Bell Pottinger and the dark arts of Wikipedia

Leaked e-mails show that PR firm Bell Pottinger seems to have side-stepped Wikipedia regulations to edit entries about the Gutpa family
Picture: iStock

Controversial PR firm Bell Pottinger seems to have side-stepped Wikipedia regulations to edit entries about the Gupta family‚ leaked e-mails show, writes Kyle Cowan.

In February 2016‚ the firm’s account manager for the Gupta family‚ Victoria Geoghegan‚ emailed a draft of “new content for the Gupta family’s Wikipedia page” to a Gmail account called “Team Media”.

This e-mail account was apparently created by Bell Pottinger for the Gupta-owned Oakbay company.

It appears that the PR firm wanted an Oakbay employee to edit the Wikipedia page‚ and not Bell Pottinger‚ which has been flagged by Wikipedia for unethical behaviour.

The e-mail reads: “Attached is the final version of the Wikipedia content. Please can we have a call at 9:15 am tomorrow to brief one of your digital team on how to upload the content? We want to be transparent about the new content we are uploading so need to flag that it is an Oakbay employee editing the Wikipedia entry.”

Bell Pottinger‚ which is increasingly coming under fire for its dealings with the Gupta family‚ last week apologised for stoking racial tensions in South Africa and announced the axing of employees‚ including the account manager for the Guptas.

The firm would not confirm their names and it is not known if Geoghegan is one of the dismissed employees.

An analysis of the Gupta family’s Wikipedia page history shows the page was created by a user named “Discott” just days before Geoghegan’s e-mail was sent.

Then‚ on February 23‚ 11 days after Geoghegan e-mailed the draft‚ the page was edited by a user named “OakbayRep“‚ who made more edits in July that year.

The user made significant additions to the page‚ dealing with topics ranging from Eskom‚ responses to allegations of influence of ministerial positions‚ Duduzane Zuma‚ President Jacob Zuma’s son‚ and the family’s return to South Africa.

OakbayRep’s proposed additions match what Bell Pottinger’s draft suggested – more details on Oakbay’s mining operations‚ Zuma’s response to allegations surrounding former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene’s dismissal and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s response to allegations surrounding the family’s purchase of Optimum coal through their company‚ Tegeta.

A Google search for the Gupta family produces that same Wikipedia page as a third search result. The Bell Pottinger suggested edits are still in place.

In 2012‚ 10 user accounts linked to Bell Pottinger were stopped from making edits to Wikipedia pages after an investigation by British journalists revealed the firm’s apparent skirting of ethical guidelines set out by Wiki founder Jimmy Wales.

He was quoted by the BBC at the time as saying he was “highly critical of their ethics” and initiated an investigation into the firm’s apparent content manipulation.

This was after the Bureau of Investigative Journalists caught Bell Pottinger executives on hidden camera bragging about‚ among other things‚ having a team that “sorts” Wikipedia pages.

In December 2011‚ Bell Pottinger executives were caught out by journalists who secretly filmed and recorded them boasting about their political influence over the British Prime Minister and “dark arts“.

Company executives claimed to have the ability to manipulate Google results to “drown” out negative coverage and that they had a team that “sorts” negative Wikipedia content for its clients.

This means‚ if one was to search for a controversial figure‚ articles written exposing wrongdoing would feature lower down on the list of Google results‚ while the Wikipedia page would paint a rosy picture.

Wales did not respond to questions sent to him by TimesLIVE last week regarding Wikipedia’s current stance on Bell Pottinger.

Bell Pottinger did not respond to questions sent last week‚ despite saying it would.

– TimesLIVE