The extent of Bell Pottinger’s internet manipulation to alter its clients’ reputation online can be revealed by the Bureau.
Evidence seen by the Bureau shows the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients in the last year.
Some of the changes added favourable comments while others removed negative content.
It is the first direct evidence that secretly recorded boasts by the company’s senior executives that it uses ‘dark arts’ to manipulate content on the internet were true.
Among the changes made in the last year by a user – traced to a Bell Pottinger computer – who made the alterations under the pseudonym ‘Biggleswiki’ were:
* Removal of a reference to the university drugs conviction of a businessman who was a client of Bell Pottinger.
* Editing of material relating to the arrest of a man accused of commercial bribery.
* Editing of the entries for prostate cancer expert Professor Roger Kirby and his firm, The Prostate Centre. Both are clients of Bell Pottinger. The user added Mr Kirby into a separate page on ‘prostatectomy’ as a notable expert, and edited the entry on Lockerbie bomber Abdulbasset al-Megrahi to include comments made by Kirby about Megrahi’s cancer.
These are just a few of the damaging allegations against clients of Bell Pottinger which were removed from Wikipedia.
Wikipedia edits uncovered
The connection was first spotted by the blogger Tim Ireland, after reading the joint investigation into Bell Pottinger by the Bureau and the Independent.
Undercover Bureau reporters, posing as agents of the government of Uzbekistan, were told that ‘sorting’ negative coverage and criticism on Wikipedia was a service that the company could provide.
After reading the story, Mr Ireland began examining edits made to the Wikipedia articles of Bell Pottinger clients.
His suspicions were aroused after he observed that ‘Biggleswiki’ was repeatedly editing an article on the money transfer company Dahabshiil – mentioned in the original Bureau article – to make the company appear more favourable.
One of the first changes made by ‘Biggleswiki’ was to add a series of paragraphs advertising the lengths that Dahabshiil went to in order to comply with international regulations.
On May 6 2011, at 9:50, Biggleswiki added a number of paragraphs fleshing out the history and accomplishments of Dahabshiil
After another user complained about the edits being unduly positive, Biggleswiki responded: ‘I am trying to expand this article with plain, referenced facts about Dahabshiil (I can easily change any references that you’re uneasy with). Your sole agenda seems to be to add a ‘Controversy’ section filled with as yet unproved allegations’.
A spokesman for Dahabshiil said last night: ‘We have never heard of Biggleswiki, and know nothing about them. We are currently trying to get to the bottom of this and get information as to what is said to have happened. We can certainly confirm that we have never asked anyone to do anything other than tell the truth about Dahabshiil.’
The spokesman added that the company used communications specialists to promote its services, in particular its work for charities.
As well as holding millions of pages of material, Wikipedia also stores all previous versions of all articles, along with the username or IP address of whoever made the changes.
Whilst users are logged in, edits are attributed to their username. However, any edits made by users who aren’t logged in are attributed to the IP address of the computer from which the changes are made.
An IP address is a unique digital fingerprint that can be used to identify the individual computer behind online activity.
The personal Wikipedia page of ‘Biggleswiki’ has been edited several dozen times. All of these times, the changes were attributed to ‘Biggleswiki’ himself. However, on one occasion, the user making the changes was not logged in. As a result, the change was attributed to the IP address ‘188.8.131.52’.
An IP-lookup search revealed that the IP address in question was identified as being linked to ‘BELL-POTTINGER-
When contacted a spokeswoman for The Prostrate Centre confirmed that it had asked Bell Pottinger on several occasions to make the changes and add information to its Wikipedia entries on its behalf.
James Thomlinson, head of digital at Bell Pottinger said: ‘Biggleswiki is one of a number of accounts that the digital team have used to edit Wikipedia articles.
‘This account has been in operation for over a year. I would like to point out that while we have worked for a number of clients like the Prostate Centre, we have NEVER done anything illegal!
‘We have never added something that is a lie or hasn’t been published elsewhere and we have never tried to ‘astroturf’, ie, create fake positive reviews to sell a product. If we have been asked to include things about clients that are untrue we have always said no and pointed to Wikipedia’s strict guidelines.
‘We have also ensured that for every change that we have made we have sought the approval of the wider Wikipedia community first.’