With some 40 million clicks every day, the German-language Wikipedia is a force to be reckoned with. For PR companies and firms seeking to polish their online image, the temptation to anonymously tinker with an article on the online encyclopedia may prove hard to resist.
Anyone making changes to a Wikipedia article can either register by name or under a pseudonym -- or they can opt not to identify themselves. This openness is one of Wikipedia's underlying principles. However, there is one way of getting information on who is making anonymous changes: by establishing the IP address of the server they use.
On Feb. 22, a section of the Wikipedia article on the German car company Daimler entitled "Lobbying" was deleted by someone at the IP address 184.108.40.206. It would have been a fairly routine edit -- had the IP address not belonged to one of Daimler's servers.
The deleted passage, which was based on articles from the website of the German TV news show Tagesschau and the daily newspaper Die Welt, related that in 2007 Daimler-Benz, along with BMW and Porsche, was awarded the online "Worst EU Lobbying Award" for "the dilution and delay of binding CO2 reduction targets." The Wikipedia article went on to explain that a "high ranking DaimlerChrysler employee" worked in the German Transport Ministry while it was drawing up plans for the multi-billion German truck toll system. The deleted texts were, however, restored by a Wikipedia user with the username "Inkowik," a common occurrence at the online encyclopedia where active users police the site to ensure that it is not manipulated to serve vested interests.
Daimler spokesman Florian Martens stressed that there had not been an order "on behalf of Daimler AG" to erase the text. "It clearly involved independent, personal changes by employees," said Martens. Supporting his explanation is the fact that the user from the Daimler IP address also edited German-language articles on "Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden" and "muesli" at around the same time. A day before the controversial edit, the user also joined in online discussions about the articles on "Jehovah's Witnesses" and "Raymond Victor Franz," a prominent Jehovah's Witness.
Out of respect for privacy, Martens said they would not try and identify which employee was responsible for the edit. Even though Daimler has a company policy that staff should consult the communications department before making any kind of publication, Martens sees "no reason" to prohibit employees' use of social media sites, including Wikipedia.
This stance comes across as unusually laissez-faire. Regardless of whether the edit was requested by the company, the anonymous Wikipedia editor clearly broke the company's in-house social media guide. Point 8 of these rules states: "If you actively represent Daimler or its interests on the Internet, be clear about it! You can ensure transparency, for example, by adding a disclaimer to your post such as: 'I am a Daimler employee and am stating my own opinion here.'"
'Daimler Should Investigate'
Ulrich Müller heads the organization Lobby Control which is one of the organizers of the "Worst EU Lobbying Award." He remains unconvinced by Daimler's explanation. He says he finds it "problematic" when "information on Wikipedia which is critical about Daimler is deleted using Daimler computers." Daimler, he says, should investigate and "work to ensure that such actions do not happen again in the future."
But research conducted by SPIEGEL ONLINE reveals that the Stuttgart-based company has a history of editing unflattering information on Wikipedia. Someone using the IP address 220.127.116.11, which also belongs to Daimler, made a total of 24 changes to the Wikipedia article on Daimler back in 2005 and 2006. Some of the edits targeted information relating to the firm's relationship with the Nazi regime. The user erased passages relating that, during World War II, "prisoners of war and slave laborers worked at a facility" built by Daimler-Benz in Ludwigsfelde, classified at the time as a "model National Socialist company," building aircraft engines. Also deleted was the information that a satellite camp of Ravensbrück concentration camp "existed" in the facility's Deutschlandhalle ("Germany Hall") toward the end of the war, and that "1,100 female concentration camp prisoners were forced to labor" in the aircraft engine plant. A similar passage in the section about a factory in Berlin's Marienfelde district was also deleted.
Daimler confirmed the factual accuracy of these passages, but insisted it had not ordered the deletions. Company spokesman Martens said that they would only edit a Wikipedia article if someone "explicitly pointed out factual errors."
Martens also explained that the company's communication department had had a full-time social media manager since the beginning of 2007, who dealt with questions regarding Wikipedia, among other issues. In the past, Daimler has been active on Wikipedia using the user account "Daimler Corp. Communications."
There is a history of companies tweaking their Wikipedia entries. An IP address linked to energy firm RWE AG was used to make changes to an article on the decommissioned German nuclear power station Biblis, which was closed down last year in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. The edit described Biblis as "a milestone in terms of safety."