A Stealth PR Campaign on Behalf of Gibraltar Provokes Existential Crisis for Wikipedia

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages

How much do you know about Gibraltar?

If you’ve been reading been reading Wikipedia’s “Did You Know?” page recently, you probably know a great deal about the tiny British territory at the mouth of the Mediterranean. In fact, in the month of August alone, Gibraltar was featured on “Did You Know?” a jaw-dropping 17 times, according to the technology website CNET. (One example: “Did you know that in Gibraltar, a mole’s elbow is a site of control for the harbour?”) That, for the record, is more times than any subject other than the Olympics—a tidal wave of information for a country with only 2.6 square miles of land mass.

Wikipedia editor and administrator Panyd first noticed the profusion of Gibraltar-centric articles on Sept. 13. The next day, she discovered that they were promoted by Roger Bamkin, a board member of Wikimedia U.K. (which is heavily involved with Wikipedia platforms in Britain*) and a Wikipedian in Residence. Then the floodgates burst open: Bamkin, it turns out, had signed a contract with the government of Gibraltar to publicize the territory on Wikipedia—making him a de facto PR consultant. Yet Bamkin was only promoting articles, not editing them, and while the latter is entirely verboten for Wikipedians in Residence, the former is a gray area.

Thus began a small war among Wikipedia editors, with some proclaiming that Bamkin committed “no abuse at all” while others labeled the situation a “full-on shitstorm of epic proportions.” The debate first centered around whether Bamkin had received money for his promotion of the minuscule peninsula*, or if he had just volunteered his services because he had an intense fascination with an arcane subject—not a rare occurrence in the Wikipedia community. But even after the editors agreed that Bamkin’s contract with Gibraltar heavily suggested remuneration, some question still remained as to whether promoting articles for pay was proscribed.

“Why should we care?” asked one editor. “So long as the articles are properly made” and not in violation of copyrights, “it’s largely none of our business.”

That is the philosophical question at the center of the debate: Is promotion of information unique from direct manipulation of it? Can Wikipedia allow editors to be paid for their publicizing of a story, but not for actually writing it? Or would that, as Panyd suggested, turn Wikipedia into a “billboard”? On Sept. 16, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales himself stepped in, proclaiming that “of course I’m extremely unhappy about” the “disgusting” situation.

You can see why Wales would put his foot down so firmly: Once Wikipedia becomes a pay-to-play platform in any sense, it’s no longer a balanced, universal wellspring of information. It’s just another commercial website, with a particularly insidious brand of camouflaged advertising. Any company with a sly enough PR person could promote ostensibly fascinating facts about its products. If the “Did You Know?” page was suddenly dominated by trivia about Gap or Mars Bars, many readers would quickly smell a rat, but there are numerous PR professionals who represent subtler brands and causes.

To set a precedent, then, Bamkin will certainly be sanctioned and probably banned, but that won’t entirely put the controversy over paid promotion to rest. A number of editors disagreed with Panyd and Wales, arguing that more articles—and more visible articles—about any subject were “in Wikipedia’s interests.” That, of course, is the same logic the Supreme Court used in Citizens United: Isn’t more speech better speech, no matter where it comes from, no matter who is paying to say it? It might seem the avowedly libertarian Wales would be on board with such a proposition. Yet in the light of the Gibraltar controversy, the Wikipedia mastermind is clearly shying away from every form of paid editorial involvement.

Meanwhile, Gibraltar isn’t quite through with its grand Wikipedia experiment: The government recently attached QR codes to its landmarks so tourists can quickly read up on the island’s history. Those codes link directly to relevant Wikipedia entries. If the territory’s government can’t bring Gibraltar to Wikipedia, it can at least bring Wikipedia to Gibraltar.

Correction, Sept. 20, 2012: This article originally and incorrectly referred to Gibraltar as an island. It is a peninsula.

Correction, Sept. 26, 2012: This article incorrectly described Wikimedia U.K. as controlling Wikipedia platforms in Britain. Wikimedia U.K. is heavily involved, but the British Wikipedia is operated by the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco.