How Should Wikipedia Cover When Brands Manipulate Wikipedia?

A recent incident created a rather brain-melting debate.

Illustration: An anthropomorphized North Face logo scowls at a frowning Wikipedia logo.
Illustration by Slate.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.

The North Face is known for its popular jackets, fleeces, and vests. But warm apparel is not insulating the brand from blowback after it was revealed that the company had unethically manipulated Wikipedia for free advertising.

In a May video ad, the North Face and its advertising partner, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, explained the scam: Before traveling, people typically search the destination on Google, and Wikipedia ranks highly in the search results for both webpages and images. So the North Face uploaded photos to the Wikipedia pages of popular destinations that included the company’s clothing and equipment. When people searched destinations such as Guarita State Park in Brazil and Huayna Picchu in Peru, the top results in Google Images would serve as subtle product placement for the North Face’s brand.

In the video published on Ad Age, the North Face states: “We hacked the results to reach one of the most difficult places: The top of the world’s largest search engine. Paying absolutely nothing just by collaborating with Wikipedia.” But the word collaborating is highly misleading here. Neither the Wikipedia community nor the Wikimedia Foundation collaborated with the North Face.* The North Face’s “hack” violated the site’s terms of use, which prohibit paid contributions to the encyclopedia without disclosure. Besides that, it’s also brazenly shady and unethical to hijack a free educational resource like Wikipedia for secretive commercial use.

Once word got out, the Wikipedia community quickly removed the North Face’s images from the compromised Wikipedia pages—or at very least, cropped out the company’s logo. The Wikimedia Foundation also released a statement criticizing the North Face, saying, “They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived marketing stunt.” The foundation’s executive director, Katherine Maher, likewise blasted the North Face on Twitter: “Hey @thenorthface, your brand was built on the passion of exploring places in the public trust.
Maybe don’t litter in @Wikipedia’s digital public park?”

The North Face eventually apologized on Twitter, “We believe deeply in @Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies.”

That’s where the story ends, right? Not at all.

Revelations that the North Face had edited Wikipedia’s images for commercial reasons sparked a spirited debate among the volunteers who contribute to Wikipedia: Should the recent history of the North Face’s editing Wikipedia be included on the company’s Wikipedia page, and if so, how much coverage should it receive?

Pausing here to acknowledge that this is all highly meta: a discussion taking place on Wikipedia about whether Wikipedia should include information within that subject’s Wikipedia article about how that subject covertly and unethically edited Wikipedia. (Taking it a step further, there’s a relatively high possibility that the very article you are reading will at some point be cited on Wikipedia since this is usually the case with Slate and other outlets that have covered the site.)

On the talk page for the North Face’s Wikipedia article, multiple editors cautioned that Wikipedians should resist the urge to retaliate against the company using the encyclopedia itself. “[W]e cannot let our own (justifiable) emotions drive coverage or try to get our readers to understand our outrage,” wrote Barkeep49. “We should, instead, be endeavoring to write a neutral long-lasting article on the topic.”

Over the course of the lengthy text discussion, Wikipedia editors cited several pertinent policies and principles: Due and Undue Weight, part of the site’s Neutral Point of View policy, states that an article “should not give undue weight to minor aspects of its subject.” The North Face’s Wikipedia page stood at 16 short sentences. Adding a detailed new section about the hacking incident when the rest of the company’s 51-year-history was only a high-level summary would arguably throw the entire article out of balance.

Another principle mentioned in the debate was recentism, the notion that an article can become unduly skewed toward coverage of recent events. This matters because Wikipedia’s stated goal is to be an encyclopedia, not a newspaper, which generally means the project should focus on the information that will be historically significant for the long term. Would people still be talking about the North Face’s Wikipedia hack in five, 10, 20 years? On the other hand, as Wikipedia editor David Gerard pointed out, the North Face’s Wikipedia page was receiving a lot more traffic than normal due to the incident. Even if Wikipedia is not a newspaper, he argued that the editors should take note of the currently high level of public interest. Furthermore, the public relations fallout for the North Face had been covered in outlets like the Guardian, BBC News, and the New York Times. To some editors, this significant coverage in reputable publications suggested that Wikipedia’s notability criteria had been satisfied, and therefore information about the incident should be included in the article.

Ultimately, the consensus from the editors who participated in the discussion was to include a two-sentence paragraph describing the incident on the North Face’s Wikipedia page. As of Friday, it reads:

In May 2019, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, a marketing agency for The North Face Brazil, revealed that they had surreptitiously replaced photos of popular outdoor destinations on Wikipedia with photos featuring North Face products in an attempt to get these products to appear more prominently in search engine results. Following widespread media coverage and criticism from the Wikimedia Foundation, The North Face ended and apologized for the campaign, and the product placement was undone.

The rationale for including this summary was that some information was warranted—especially given the significant press coverage—but that an entire section or a separate article about the incident would be undue weight. Curious readers can also read more detail about the incident on the separate Wikipedia article for conflict-of-interest editing of Wikipedia, where the North Face is included along with other corporations and politicians that have attempted to edit the site for their own purposes. For example, in 2017 a Burger King employee allegedly edited the lead of the Whopper’s Wikipedia page before the company aired a commercial designed to trigger Google Home speakers to define the restaurant’s signature sandwich. (Like other smart assistants, Google Home sources information from Wikipedia.) The “OK, Google: What is the Whopper burger?” campaign also received bad press.

After the dust had settled, I contacted Kevin Li, a Wikipedia administrator and 18-year-old freshman at Stanford who had been involved in the discussions on the North Face’s page. Li was not entirely happy with the result—he would have preferred not to include the incident on the page because he did not think it would be genuinely relevant in the long term. But he was glad to see how the community had genuinely and thoughtfully engaged with issues like neutrality, undue weight, and notability. “These are tough questions,” Li told me. “We have to be very careful.”

The sense of social responsibility shown by Li and similarly-minded Wikipedia editors bears a striking contrast to the North Face’s casual disregard as it attempted to hijack a digital public resource. After the incident, Leo Burnett Tailor Made issued a statement saying: “Our team has accepted an invitation by Wikipedia to learn more about the platform and their work to share unbiased, fact-based knowledge.” Let’s hope these advertising professionals learn some important lessons from the Wikipedians, and that those lessons stick.

Correction, June 18, 2019: This article originally misstated that Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate with each other on the North Face’s project. Neither organization collaborated with the North Face.

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