On the internet, there is no truth greater than Wikipedia.
Wikipedia pages are almost always present at the top of search results, and most searchers looking for quick answers to questions about candidates or organizations consider it a trusted source. For that reason, Wikipedia is a critical digital property for advocacy organizations and political campaigns, and those who aren’t actively monitoring their respective pages are ignoring a key messaging opportunity—both for their candidate or cause, and for those who may want to tear them down. The first few sentences of a Wikipedia article are parroted word-for-word into Google’s ever-present Knowledge Panel and by both Alexa and Google Home’s voice results.
Some believe that Wikipedia resides in an apolitical box unaffected by the forces of political bias—but that’s not true. Just as information warfare is taking place across social media platforms, so too is it being fought on political Wikipedia pages.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s pages both saw a massive spike in edits from folks across the U.S. trying to control this critical asset for each candidate. A small team of volunteer Wikipedia editors acted as the finger in the dam, and as pages become highly visited, new edits require approval from higher-level editors. This is to say that Elizabeth Warren’s team will have little effect on her page, as will the teams fighting for Medicare for All and other popular progressive legislation.
However, that’s for national candidates and issues—campaigns and consultants have a lot more power over state-level political Wikipedia pages. Predictably, bad actors have known this for a while and are already taking advantage of it. Consider Colorado-based Wikipedia editor Jeffery Beall, who has worked tirelessly to make sure that every member of the Colorado legislature has his own hand-picked photo other than their official portrait at the top of their page, some of which are unflattering.
And there is arguably nothing more critical than a page’s photo. A recent study shows that we make a judgment off of a person’s face in less than 100 milliseconds, and that attractiveness and trustworthiness are significantly correlated.
While Wikipedia holds its “neutral point of view” as its highest value, but it’s clear that there’s only so much digital real estate that they can control. It’s up to your digital team to make sure that your candidate or cause’s page is, at the very least, neutral.
Photos are important, but so are the first 1-5 sentences on every Wikipedia page. Voice search and Google’s Knowledge Panel source the first few sentences like clockwork for answers to queries about everything from ballot initiatives to candidates. According to a 2019 survey, 71% of TV viewers use a second screen to look for more information about what they’re watching, and what will they find? Google’s Knowledge Panel with the first few sentences of the most relevant Wikipedia page. It’s often the first result in a mobile search and has become trusted by folks as a quick and accurate information source, even if the content was written by a bad actor.
Beyond that, voice search adoption is skyrocketing and Comscore predicts that soon 50% of all internet search will be from voice search. TVs are nearly always within earshot of Alexa, making the first few sentences especially crucial because there are no second answers on voice search. There’s only one shot at getting a voice answer answer that favors your campaign.
The greatest sin of all is that some candidates, campaigns, and politicians have chosen to ignore Wikipedia altogether as a messaging opportunity. There are numerous consultant groups and how-to pages peppering Google Search results for “How to create a Wikipedia page” that could help candidates and groups with less resources. However, the process can take some time (ACRONYM has been waiting on approval for its page for three weeks as of this writing and may wait up to eight), so it’s critical that you act to get a page up months before you need it. And make no mistake— there are bad actors ready and willing to write your page for your candidate should you choose to wait or look the other way.
It’s important to remember that if you’re not editing your campaign’s Wikipedia page, it’s very likely your opponent is. And even if you may not trust Wikipedia as a reliable source, most people do.
There is some room for your campaign to dabble in the “dark arts” too, but be careful not to fly to close to the sun, Icarus. The truth goes both ways, and it’s actually not too much of an edit to add sentences like “A candidate known for his proximity to X scandal,” or “Known for championing a bill that caused X.” within the first couple sentences of your opponent’s page.
However, too many edits like this will draw the ire of the Wikimedia Foundation, which has recently banned the IP addresses of the entire U.S. Capitol building because staffers were fighting too public a battle. Moreover, Wikimedia is quick to slap hands and publicly shame brands that don’t play by their rules publicly, as they did with Leo Burnett’s The North Face Ad Campaign. When ACRONYM suggests an edit we make sure to include a citation from a reliable source so that it will pass an auditing editor’s scrutiny, and you’d be wise to do the same.
Every touchpoint online matters to campaigns, and few matter more than Wikipedia. It’s the de facto great equalizer of truth for internet users across the United States. Every Google Search result and nearly every voice search result sources data from Wikipedia, so it’s critical that your campaign is paying attention to yours—lest someone else do it for you.
Brian Young is Media Planner for ACRONYM. He spends his free time obsessing over non-traditional digital political campaign tactics. This article was first published in Campaigns & Elections.