Editors of Wikipedia's English-language site announced late tonight that they had discovered and banned 381 user accounts for "undisclosed paid advocacy."
The bans are the result of an investigation that "began in early July." Editors called the investigation "Orangemoody," after the name of the first sockpuppet account that was discovered. (Sockpuppets, secondary accounts used by users who falsely claim not to be affiliated with the people or organizations whose Wikipedia entries they're editing, among other things, are banned by the site's terms of service.)
The editors announced the bans on the online encyclopedia's Administrators noticeboard. The Wikimedia Foundation also announced the bans in a statement sent to Fusion and posted on the Foundation's blog.
According to Wikimedia's statement, the bans aren't the only action editors took. They also deleted 210 articles that the various sockpuppet accounts had created. By way of explanation, Wikimedia wrote:
Most of these articles, which were related to businesses, business people, or artists, were generally promotional in nature, and often included biased or skewed information, unattributed material, and potential copyright violations. The edits made by the sockpuppets are similar enough that the community believes they were perpetrated by one coordinated group.
According to a post by "Risker," one of of the editors involved with the Orangemoody investigation, the perpetrators also carried out an extortion scheme. User(s) behind sockpuppet accounts would would work on previously created, but unapproved, draft articles. Then they would contact the subjects of the articles — for example a band called "The Receiver," an English wedding photography service called "Married to my Camera," and several Bitcoin casinos — and offer to get the article published for a fee that varied from article to article. After collecting the fee and publishing the article, Risker says, the fraudulent accounts would then contact the subject again and offer to "protect the article from vandalism and prevent its deletion," charging prices of roughly $30 a month for what amounts to a protection and extortion racket.
The 381 accounts identified in the investigation had edited articles beginning in April and ending in early August, according to Risker, although evidence suggests their editing scheme had gone on for much longer.
This isn't Wikipedia's first struggle with undisclosed paid editing. The phenomenon is prevalent enough the The Atlantic wrote about it early last month, and a 2013 case involving the organization Wiki-PR led to 323 sockpuppet accounts being banned, and caused Wikimedia to change its Terms of Service "to clarify and strengthen its ban on the practice" of undisclosed paid editing.
According to Risker, volunteer editors can continue to help by reviewing articles edited by the sockpuppet accounts, repairing or deleting articles as necessary. The editor also urged the Wikipedia community to "be kind to the article subjects. They too are victims in this situation."
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at email@example.com