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When Wikipedia tarnishes your online reputation

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by Staff Writer

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This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

Wikipedia has a huge impact on the reputations of both individuals and businesses. And no wonder: last year, Wikipedia was the sixth most visited website globally. One study found that Wikipedia articles rank on the first page of results for 99% of searches for thousands of randomly selected nouns. There are over 4.7 million articles on the English version of Wikipedia, and millions more on the 286 other language editions of the online encyclopedia.

Unfortunately, this ubiquity doesn’t automatically translate into evenhandedness. As time goes on, increasing criticism has been focused on the dark side of Wikipedia, from bullying and sexism to vandalism and the perpetuation of incorrect information. Many ReputationDefender clients have turned to us because of issues that originally started on Wikipedia.

We don’t advise trying to directly edit your own Wikipedia page. However, it is useful to understand how problems arise on Wikipedia. You can use this knowledge to point Wikipedians toward information that properly reflects your professional life or your business, encouraging them to improve your page organically.

Difficulties around editing Wikipedia

In theory, Wikipedia is an open encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. In reality, however, there are often significant hurdles to be overcome before edits are accepted. This can be a source of frustration to anyone who is misrepresented on the site, especially since Wikipedia’s guidelines forbid individuals from editing their own pages or those of the companies they work for.

Wikipedia’s notability guidelines can cause problems for individuals or organizations with prominence within a certain niche but not among the general public. Claims made on Wikipedia require independent verification by third-party sources, so pages about important individuals or organizations who are not often featured in the media may get flagged for removal.

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Along a similar vein, some individuals and businesses may find themselves misrepresented by a small sample of public sources that do not do justice to the full breadth of their activities. Media bias can work its way into Wikipedia pages when sensationalized news stories are used as sources. If there are no counterbalancing perspectives, a prominently ranking Wikipedia page may cast an incorrect light on an individual or business for years on end.

Pranks, vandalism, and sexism on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is widely, sometimes blindly, trusted by people searching online. However, a few recent incidents have proven that such trust might not always be wise. Last year, one Reddit user posted the following confession:

Me and my friend used to make fun of an Arabic classmate called Azid. We edited the Wikipedia page for Chicken Korma so that his name would appear as an alternate name for the dish or an optional ingredient. Four years on, it has been cited by many cooking sites and publications.

Since many of Wikipedia’s most specialized and obscure pages receive little editorial scrutiny, such “innocent” pranks can often go unnoticed for months, years, or in this case, until they are publicly announced.

Vandalism also occasionally causes problems on Wikipedia. Following Beck’s recent Album of the Year Grammy win, passionate Beyoncé fans flocked to Wikipedia in protest. Beck’s page was vandalized to include such comments as “Grammy stealer” and “BEYHIVE WILL GET U.” The Beck page was quickly restored to its original content, as is usually the case for popular pages. But what if your page is vandalized and no one notices but you? It can be difficult to get this kind of vandalism removed, especially if a group of editors is intent on tarnishing your reputation.

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Aside from these issues of pranks and vandalism, the Wikipedia editing community also faces internal issues such as unwelcomeness to newcomers and sexism. Aaron Halfaker, a computer scientist specializing in Wikipedia studies, notes that the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is becoming “the encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semi-automated rejection, and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.” The community has recently formed a Gender Gap Task Force to address the staggering 90% male ratio of Wikipedia editors.

Best practices for dealing with inaccuracies

Clearly, Wikipedia falls short of its utopian mandate. In the vast majority of cases, Wikipedia does do justice to the topics it covers, but this is poor comfort if a page about you or your business is causing damage to your reputation.

If you do spot an error on your page, it’s best to tread carefully. Wikipedia recommends addressing these inaccuracies on the article’s Talk page—a forum for editors to discuss errors, themes, disputes, and other editing issues—and allow another, objective editor to make the needed correction.

If this doesn’t work, you may need to bolster your case by increasing the number or quality of third-party sources about you or your business. This is where ReputationDefender comes in: we provide consultation around Wikipedia as part of a holistic reputation management program, and we can help you create an online reputation that maximizes the chance of an accurate portrayal on the encyclopedia.