Facebook, Axios And NBC Paid This Guy To Whitewash Wikipedia Pages

And it almost always works.
Illustration: Isabella Carapella/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Executives at the news company Axios were outwardly unperturbed when Jonathan Swan, one of the Politico-for-kids site’s star reporters, attracted widespread condemnation last November for gloating about getting President Donald Trump to consider ending birthright citizenship.

“Our profile is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and we’re going to have more cool successes,” Axios editor-in-chief Nicholas Johnston told staff later. Executive editor Mike Allen acknowledged that Axios had, perhaps, erred ever so slightly, but seemed otherwise unconcerned with the criticism. “You can’t buy the amount of public exposure we got this past week for our journalism,” he wrote.

That may be true. What you can buy, however, are the services of a verbose, relentless Wikipedia editor willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that that public exposure is as flattering as possible. So, Axios did.

Axios may not have expressed its worries about its reputational problem publicly or even to its own staff, but the company did hire Ed Sussman, a former head of digital for Fast Company and Inc.com who’s now a paid Wikipedia editor at WhiteHatWiki.com, to do damage control.

Axios had previously hired Sussman to beef up its Wikipedia page (mostly with benign — if largely flattering — stats about Axios’ accomplishments) in February 2018. A week after Swan’s Trump interview aired, Sussman was hard at work on the reporter’s Wikipedia page, arguing that the entry was unfair to Swan and used “sensationalistic language” instead of the “dispassionate voice” Wikipedia requires. To correct the issue, he suggested a total overhaul of the description.

About a month later, Sussman proposed a list of extensive edits to Swan’s page. Some were clearly in service of his original argument about the Trump interview; others, such as his suggestion that Wikipedia editors add an “Awards and Honors” section, seemed focused on promoting Swan himself. He also asked editors to remove a sentence noting that Swan had once incorrectly reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had verbally resigned. Sussman then suggested the following paragraph be placed in its stead:

On September 24, 2018, he was the first to report that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had verbally resigned and published the Rosenstein exit statement that the Justice Department sent to the White House. The story was later updated to clarify that is was uncertain if the White House had accepted the resignation, which it ultimately did not. Swan later said he had given the resignation story unwarranted certainty.

Most of Sussman’s changes were approved.

The vast majority of the people who propose and make changes to Wikipedia are volunteers. A few people, however, have figured out how to manipulate Wikipedia’s supposedly neutral system to turn a profit.

That’s Sussman’s business. And in just the past few years, companies including Axios, NBC, Nextdoor and Facebook’s PR firm have all paid him to manipulate public perception using a tool most people would never think to check.

Wikipedia Editing For Fun And Profit!

Wikipedia’s rules can feel dense and impenetrable and are phenomenally boring to talk about, but it helps to know a little about the site’s structure to understand exactly what Sussman does. So bear with me.

One of Wikipedia’s more well-known rules is its prohibition on editing pages that you have any sort of direct connection to. This, along with the fact that it’s humiliating to get caught editing your own Wikipedia page, is usually enough of a deterrent to companies and public figures looking to inject a positive spin. But those looking to get around the site’s conflict of interest rules aren’t totally without options. Anyone, even someone financially tied to the subject in question, is allowed to merely suggest edits in the hopes that a less conflicted editor might come by, agree, and implement the changes for them. This is where a paid editor like Sussman comes in.

On his website, Sussman identifies himself as “a journalist, lawyer, academic and technology entrepreneur” who “is often called upon in ‘crisis management’ situations where inaccurate or misleading information has been placed in a Wikipedia article, potentially creating severe business problems for its subject.”

And because Sussman is open about what he’s doing, he’s forced to play by Wikipedia’s rules, which means disclosing his affiliation every time he suggests an edit on behalf of a client. One risk, he warns clients, is that “an experienced Wikipedia user might check the Talk page of the article” (the section attached to every article where editors discuss issues or concerns that come up) and discover that an editor with a conflict of interest had made his mark.

“In just the past few years, companies including Axios, NBC, Nextdoor and Facebook’s PR firm have all paid Sussman to manipulate public perception using a tool most people would never think to check.”

In a phone call with HuffPost, Sussman repeatedly emphasized that: 1) There was no story here; 2) Everything he does is aboveboard; 3) The real problem is the paid editing that goes undisclosed.

“I am not the one sucking in the business,” he said. “The ones sucking in all the business are the firms who, when they get a call, say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take care of it.’ And they just take it down and they don’t do a disclosure.” Edits made by someone with an undisclosed conflict of interest are certainly rampant, but once discovered, those illicit edits are reversed. Sussman’s suggestions, because they’re allowed within Wikipedia’s guidelines, can have much more lasting influence.

Although he’s only technically allowed to suggest changes on a subject’s Talk page, Sussman has an impressive track record of getting edits approved on behalf of his clients.

The Players

Although Sussman declined to provide a complete list of clients, the fact that he’s required to disclose who signs his paychecks means all that information is out there somewhere — and just takes a little digging to find. In addition to Axios, HuffPost found Sussman making edits on behalf of Facebook, NBC and casual racism depository Nextdoor.

NBC confirmed its relationship with Sussman in an email to HuffPost. A spokesperson for Axios also confirmed its relationship with Sussman, adding, “Axios hired him to correct factual inaccuracies. Pretty sure lots of people do this.” Facebook and Nextdoor have not yet responded to requests for comment.

Facebook’s PR agency paid Sussman to tweak Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s page. Those successful (if mild) changes weren’t the totality of his Facebook work, though. He also spent over a year lobbying Wikipedia’s editors to create a page for Facebook’s global head of PR, Caryn Marooney, despite being repeatedly turned down over her lack of notability. But Sussman, to many editors’ dismay, is indefatigable, and he eventually triumphed.

NBC, too, apparently decided to put Sussman’s service to use in the aftermath of The New Yorker’s bombshell Harvey Weinstein report and, later, the allegations of sexual misconduct against Matt Lauer.

Several NBC employees, including Meet the Press host Chuck Todd and NBC Chairman Andy Lack, benefited from Sussman’s intervention, too. In one proposed edit, Sussman attempted to argue that on NBC News’ Wikipedia page, the mention of criticism directed at NBC over its handling of Matt Lauer constituted a violation of Wikipedia’s rules, since “it does not summarize the opposing point of view.”

Here’s the paragraph Sussman took issue with:

Ronan Farrow’s story about the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations was developed at NBC News in 2017; the company chose not to publish it and Farrow took the story to the The New Yorker which published it after the New York Times broke the story. The NBC News organization was criticized for not publishing the Weinstein story and were further criticized when news broke of the sexual harassment claims against Matt Lauer.

And here’s just some of what Sussman proposed instead:

Today Show host Matt Lauer was fired in November 2017, about 36 hours after a formal sexual misconduct complaint was lodged against him. Some said the issue was well-handled because Lauer was fired swiftly and management began an organization-wide discussion of sexual harassment, but others were critical of NBC for not knowing about Lauer’s alleged behavior.

In other words, the criticism Sussman includes in his “more balanced approach” is, essentially, that people were mad over the fact that NBC is not omniscient. (That is not what they were mad about.)

Just the other week, Sussman proposed that editors remove a portion of Chuck Todd’s page that mentioned a potentially embarrassing 2016 Daily Caller report about an invitation found in the leaked emails of former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. According to the invite, Todd and his wife had hosted a dinner for Hillary Clinton’s then-communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, and her husband. Sussman asked that editors remove any mention of the report from Todd’s page because Wikipedia had previously (and correctly) determined the Daily Caller to be an unreliable source and, according to Sussman, “it is not sourced elsewhere.”

This, however, is untrue. The invitation was reported in both the Observer and The Florida Times-Union, in addition to the invitation’s appearance on WikiLeaks itself.

But because Sussman’s stated complaints all aligned with Wikipedia’s guidelines, the section was removed.

How To Win Arguments And Exhaust People

Sussman’s main strategy for convincing editors to make the changes his clients want is to cite as many tangentially related rules as possible (he is, after all, a lawyer). When that doesn’t work, though, his refusal to ever back down usually will.

He often replies to nearly every single bit of pushback with walls of text arguing his case. Trying to get through even a fraction of it is exhausting, and because Wikipedia editors are unpaid, there’s little motivation to continue dealing with Sussman’s arguments. So he usually gets his way.

In January of last year, for instance, you would have found this section on the page for NBC News president Noah Oppenheim.

Sussman took exception to the section, explaining why in a punchy 700-word screed, which masochists can read here.

Assuming you are unable to make it through that, though, Sussman’s argument is, essentially, that this allegation doesn’t deserve its own section, that the citation on the first sentence doesn’t support the sentence’s claim, and that the last sentence is unsourced.

That first citation linked to Ronan Farrow’s October 2017 New Yorker story detailing the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, which does indeed fail to mention Oppenheim or NBC. However, HuffPost reported later that month that Oppenheim had made the decision to kill Farrow’s story at NBC ― a fact Sussman conveniently omitted while picking and choosing from Wikipedia’s catalog of rules to build his case.

After a bit of a back-and-forth between Sussman and an editor who goes by Jytdog, Jytdog appeared to become fed up with Sussman’s needling, writing that “the current content is fine. NBC news owns plenty of platforms to broadcast its PR about not getting this story. The article communicates that they had it and did not publish it.”

The discussion of Sussman’s suggestions quickly becomes hard to follow —Oppenheim’s Talk page is currently about 12,000 words long. The actual entry is less than one-tenth of that. Ultimately, though, a comment period was opened to discuss the section, and despite Jytdog’s urgings, a majority of editors decided to leave the information off Oppenheim’s page.

A bit of digging into the editors that voted to oppose the section, however, reveals a peculiar little pattern. Like Wikipedia’s subject pages, each editor also has his or her own general page, in addition to a corresponding Talk page. Looking through the Talk page histories of the editors who sided with Sussman reveals that Sussman directly petitioned a number of them to weigh in. Sussman engaged in this type of communication with editors on other topics in addition to the Weinstein matter on Oppenheim’s page, including the topic of Matt Lauer on that same page and changes to the NBC News page. When viewed in Wikipedia’s user logs, it looks like this:

Again, because Sussman has a conflict of interest as a paid consultant, Wikipedia’s rules forbid him from making edits to one of his client’s Wikipedia pages directly. The only way Sussman can make good on his promise to his clients, then, is by enlisting sympathetic editors. Editors who side with him are usually burdened with more requests down the line.

Although Wikipedia doesn’t technically forbid reaching out to others to ask for their insight, it does forbid petitioning editors to weigh in “with the intention of influencing the outcome of a discussion in a particular way.” Editors will periodically catch on to Sussman’s activities and admonish him on his Talk page.

Posts calling attention to Sussman’s lobbying of other editors rarely stay up for more than a week. According to his Talk page history, Sussman deletes criticism frequently and any record of it in his user logs often gets buried by his prolific posting and editing.

Usually, though, these warnings against Sussman’s petitioning are ignored. Last May, for instance, Sussman proposed that a section on the page for Nextdoor “about a misdemeanor traffic offense by Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia should be removed” for irrelevance. The CEO’s “misdemeanor traffic offense” was originally charged as a felony hit-and-run after he allegedly swerved unexpectedly into another lane of traffic, caused a crash, and bolted. The charges were only reduced after Tolia claimed not to know that he was supposed to stay at the scene of the crash. Sussman solicited input from a number of editors, and the section was ultimately removed.

On Sussman’s website’s FAQ page, he notes that even when he requests changes, “the article looks exactly the same” to an outsider.

His success rate, he brags, is 100 percent.

This article has been updated with a sentence to contextualize more exactly a screenshot of a Wikipedia user log.

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