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The dirty battle for Wikipedia: The Robert Eringer case

by: fakehunter
Wednesday October 29, 2014 - 19:00
1 comment

The case of Wikipedia entry for blogger Robert Eringer shows how reputation on the free knowledge site is fought for with all the tools of the dark arts.

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Wikipedia was such a lovely and simple idea – knowledge gathered, shared and improved by the online population. But with its popularity came its downfall: the free encyclopedia with its over 4.6 million articles has become a battleground for pressure groups and “reputation managers” to present their sides of a story, or to erase inconvenient truths about their clients.

The page for American Robert Eringer is a lesson in the dark arts that are being employed to prevent changes unfavourable to the page’s subject. In this case, there is much unfavourable information to share – legitimately so. The former tabloid hack with no degree turned into a ruse after his journalistic career had dried up, now turned bartender. He has a shady past with a number of lawsuits against his name, both in the US and in France. Yet, on his Wikipedia page he prefers to present himself as a successful high-end journalist and a loveable author of (often self-published) novels.

Most notoriously perhaps, he has been airing his grievances with all sorts of high-profile figures on his blog. As the former chief of the intelligence service in Monaco, he was fired in 2005 after as he claimed he had uncovered links to the Russian underworld, for which he possessed no evidence. He used his blog Monaco Intelligence for a smear campaign against Prince Albert of Monaco, several of his staff, as well as, rather randomly, Russian president Vladimir Putin. Eringer lost a libel lawsuit in France in 2011 and was ordered to take down his blog posts, and in 2012 the French court found him guilty of public defamation and insult. But as a US citizen, residing in California, he is protected by the country’s iron-clad free speech laws – and is free to continue his libellous blog.

This blog highlights the gravest problem for Wikipedia: Wiki editors check backlinks to verify information, but do not judge the integrity of the link. In this case, Eringer is able to link to his blog and, through inclusion in the Wiki page, his “truths” become part of a globally accepted truth.

But as much as this highlights the pitfalls, the battle for his page gave epistemologists a reason to rejoice. His page included an entire section entitled “controversies”, which listed a major lawsuit and the ongoing smear campaign against the principality of Monaco. The former concerned a particularly nasty case: Eringer was tasked by former CIA staffer Clair George (a man convicted, and later pardoned, for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair) to distract an inconvenient journalist, JanicPottker. She was in the process of investigating and writing an uncomfortable book on the Barnum & Bailey Circus owner, the Feld family. Eringer posed as a literary agent and set upon distracting her from writing this book with other – bogus – assignments. Pottker sued Feld et al for “invasion of privacy, fraud and infliction of mental illness”, claiming $60m in damages. It is not known how the case was settled, but co-defendant Eringer was found guilty.

Various Wikipedia contributors included this information in the Wikipedia entry for Eringer – correct as it is – but Eringer in the summer of this year hired a PR agency to clean up his English Wiki. This was conducted under the username 009o9 and discloses the fact that he used “paid-editing assignments” to resolve a “biography that appears to be an attack article”.

To be clear: the article containing the “controversies” was – is – correct. Eringer was convicted in US and French courts. This may be an inconvenient truth for him, but the truth is not an attack. It’s a fact.

And so, his PR agency removed the controversies and replaced them with his career as a novelist. A loveable author of witty tales from the world of intelligence, or so the spin doctors would have Wiki readers believe. No word of lawsuits.

And so the battle commenced.

Wikipedia contributors noticed the change in his page immediately and edited it back to its original version, including his legal troubles. Days of keyboard-rattling from voluntary individuals and his PRs followed, posting and editing their versions of what was a correct biography of this man. After a two-week battle, a Wikipedia community editor had enough and locked down the page, preventing future edits. Luckily, the lock-down occurred when the original version, and not the PR spin, had the upper hand. It could easily have been the other way around.

The case of Robert Eringer – loveable Californian author or convicted ruse (you decide) – highlights the fatal flaw of Wikipedia. Granted, many of its articles concern straight-forward facts – for example, on countries, geography or astronomy. But as soon as the facts have enemies – for example, some science such as climate change – or they portray a person in a light he does not like, Wikipedia represents the biggest battleground on the internet. (Although not the only one,Eringer pays the same PR agency to post positive reviews of his Santa Barbara bar Bo Henry’s on peer review site Yelp. Incidentally, what happens when Eringer takes PR into his own hands can also be found on Yelp – He personally replied to a negative comment with the words: “Sounds like you’re the one with a problem. Easily resolved: drink elsewhere.”)

World leaders such as Vladimir Putin do not take kindly to have their pages edited. Try and include a sentence about the international mockery he suffers on a regular basis for his staged holiday snaps (remember the one riding topless on a horse?). Go on – try it. It will not succeed, and if it does, it will be taken down by his publicists within the hour.

Another problem are the “job titles”. Should Saddam Hussein’s page refer to him as a “dictator” or “toppled leader of Iraq”? The former is a judgment, albeit one the media has adopted and would be easy to verify with numerous links on Wikipedia. And for a bit of fun, look up the page of “politician and philanthropist” Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the former prime minister responsible for taking Britain to war in Iraq. No mention on his page of the criticism he has faced for participating in this war, or of his fruitless efforts as a Middle East peace envoy, save for the substantial private consultancy contracts he brings back from virtually every EU-sponsored trip to the region.

Wikipedia should not have become a PR tool for the powerful who wish to airbrush their own history, but it has – and this severely harms Wikipedia’s reputation. Those with the financial might to hire and reputation managersPRs– Eringer being the son of Papa Duke, a wealthy Disney illustrator – are likely to have the upper hand, and Wikipedia has to rely on the army of activists to prevent the saccharine spin or a poor life decisions.

In the case of Eringer, more than an anecdotal story, the Wikipedia project runs the risk of losing its credibility.



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The dirty battle for Wikipedia: The Robert Eringer case
Thursday November 13 - 16:10 - Posted by redhunter - efdf46ebeae3f43ae8a2bf37a0e318fa...

People like Eringer need to go to jail. Shame on them.







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