Reading before the holidays a pair of references in the PRSA newsletter about the difficulties of brands dealing with errors on Wikipedia, I was aware of the twisted path I'd find myself on in early December.
As noted in the PRSA email, I do recognize there is a considerable amount of "Astroturfing" going on -- not just on the Wikis but all around the digital realm.
And in reading the accompanying column about the damage that inaccurate or maliciously false information on Wikipedia can do to brands, it got me watching a little closer.
Who knew I'd find myself inside Escher-like world of WikiProofing so soon after?
We talk at length about monitoring our social media and what our active folks in our organizations may be doing. There's another social media you need to actively monitor. The Wikis and similar born digital reference guides.
I want to make a quick preface to say, I use Wikipedia. A lot. But I also double check anything I personally don't know from my experience or my own historical background -- remember, the Dr in DrBS is a PhD in American history. Teaching, no one was allowed to use WikiPedia as a primary source. Why?
Our story begins with a passing mention in our media monitoring that our former Indian mascot made a list of eight insensitive Native American references. Looking at the story on Indian Country Today Media Network, the author, Vincent Schilling, talked about the "Trail of Tears Classic" between Arkansas State and University of Louisiana at Monroe.
As a native of Monroe, graduate and former employee at the then Northeast Louisiana, I had never, ever heard the series with A-State called . . . well . . . anything. Sure, these two Indian teams had that in common, but NLU's rival was Louisiana Tech; A-State far more interested in games with Memphis.
Both teams were mandated into mascot changes, so certainly there would not be any recent year Native American references. With one exception -- the inside jokes passed among fans still upset about the change on message boards. After a double check with both A-State and ULM officials, a note to Vincent with Indian Country Today Media Network to let him know his information was incorrect.
And that began the WikiOdessey.
Here are a series of links from the internet that prove the series is true, most of all, a Wikipedia entry by a poster I came to know by his screen name of Ejgreen77. Ejgreen77 cited an online work from 2007 and a single news article which was not online. I decided to make the correction myself.
This was my big mistake.
Truth did not matter. What mattered to Ejgreen77 and the entirety of the WikiWorld was I was a WP:NO.
"Based on this edit, it appears that you are a paid public-relations professional, employed by Arkansas State University. As such, please read WP:NO..."
Because I worked for A-State, I must have an agenda. Because I knew the truth and dared to correct it, I was quickly labeled as a "hostile poster" and Ejgreen77 set about to have my account suspended.
This becomes the heart of the problem I have with Wikipedia, both as a public relations professional and as a professional historian. Anyone can post things. To paraphrase an old cliche, once it's on the internet, its the God's honest truth. And under the rules of engagement from Wikipedia, only those without an interest can fix the internet.
(As you might expect, there is a Wikipedia page for the history of conflict of interest. It's not really encouraging with the unrealistic line in the sand about "if you are paid by". Guess if you get paid to teach or write American history, you shouldn't edit it on Wikipedia -- you have an interest in being right . . . )
Meanwhile, the media continued to not correct its story, but the editor sent a note to say that it didn't seem quite right and they would revise their story to say that certainly since the two schools changed their mascots during the early 2000s, the label wasn't currently being used. But, because the Wikipedia entry persisted, they would not retract the story as based on inaccurate information.
Appealing to reviewers, a three-week process of near daily checking and updating information to plead the case began. Throughout it all, the fact I had a PhD in history, that I had intimate knowledge of both programs, that I had grown up in the region, that I had worked in the sports media and could also speak to the inaccuracy -- all that mattered was I worked for A-State.
My level of frustration was high. Now the mascot issue was on the other foot. I had been labeled. And I was not to be believed because of my associations. I was being judged on the surface.
Eventually, allies came to my side, and several of them came to the same conclusion: none of this seemed to exist prior to the mascot changes. I also found and supplied scans of books on college and regional sports history -- since the media guides of either school were not considered viable "truth". After all, they were the product of WP:NO.
I also made the argument, if this series was real, where was the trophy like the Arkansas-LSU or Northwestern State-Stephen F. Austin series. These also had Wiki entries, and photos of the trophies -- the Golden Boot and the giant cigar store Indian Chief Caddo.
Two days before Christmas, the Wiki court ruled in our favor, and changed the entry "permanently" to the Arkansas State-ULM Series. Ejgreen77 went to the end believing in his story, and as far as I know, believing I had done some eeeeeeevil PR work.
To the full credit of Indian Country, once they saw the evidence and that Wikipedia had stricken the entry, they were more than gracious in removing their story.
And this is the heart of the story. If this was a more visible, more contentious matter of brand reputation in which the media source was Wikipedia, what damage would result due to Wikipedia's policy to not take the word of those of us who happen to work for a group?
Is the takeaway of the story that we all have to buddy-up with someone we can call on to correct our inaccuracies that is not "connected" by a paycheck to our schools?
This seems like a poor way to run an encyclopedia. It certainly isn't the Associated Press or any other reasonable media or governmental standard. If the institution can prove an error, it gets corrected.
This all comes back around to the key points in the PRSA's survey: takes too long to respond, factual errors not addressed.
But the moral of both the article and our story:
Some Viewed Making Changes as Near Impossible: 23% of respondents felt that making changes to Wikipedia articles for their company or client was “near impossible” in 2012 and 2013.