Wikipedia has banned a user from editing entries on the English version of its site for consistently making changes in favour of the controversial New Delhi-headquartered Indian Institute of Planning and Management.

A user called Wifione repeatedly added positive statements to and removed critical ones from the Wikipedia pages of the institute and its dean, Arindam Chaudhuri, an arbitration committee of the free collaborative online encyclopaedia found on February 13. At the same time, Wifione added negative material to and removed positive content from the pages of Amity University, its dean Ashok Chauhan, and the Indian School of Business in Hyderbad, the committee found.  Wifione might also have been managed by an older user who was banned in 2009, it added.

“Wifione edited…in a manner consistent with attempts to optimise search engine results [for the institute],” said the report of the committee, whose members are elected by the community of Wikipedia editors, which includes all those who have made at least 600 content changes and have been active in the six months before the election.

Wifione is the user id of an anonymous person who had been editing articles about the institute since 2009. Wifione was also an administrator, a user whom the Wikipedia community believes can be trusted with adjudicating contentious changes and mediating discussions. These are voluntary positions. Wifione gave up administrator privileges just three days before the committee decided to take them away.

The Indian Institute of Planning and Management has been at the centre of several controversies. The University Grants Commission does not recognise its degrees, but it has nevertheless sued news organisations for pointing this out. In September, the Delhi High Court rapped the institute for misleading students and restrained it from applying the terms MBA, BBA, management course, management school, business school and B-school to its course offerings.

Arindam Chaudhuri, the institute’s dean and owner, did not reply to an email that sent him. There is no evidence that Chauhuri or IIPM were associated with Wifione.

Years of complaints

Anyone can insert Wikipedia entries or make changes to existing ones as long as the person maintains neutrality, the online encyclopedia's main founding principle. But bias is not always easy to determine.

If bias is hard to prove, the reasons for it, such as conflicts of interest or commissions, are even harder to establish. Indeed, Wikipedia focuses on ensuring its entries are neutral and does not usually delve into the causes of bias.

“The basis for an investigation is only the evidence online on Wikipedia,” said Tinu Cherian Abraham, a Wikipedia administrator in Bangalore. “So whitewashing may be visible but personal motivations are hard to prove.”

For years, many users have been questioning Wifione’s editing of the institute’s entry. Several people had even confronted Wifione on talk pages, which are pages associated with entries on which the public can discuss editorial changes. Many users attempted to restore what they thought was balance, but several administrators, including Wifione, did not allow them to do so.

In 2011, for example, Utkarshraj Atmaram, another administrator, pointed out biases in Wifione’s editing, and lobbied for changes. But other editors accused Atmaram, who was then a student at the competing SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai, of also being biased. Atmaram, who uses his real name on the website, then withdrew from the editorial discussions.

Another user called makrandjoshi persistently attempted to insert on the institute's page references to unflattering articles about published in the New Delhi-based monthly magazine, The Caravan, and other publications. But administrators suspended this user for his aggressive focus on the institute’s page and a possible bias against it. Administrators have the power to suspend users for temporary periods to deter slanted editing.

Finally, in December 2013, the case caught the eye of Wikipediocracy, a website that acts as a watchdog for Wikipedia. It wrote an explosive post analysing all of Wifione’s changes. Several news organisations then wrote about Wikipedia’s reluctance to address the issue. Still nothing happened, probably because decision-making in Wikipedia is so dispersed and no one has a big stake in pursuing such cases.

Finally, in January 2014, Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, took a stand after users on his talk page informed him of the Wikpediocracy article. “It would be best if he just doesn't come back,” he said, referring to Wifione. But it took another year for an arbitration committee to convene to investigate the case.

Proxy editing

After its month-long investigation, the committee also found that Wifione was linked to two other user accounts that administrators had earlier flagged for bias.

One of these was Mrinal Pandey. In 2008, administrators had suspended this user for a year for running 41 accounts, known in Wikipedia jargon as “sock puppets”. At least nine of those accounts were actively involved in making edits on the Indian Institute of Planning and Management page, the committee said, adding that it suspected that Wifione was one of them. Wikipedia does not allow users to create multiple identities for improper purposes.

Then in June 2009, an arbitration committee emailed an administrator named nichalp saying that this user was behind another account that had accepted money to slant several entries, but the committee did not name any person or organisation.

Nichalp has revealed that he was a 26-year-old from Mumbai. He has been editing on Wikipedia soon after its launch. But five months ago, nichalp had marked his account as inactive and did not reply to the committee’s email message. It suspended nichalp’s administrator privileges and banned the proxy account.

Death threats

Discussions about content, carried out on talk pages, can turn nasty. For instance, an anonymous user posted a warning on user makrandjoshi’s page, saying that he might get death threats for consistently speaking out against Chaudhuri’s institute.

In a unique case on the Marathi site, users who disagreed with an administrator’s decisions tracked down his internet protocol address and said they knew where he worked. The administrator resigned.

“I don’t blame the person for backing off,” said Abhay Natu, an administrator on Marathi Wikipedia. “We do this work out of passion, but we want no physical risk to ourselves or our families. Forget Wikipedia norms, these threats go against social norms.”

He pointed out that bias arose not just from paid users. It could stem from a desire to advance a certain socio-economic agenda or out of personal enmity.

Another administrator of the Marathi site, who was not a native speaker, incurred the wrath of the community for banning people who he felt were causing trouble on edits. The rest of the community ganged up on him, and made things so uncomfortable for him that he moved to English and other foreign language Wikipedia sites.

“The community needs to be honest with itself,” said Natu. “It is important to air our dirty laundry. Wifione’s case has come to light. But there may be others that we don’t know about. People should not say that we should keep it within the community because these are our people. That will hinder Wikipedia’s progress.”