Big Oil's Wikipedia cleanup: A brand management experiment out of control

Big Oil's Wikipedia cleanup: A brand management experiment out of control

Summary: When BP was accused of improving its environmental record on Wikipedia Jimmy Wales stood by the oil giant's practices on Wikipedia. That's because unchecked image cleanup by Big Oil's PR reps - with readers none the wiser - is standard operating procedure for the "Internet's encyclopedia."


When BP was accused of having a direct hand in improving its environmental sections on Wikipedia, readers were unaware that nearly half the corporation's page had been written and vetted by the oil giant.

The news broke just as BP obtained an emergency April 5 hearing in its Deepwater Horizon spill trial in New Orleans, to fight what it calls "fictitious claims" for victim compensation. At stake for the oil giant is blame and financial responsibility for the disaster.

BP Deepwater Horizon Wikipedia

Editors on Wikipedia were strongly divided about how BP had been facilitating changes made to its Wikipedia page. CNET reported that BP's press representative "Arturo BP" was not touching BP's page, but instead relied on other editors to make changes. Arturo BP was as a proxy to vet facts for Wikipedia from "experts within the company." BP was quick to say it was not breaking Wikipedia's rules.

Indeed, companies can and do manage their Wikipedia profiles. Wikipedia page management is often viewed as brand management. What's unclear is where the line between corporate brand management, community and fact and fiction lie. 

However, the Wikipedia community doesn't see BP's page management as so black or white. Editors fought each other on Wikipedia discussion pages about the nontransparent corporate content; were the rules really being broken while they were technically being followed? 

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales responded by loudly defending BP's actions. Wales fired off blistering statements saying the oil company was behaving exactly according to the way Wikipedia's rules are supposed to work. Wales specifically outlined that BP's use of Wikipedia was exemplary, 'going above and beyond what is required in order to be very clearly in compliance with best practice." 

Chevron tried, and Wikipedia failed 

The results of BP's "best practice" deserve a close look, along with another big oil company working on Wikipedia: Chevron.

ConocoPhillips and Chevron have had PR people working on Wikipedia since at least 2009 (working together actually, since Chevron owns Conoco). "ChevronJustinH" - Justin Higgs, Chevron Spokesman and Media Advisor - has deleted his user page, but his record remains and shows a legacy of attempting to act in good faith within Wikipedia's rules - that has gone largely unchecked.

Beginning in February '09 ChevronJustinH clearly identified himself and suggested an edit on the talk page of an article about one of Chevron's refineries.

When no one makes the edit, he does it himself.

Higgs doesn't do very much more until April 2011, when he starts working on the main Chevron article. The pattern is the same; he posts suggestions on the talk page, waits for feedback (sometimes weeks, sometimes days) and then makes the edits to the article.

If there is feedback or indication that anyone is reading ChevronJustinH's suggestions, it is not in the open. This goes on until March 2012, when he posts a message to the "Wikiproject Energy" talkpage, actually asking for help reviewing his suggested edits.

Hello all, Justin from Chevron here.

For a while now, I've been posting to the Chevron Talk page about improving the accuracy of the entry. During this time, I've been a little surprised that I've been the only active user there. I've posted edit requests for nearly a year and hadn't received responses. After time passed and my notes went ignored, I went ahead and addressed minor inaccuracies that were factual in nature.

Given, the recent discussion that's been taking place about how companies interact with Wikipedia, there's a bit more clarity around the escalation process. Thus, I'm putting out a humble plea for COI [Conflict Of Interest] help.

(...) in an effort to further improve the entry, I'm asking for someone (or group of folks) without a COI to adopt this entry and work with me to continue to better the page.

He gets no response.

The next time Justin from Chevron suggests anything he puts his suggested changes on the userspace subpage belonging to ConocoPhillips Digital and Social Media Senior Analyst Sara Orsi (Saraorsi), and again posts a message on the talk page.

After three years of Chervon's PR lead asking for help, one editor finally responds and fixes up how some of the references are formatted. That same editor, Lexein, engages Higgs in discussion on the talk page about the neutrality of the proposed edits - the discussion has not developed since February 22.

While this is a welcome sign, and Higgs endeavored to act in good faith while getting nowhere pleading Wikipedia editors for help, Chevron's Justin Higgs has been hands-on editing Chevron's Wikipedia Page for nearly three years.

Chevron's Justin was up against a system that had long ceased to serve both Wikipedia article subjects, and Wikipedia readers - who believe the Chevron page is not produced and maintained by Chevron. 

BP tries to find the line

In what Jimmy Wales cites as the example of best practices in the case of British Petroleum, the experience is much different.

The "Prudhoe Bay" subsection of the BP Wikipedia article (one of nine that include rewrites by Arturo BP) is the most recent change to be incorporated into BP's Wikipedia Page. (A tenth was under discussion when CNET reported on BP's Wikipedia involvement.)

In Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, BP had an enormous oil spill in 2006, and then another one in 2009, among other incidents in the area. Both Alaska state and U.S. federal government filed criminal lawsuits against BP; the oil giant was put on probation for the 2006 spill and faced probation-violation charges for the 2009 spill when according to the Wall Street Journal, "The [U.S.] government said the terms of BP's probation included improving maintenance and safety of the Prudhoe Bay pipeline system and alleged that BP failed to comply."

On February 25th 2013, Arturo at BP posted a new version of "Prudhoe Bay" in his userspace, and started a discussion on the BP talk page about replacing the current subsection with this draft.

After comments from a single Wikipedia editor, the "Prudhoe Bay" section was replaced in its entirety by content written by Arturo BP on March 1st - with no suggestions having been made to change any part of Arturo's text (Although a note was added to the talk page after the BP-Wikipedia story broke in the press March 21st, identifying Arturo at BP as a "connected contributor," there was no such indication at the time).

One look at the previous version and the BP version, and it's easy to see that this isn't just a rearrangement of a few sentences or words changed here and there through negotiation with Wikipedia editors - this is a wholly new version.

The original version of "Prudhoe Bay" deals with three issues - a major oil spill at the Prudhoe Bay site, a water leak at a separation plant, and a methanol leak. The new version also covers the three issues, but the water leak is gone and a second, smaller oil spill now has its own paragraph.

In Arturo's version currently on the BP Wikipedia page, a confusion between the major leak of over 200,000 gallons in March 2006 and the minor leak of under 1000 gallons August 2006 is cleared up.

The newly added claim that "there was no impact upon wildlife" is sourced to an Alaksa Department of Environmental Conservation spill report that says only "No impacts to wildlife have been reported at this time" ("At this time" being just over a week after the spill).

The May 2007 water leak section is now gone. The missing section had read,

In May 2007, the company announced another partial field shutdown owing to leaks of water at a separation plant. Their action was interpreted as another example of fallout from a decision to cut maintenance of the pipeline and associated facilities.[261]

Arturo clearly points out he removed the section, saying the removal was due to the item's source (a USA Today article) not actually mentioning the leak, and it "did not have any environmental or safety impact."

However, that citation was being used - albeit poorly - to anchor an important piece of information about BP and Prudhoe Bay: the widely-reported assertions by investigators at the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee that BP had "cut maintenance of the pipeline and associated facilities" and launched a criminal investigation into whether the maintenance cuts had lead to the spills mentioned earlier. According to CNBC, Committee leader U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak said the water spill, "was a further sign that BP cost cutting was to blame for the poor state of infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay." The water spill was after Guardian UK reported that the congressional committee had, "demanded an explanation from Britain's biggest oil company for documents suggesting that managers considered turning off the flow of anti-corrosion chemicals to save money."

Also not included, from an Alaska Dispatch timeline from 2011:

Nov. 9, 2009: An 18-inch flow line ruptures at BP's Lisburne field, spilling nearly 50,000 gallons of an oil and water mix onto the tundra about half a mile from Prudhoe Bay. Warnings, including sensors that showed drops in temperature and even alarms, began going off but BP operators failed to investigate or troubleshoot the cause of the alarms for months.

The October 2007 methanol spill is handled differently in each version. In the original, methanol is identified as "poisonous to plants and animals" and its use is explained (it is used to clear ice).

Finally, in the current (Arturo at BP) Wikipedia version this information has been removed and there are new quotation marks around the words "toxic spill."

As of this writing, the Wikipedia editor who approved of Arturo BP's "Prudhoe Bay" section has taken a closer look as well, now regretfully calling the new version "far from accurate."

In light of the experiences had by both Chevron and BP, perhaps there now should also be quotation marks around the word "rules" at Wikipedia.

Is objectivity possible, or lost?

If it's true that Wikipedia currently provides 88% of Americans with their knowledge, then this is a much bigger problem than two big oil companies rewriting their own public histories within an extremely inconsistent system.

Wikipedia's struggle with objectivity, between brands and community, is a curious experiment of our generation. Wikipedia subjects should have the right to manage their public information and branding, and editors must have the right to call BS on them - if the editors are truly objective, and if the guidelines are evenly practiced and policed. But that's not what's happening here, and it doesn't appear to have been happening on Wikipedia for some time.

For the bemused outsider, it's not unlike observing thoroughbred breeders: the trick is to closely supervise the genetic mixing between horses with strong traits, to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. Unsupervised, close inbreeding magnifies the weak points in addition to the strong points. But in this case, we don't get horses that are really fast and really crazy. Instead the result is a closed and broken culture where the quest for objectivity is nothing more than an open content pissing match, led by a bellowing, uninvolved landed digital gentry from a bygone Internet era.

The one who has truly lost here is you, the reader. Unless someone can gain control of Wikipedia and clean house, the "Internet's encyclopedia" will disintegrate into an intellectual bag of candy mixed with hand grenades, and be remembered by those actually seeking facts as a historical curiosity; once brilliant as the glittering, refined resource that once made it so valuable.

ZDNet has reached out to BP and Mr. Wales for comment and will update this article upon response. Post image: U.S. Coast Guard working to put out BP Deepwater Horizon fire, Wikicommons 2010.

Topics: Tech Industry, Government US, Education

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • It's always been subject to bias.

    "once brilliant as the glittering, refined resource that once made it so valuable."

    Which it never really was.

    It's always been the case that the Wikipedia has been subject to the bias of the writers, and its true accuracy has always been debatable. I certainly wouldn't trust it to give a fair shake to controversial issues.

    "Is objectivity possible, or lost?"

    Objectivity was never really there to begin with. I don't consider the Wikipedia to be objective except in its articles about mathematics and various historical facts (although one should double check historical facts with other sources, just in case somebody mistyped or the article has been vandalized).

    Outside of mathematics and historical facts, I take almost nothing in Wikipedia to be objective or neutral.
    • Well

      Well what's to say historical "facts" are facts at all? Rewriting history has been common practice long before Wikipedia and the internet.
      • That's true

        The saying "The winners write the history" is extremely true.
        • "The winners write the history"

          It's completely the opposite on Wikipedia. The "victor" is the one party who can't engage equally on the editorial playing field. We're supposed to believe that having an interest in the content of an article makes one non-objective - and that the ONLY party with an interest in an article about BP is BP itself.

          But *everyone* has an interest in energy policy, regardless of which side of the debate you fall. Political assassins like violetblue have just as much interest in the article as BP - it's a lever for a political agenda.

          The neo-marxists aren't interested in objectivity so much as making sure we know that BP is evil. Ironically, Wikipedia tried to implement the same ideas that drive BPs critics - to eliminate private property and make information free and owned by the collective. But like every other experiment in collective ownership, it failed. And as in all the other cases, the only solution the neo-marxists see is a coup - for a dictator to "gain control of Wikipedia and clean house".
          Steven Rogers
          • Agreed - history on WP not to be trusted

            As one who attempted to correct a controversial page about a subject in which I had direct personal knowledge, I can testify that Wikipedia is far from objective. I was soundly defeated by an ideologically driven editor who seemed to have infinite time to apply to the issue, a lawyerly knowledge of the rules and how to apply them, and a willingness to use every trick in the book to make my life miserable. As just one example, Wikipedia's definition of a reliable source allowed a movie reviewer's side comment, in a little read small circulation "alternative" newspaper, to be accepted as a reliable statement on the history of the event, while official US government documents and eyewitness reports were rejected (they don't allow primary sources).

            I eventually gave up in disgust.

            Wikipedia, like so many utopian projects, is routinely and successfully subverted.

            I use WP a lot - especially on technical topics - but I know what not to trust, and I refuse to contribute to their fundraising drives as long as they continue to host so much propaganda.
        • Also, he who owns the past also owns the future.

          I forget the exact quote, but it's along those lines.
          • Re: Also, he who owns the past also owns the future.

            I believe it's in "1984" by George Orwell, but probably it's older.
            Good point ! Thank you.
          • He who controls the past

            "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."

            Of course, it's different on Wikipedia. Must have been changed somehow.
      • Another reason why I recommended double checking . . .

        Another reason why I recommended double checking them with other sources.

        Research is always good.
        • Wikipedia has never been an actual citable source.

          Wiki may work in winning bar bets but has no place as a source for real information.

          Wikis greatest value is in gaining a shallow understanding of a subject and gleaning what to look for from real sources. IE: What search terms to use to find actual cites.
          Rob Berman
          • Wikipedia has never been an actual citable source.

            I agree 100% Rob B.
            When I am helping my children with homework, I can browse Wikipedia as a source of reference but never rely on their facts. I go to other sources for complete facts. As someone said here, when the facts are touched by many sources, the sentence changes from “The Cow Move To The Rear” to “The Bowl Move Thru The Rear”
    • ...It's always been subject to bias.

      ...said the Encyclopedia Americana door-to-door sales rep...
    • Bias, yeah.

      Wiki gives the downtrodden a shot at fairness. Nearly all of broadcast news is now pure bias - he said, she said - no facts of any kind, no research, no attempt to find truth. Journalism now has a dirty name equated to fantasy. Entertainment.

      Wiki requires citations and references which, for a short time, may shed light on the hidden and challenge the propaganda.
    • I like Wikipedia, but even Mathematics entries can sometimes be wrong

      If you look at the time machine, the entry under "co-palindrome" used to exist, and is of course, totally fictitious (it was stated at the time that a co-palindrome was a palindrome in reverse...).
    • Wikipedia is not considered a scholarly source

      I do not EVER take Wikipedia as a scholarly source. If I find something on it, I always use it as a starting point to research. I work in a University library, and I can tell you that for papers and other research, our students are not allowed to use Wikipedia as a source either while researching with a librarian or by the professors. Any student that has it listed as a source is required to remove it. It's simply not a legitimate source in the education community. It has never been recognized as such. If Jimmy Wales wants it to be considered a legitimate source, he needs to change the way the site is edited. Start by limiting who can edit pages. He can still have volunteer editors, just ensure that they RESEARCH the changes and the entries before being published. At this point, the only way to salvage the information on the site now is to research EVERY article.
      library assistant
  • How Jimmy Wales got to this point

    I'll apologize in advance for making this comment mostly about myself, but I am inextricably tied in with the themes presented in this article by Brittaney Kiefer. In July 2006, I launched an enterprise called MyWikiBiz, which was to be a paid editing service focusing on Wikipedia. At the time, this service was entirely within the bounds of Wikipedia's policies. I was so confident of my ability to write content that would abide by Wikipedia's core guidelines -- including "neutral point of view" -- my business practice was to indicate which clients I was working for, and publish to Wikipedia under the disinfecting sunlight of full disclosure.

    Jimmy Wales (the co-founder of Wikipedia) decided to have himself a bit of a fit, immediately blocking my enterprise User account. We then had a telephone conversation, and after I explained to him how Wikipedia already had a "Reward Board" where clients could pay writers for content, he thought up what he believed to be a better solution than my full disclosure. The terms of his agreement were that I should never be allowed to edit Wikipedia on behalf of clients, but that I could author and publish -- on my own website -- wiki-ready content about my clients. If unaffiliated, unpaid Wikipedians felt that the content was suitable for Wikipedia, *they* could copy the content from my website and paste it into Wikipedia.

    Immediately, I saw that the problem with this arrangement was that it hides the provenance of the Wikipedia content -- that the copy-and-paste editor will appear in the Wikipedia edit history to have "authored" the content... and that nobody would easily know that the content had been paid for by a client. Jimmy Wales wanted to hear nothing of this problem. In fact, at one point in our conversation, he said, "Gregory, be quiet for a moment, and you might learn something."

    So, we see that Jimmy Wales' personal solution to paid editing on Wikipedia is a "bright line" rule, that corporate editors and PR firms are *never* to engage in directly editing Wikipedia articles, but that they can only introduce complaints and suggestions via the "Talk page" of articles. Of course, we all know what this means -- the anonymous competitors and critics of a company are free to edit in defamatory content about their target, all to their heart's content. However, the subject of the article is forbidden to engage directly and have the right of response within the content battle.

    Now, BP has followed Jimmy Wales' bright line rule to the letter, and we see that both many long-time Wikipedians are completely displeased with it (as being too generous), and the media has (mostly) pinned BP with the badge of shame, too, even though they were engaging Wikipedia *exactly* how Jimmy Wales has been commanding corporations to do. Jimmy Wales has created a no-win solution for corporations, for "neutral" Wikipedia content, and for the Wikipedian community. Somehow, I still maintain that my initial proposal -- that paid editors disclose their clients, while actively participating in Wikipedia article content -- would have been far more successful than Mr. Wales' ham-fisted approach.
    • it is a no-win solution for many others as well

      I have read about an author who was trying in wain to fix a factual error on a page about his book.
      Wikipedia won't listen to him because he had a 'conflict of interest'.
    • Jimmy Wales may be right after all

      I've read your comment attentively and I would say Jimmy Wales' approach sounds more convincing and convenient to me. I feel, like most of the Wikipedia community, that paid content is exactly what we do NOT want on Wikipedia. The fact that a paid author may write good and true content is incidentally true but then there is always the option to write without being paid for it. Even by yourself. How to do that? Well, I guess the quality (and length) of a paid article on your own site (as Wales suggested) would more or less reflect what's been paid for that quality - this should be satisfying for your customer, who could then also look at Wikipedia for some 'reflection' of this content, by you or someone else.

      Of course, if done by yourself, you would have to offer transparency, e.g. identifying yourself in your personal Wikipedia space, as a publisher on your own site (with link) - writing in 'pay mode' on your site and in non-paid mode for adding some real-content, non-commercial information on Wikipedia. You can do this if you're honestly writing in the right 'mode of mind'. Most people know it when a written text contains exaggeration, or evangelizing some product or company, etc. etc.
      • Re: Jimmy Wales may be right after all

        Thank you for attentively reading my comment Bernard. I'll be honest, though; after reading your reply, I am cognitively unable to fully understand what you're proposing. Are you expecting that every contributor to Wikipedia must have their own Mediawiki website, if they are either being paid to write or have a conflict of interest in writing about a subject? Sounds unbearably complicated to me.
    • Bullshit

      Shills will edit and knockers will edit and both are usually pretty obvious and frequently get booted out. Neither of these types of abuse is a good argument for abandoning a policy of not making conflicted edits.

      I have responded to many hundreds of emails from article subjects to the Wikimedia Foundation. The advice to article subjects (which I helped write) is exactly along those lines. Not editing the article directly is the best solutions because it protects the subject from allegations of whitewashing (other than those invented with malicious intent, of course) and it gives a transparent way for companies and individuals to tell us exactly why they think certain content is wrong, without our being bound either way.

      Not one of these individuals or company representatives has ever come back with an argument anything like yours. Where an opinion is expressed, it is always, in my experience, supportive of the "keep to the talk page" system. This applies to companies, controversial individuals, household names.

      It's a good, pragmatic solution that just quietly works for the majority of cases. Really, there are thousands of such articles and editors, and nobody notices because *it's not a problem*.

      I know that griefers will always try to exploit every minor event for maximum opportunity to air their grudges and give their shoulder chips another airing, but seriously? It's not a big deal. A couple of people didn't apply critical faculties to *their* edits. The content was then edited again and the article contents balanced up. I know you hate to see a calm and rational solution to a Wikipedia drama, but that is what is already settling into place here.
      Guy Chapman