is guilty on several counts. Wikipedia uses the phrase “notoriously private” to describe him (thus improperly editorializing), offers assertions about his work and his personal associates without citations, describes details of his personal life that are not germane to his notability (a violation of Wikipedia’s “presumption in favor of privacy”), and makes minor errors in fact. All told, these small problems compose a misleading picture.

For an example of inappropriate weighting, take a page about a prominent West Coast philanthropist. He is best known for creating a major company and endowing a national museum, yet one-third of the entire article documents a minor controversy over a property (which was home to a gay bar) that he purchased and sought to re-develop. An uninformed reader might think that his real estate investments are on par in terms of significance with his entrepreneurial innovation or generous support for one of the world’s most popular museums.

The “controversy” section on this donor’s page is a common occurrence on Wikipedia. Many pages—including those for foundations—feature prominent sections labeled “Controversies” or “Criticism.” These sections can be stealth vehicles for critics to trumpet their opinions, regardless of merit. On many foundations’ pages, no citations are given. An inappropriately weighted “Controversies” section can unfairly damage an individual or institution’s reputation, which is why Wikipedia’s official guidelines say “it is recommended that in article headings one uses the title ‘Reception’ to indicate criticism sections.”

For living people, Wikipedia is supposed to be even stricter: “Be careful not to give a disproportionate amount of space to particular viewpoints. . . . Care must be taken with article structure to ensure the overall presentation is broadly neutral; in particular, subsection headings should reflect important areas to the subject’s notability. . . . If someone appears to be promoting a biased point of view, insist on reliable third-party published sources and a clear demonstration of relevance to the person’s notability.”

What about philanthropists and foundations that seek to avoid the spotlight? Even if there’s no Wikipedia page about you, your organization, or your founding donor, it may be worth checking on the site periodically. Even small foundations and the entrepreneurs who endow them meet Wikipedia’s loose standards of “notability,” which can require as little as attestation in a few published sources.

And once a Wikipedia page is created, it can be difficult to have it deleted. Seth Finkelstein, writing for the Guardian, bemoaned the article created about him. “For people who are not very prominent, Wikipedia biographies can be an ‘attractive nuisance,’” he said. “[I]nstead of falling on Wikipedia’s poor quality control, any negative effects are usually borne by the aggrieved party.” A negative Wikipedia article can be more dangerous than a comment on a lightly read blog, for example, because the negative content is amplified by the encyclopedic—and thus, authoritative—tone.

[For examples of how some of America’s biggest foundations are using wikis, click here.]

But if you’re troubled by what Wikipedia says about you, your foundation, or your founding donor, you hold the solution in your hands. You can edit Wikipedia. Before you click that “edit this page” button at the top of an article, here are a few tips from experienced Wikipedians:

  • Create a user name, but feel free to be pseudonymous. If you don’t create a user name, Wikipedia will log your IP address permanently to the edits on that page. If you’re editing from the office, future readers can use this information to trace the edits back to you, and call your work into question. Creating a user name and establishing a track record as an editor will allow you to edit protected pages without additional review.
  • It’s not your page on Wikipedia. “How can they say that?” some people wonder. “It’s my page. How do I fix it?” Well, it’s not actually your page. The page belongs to Wikipedia, and it is supposed to be a neutral, well-sourced article about you or your organization. If it’s a one-sided hit job, then it’s breaking Wikipedia rules. But that doesn’t give the subject leeway to make it into a glowing press release or advertisement. Furthermore, while people are technically permitted to edit pages about themselves, it’s considered bad form and, if discovered, will subject that person’s edits to extra scrutiny. You may wish to consider asking someone who knows you well to make major changes to a page about you.
  • Respect the culture of Wikipedia. Don’t begin to edit with guns blazing. If you make drastic changes to an article, it’s likely other editors will think you’re a vandal—and immediately undo all of your edits. If you’re new to Wikipedia, start by learning the rules of the game. If the article you want to edit has numerous problems, begin by perusing (and editing) the “Talk” page to become familiar with the debates that have guided the article’s content thus far. Then, add “tags” to sections (or an entire article) indicating that it needs attention for neutrality, quality, citing sources, or other deficiencies. Taking these steps before editing engages the Wikipedia community in your work and takes steps to ensure that your good-faith edits will be respected.
  • Show your work. Make it difficult for an ideologically or personally motivated antagonist to delete your edits by including citations for every potentially disputable assertion. Be ready to defend your additions and edits by Wikipedia’s standards. Include URLs in your citations wherever possible.
  • Be proactive. Once you’ve edited Wikipedia, keep track of pages that affect you by adding them to your “watchlist”—and review other people’s edits to make sure they check out. If you’re not currently included in Wikipedia, but you meet Wikipedia’s standards for notability, it may be worthwhile to consider creating a Wikipedia page yourself. (It’s much easier to create a new page from scratch than to salvage a problematic one.) Even if you value privacy and don’t wish to create a Wikipedia page, be aware that someone else might do it for you.

If you’re drawn into Wikipedia reluctantly, it may be helpful not to view the work as a rearguard, defensive action. There are some bad eggs editing Wikipedia, as there are in any large, low-barrier organization, but Wikipedia is not in itself a sinister conspiracy. Several major philanthropists—including Ron Unz, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Omidyar Network—have acknowledged the influence of Wikipedia by supporting its mother nonprofit, the Wikimedia Foundation. Grantmakers who take the time to recount, accurately, the records of their organizations and founders are likewise improving what can legitimately be called the world’s most important reference source.

By learning about, and interacting with, Wikipedia, philanthropists are not only protecting their public image. They are standing for the truth and expanding human knowledge—philanthropic activities if there ever were.

This article was originally published in Philanthropy’s winter 2010 issue.