Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2020-09-27/Special report

Paid editing with political connections: WE charity and Justin Trudeau, Bell Pottinger, Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs.


Many Wikipedians have seen the effects that paid advocates can have on an article. These paid editors tend to make obviously biased edits, be very persistent, and are easily identifiable. But some of them are much more sophisticated. This investigation focuses on one firm that, except for two seemingly minor editing mistakes, would likely not have been identified. The firm had twelve sock puppets, which are now blocked, and worked for a charity now involved in an ethics investigation of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The paid editing firm has also worked on articles about Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, and subcontracted social media work from Bell Pottinger during that firm’s disastrous PR campaign in South Africa.

Percepto

Percepto, formerly known as Veribo, is an Israeli firm that advertises its online reputation management (ORM) services and its "Wikipedia consulting". Its ORM clients have included binary options companies.

Until earlier this year, it published a page on its website "Wikipedia - The rules of the game" about how difficult Wikipedia’s rules make life for paid editors. They end the page "Wikipedia editing is a beautiful challenge. […] To consult on any and all Wikipedia-related queries for you or your clients, leave us your contact info and we will get back to you promptly." But let’s be clear: Percepto doesn’t follow Wikipedia’s rules—for example, none of Percepto's paid editors blocked for editing ever declared their employer or clients.

Their website promises "strict confidentiality" for their clients and also states, "Effective online reputation management is not confined by geographic borders or conceptual barriers. In fact, the ability to overcome these traditional boundaries is essential. We know how to bend the lines without breaking them and where to shine the spotlight in order to promote your agenda effectively."

Wikipedia editors believed to be employed by the firm have been indefinitely blocked for editing articles on the WE charity which is currently under investigation for a scandal involving Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Editors blocked in the same sockpuppet investigation edited articles on Russian and Ukrainian businessmen Viktor Vekselberg, Boris Lozhkin, and Gennady Gazin. The Signpost reminds our readers that no purely on-Wiki investigation can completely prove the real world identity of the accounts under investigation. For instance, an editor may try to impersonate another individual or company in order to embarrass them, known as a "Joe job". The evidence in this case seems particularly strong, however, and is based not just on the thorough sockpuppet investigation and a long discussion at the Conflict of interest noticeboard, but also on a pair of remarkable editing mistakes, by two accounts associated with Percepto. In this edit to the article on the Rinat Akhmetov Humanitarian Center, the now-blocked sock puppet Isaack.build inserted an apparent link to a Dropbox file

File:///C:/Users/b oph/Dropbox (Veribo)/Delivery/Active Clients restored/Ruslan Baisarov/Wikipedia/8918 Baisarov Akhmetov Humanitarian Ophir 100.docx#%20ftnref1

This file path or link looks like a Dropbox file for the company Veribo, possibly related to a customer named Ruslan Baisarov about the Wikipedia article on the Rinat Akhmetov Humanitarian Center.

Not to be outdone, the now-blocked sockpuppet MarthaLetter made this edit to the article on ME to WE inserting a link to a possible Dropbox file:

File:///C:/Users/User/Dropbox (Veribo)/Delivery/Active Clients restored/We/Wikipedia/May 2019 project/ME to WE wiki page - phase 3.docx#%20ftn5

This file path or link looks like a Dropbox file for the company Veribo, possibly related to a customer named WE about the Wikipedia article on the for-profit firm ME to WE.

While we cannot be 100% certain the blocked accounts were employed by Percepto, we can report on why the accounts were suspected as sockpuppets, and examine their edits.

Canadian charity scandal

WE was founded in 1995 as "Free The Children" by the then-12-year-old Craig Kielburger and his older brother Marc as an organization opposed to child labor, especially in the global south. Over the years it expanded from Canada to the UK and US, expanded its mission to include education and economic opportunity for young people, and shortened its name to WE. It also founded a for-profit arm ME to WE. Wikipedia articles or draft articles were written about it including biographies of the co-founders and the CEO of ME to WE. Other articles include ME to WE, WE Day, and recently WE Charity scandal.

The ongoing scandal involving the WE charity and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first made the news in early July when it was revealed that Trudeau family members, including his mother Margaret Trudeau, had taken almost C$300,000 (about US$228,000 at exchange rates this week) in speaking fees from WE over about four years. The prime minister had earlier participated in the decision to award a government contract to WE where C$900 million would then be given to youth "volunteers" who had been affected economically by the COVID-19 pandemic. WE’s management fees would have been C$43.5 million.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who also had a conflict of interest in the matter, later resigned. Justin Trudeau apologized for not recusing himself from the contract decision. He then temporarily suspended Parliament, which had the effect of suspending two parliamentary investigations into the matter, until Parliament reopened this week. In the meantime, WE announced that it would close its Canadian operations over the next year.

Because of the block of the Percepto editors, their editing ended three months before the scandal broke. Their general editing strategy appears to be quite sophisticated and aimed at long-term influence over article content rather than short-term results. They tended to edit fairly conservatively, with major changes spread out over time, sometimes involving multiple user accounts. Many of the edits could be viewed as "housekeeping" style edits - correcting grammar, adding references, categories, or minor facts, or removing redundant material. They did try to add new articles about WE and its executives, such as this unsuccessful draft and this successful article. Some edits might be considered promotional, but not garishly so. A list of Marc Kielburger’s awards, for example, was added, a few of which might have been properly included if they’d been added by an unbiased editor. The Signpost’s investigation found few or no obvious removals of negative content, though the number of very long edits and a few borderline removals of material make this impossible to rule out. These editors did clearly leave out one type of content - our investigation could not find any additions of content that reflected poorly on WE or related persons.

These editors followed a rather sophisticated and time-consuming approach to apparently create a backstory for each editor or hide their identities. They made many edits unrelated to WE but related to Toronto that would normally suggest that they were Torontonians. But surprisingly, many of the blocked sock puppets edited according to a normal 8am-5pm Sunday-Thursday Israeli work week.

Working with Bell Pottinger

Percepto, then named Veribo, worked as a subcontractor for the infamous political lobbying firm Bell Pottinger. They worked with social media in Bell Pottinger's horrific 2017 South African campaign of social and racial division meant to support the Gupta family and the then-president of South Africa Jacob Zuma. The New Yorker later reported that Veribo stated “We now regret our involvement” with Bell Pottinger’s South Africa campaign. A more detailed interview in South Africa’s Daily Maverick quotes Veribo’s CEO expressing the same view and deflecting all responsibility for the campaign onto Bell Pottinger.

Bell Pottinger has had a long history with Wikipedia. In a videotaped undercover interview by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Bell Pottinger revealed that it "sorts" Wikipedia coverage of its clients with a team of employees, and also employs other "dark arts" for its clients.

When its South African campaign was exposed in 2017, Bell Pottinger immediately began losing clients and employees and the firm quickly collapsed.

How the paid editing was discovered

Wikipedia administrator OhanaUnited is a resident of Ontario and knows about WE and the recent scandal. He told The Signpost that when he first saw the edit with the Dropbox link he thought "oh, someone's finally going to expand this article on this worthy initiative." But the editor must have been new and unfamiliar with Wikipedia’s referencing practices. "How many people prepare it (their edit) as .docx and upload to Dropbox? … I was pretty sure it's undisclosed paid editing since the Dropbox file path mentioned 'Clients' but my editing areas don't typically come across paid editing and I needed second pair of eyes to look at it" so he asked about the edit at the conflict of interest noticeboard.

Wikipedia administrator Newslinger guided The Signpost through this sock puppet investigation, to the extent permitted by Wikipedia rules.

Many undisclosed paid editing cases involve the abuse of multiple accounts, also known as sockpuppets. These editors may have particular behaviors that can be observed among more than one of their accounts. This behavioral evidence can be submitted as a sockpuppet investigation (SPI) to trace the extent of the possible abuse.

In an SPI, the editing history of the editors under examination are probed to determine if at least two of these accounts are operated by the same individual and also looks for potential connections to other accounts. All SPIs include a review of the available behavioral evidence and some SPIs also involve administrators known as checkusers who can inspect site logs not revealed publicly on Wikipedia, called technical evidence. A checkuser can only examine technical evidence if there is adequate behavioral evidence.

Few investigations have "smoking gun" evidence as strong as the Dropbox links in the Percepto case. The first link was discovered by chance by an editor not usually involved in paid editing investigations: a Microsoft Windows file path that was accidentally included by editor Issack.build in a 3 June 2019 edit. The link revealed Ruslan Baisarov as one of Veribo's "Active Clients restored". The edit was tagged as a visual edit, which means that Issack.build most likely drafted the content in a word processor before copying and pasting it into the Wikipedia article.

The Wikipedia search feature was used to find all traces of Veribo in Wikipedia articles. Another Dropbox link from Veribo was found: on 16 June 2019, MarthaLetter's link identified the article Me to We as another one of Veribo's "Active Clients restored" that had a "wiki page" in "phase 3" of some operation.

Combined, these two links showed that Veribo was associated with at least two accounts that engaged in undisclosed paid editing and a search of technical evidence began. Five other accounts showed behavioral evidence of being connected to the first two accounts and technical evidence resulted in the blocking of 12 sock puppet accounts.

The strength of the behavioral and technical evidence in this investigation made it highly unlikely that these accounts were framed in a "joe job", which are usually related to trolls rather than paid editors.

Where we stand now

The edits made by accounts blocked for their connection to Percepto/Veribo provide a window into the world of sophisticated paid advocacy on Wikipedia by a firm which is willing to take on politically connected assignments.

These editors created some articles and influenced the content of other articles related to the WE charity which is now being investigated in a scandal involving Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. While we haven’t presented any evidence that Trudeau knew about Percepto, the charity WE should have been able to find enough information about the type of online reputation managers that they employed just by reading Percepto’s website.

Percepto or the editors connected to them were involved in editing in three areas of concern to the public. Where does this paid advocacy editing leave Wikipedia’s reputation for accuracy?

Some Wikipedia editors might think that the Percepto editors were only caught because they made two silly mistakes and were incompetent. Other Wikipedians know, much to their chagrin, that it is surprisingly easy to unknowingly reveal identifying information while editing. Percepto editors may be back - there is apparently a lot of money to be made in this business. While it may take some time to discover any new edits they make, sooner or later they would likely be discovered again. Clients of ORM firms should be aware of this.

Of course there are many companies, frauds, grifters, and kleptocrats that have things to hide and would like to use similar ORM firms to edit Wikipedia. Some of them may be willing to spend much more money on it than the WE charity could. Completely stopping paid advocacy on Wikipedia may be an impossible task, but it is a task that Wikipedians continue to diligently work on.

The Signpost will continue to cover online reputation management firms. If you have any tips that can be documented on how these firms operate on Wikipedia, please contact us here.

The WE charity and Percepto were contacted to request comments on this story. WE responded that they would get back within 48 hours. Percepto did not respond before deadline. The Signpost will update this story with any replies from them.

Update: Following the publication of Wikipedia probe exposes an Israeli stealth PR firm that worked for scammers in the The Times of Israel, WE Charity responded to The Signpost "WE charity appreciates the seriousness of the paid editing problem on Wikipedia. Though we have hired other reputation managers, we did not hire the firm Percepto, as suggested by your story."