The Wiki Incident

How could one little digital deletion build up such a head of steam? It's a question of trust.
Oct 01, 2007

Gotcha, Big Pharma! Sort of.... Not me, a guy named Jeffrey Light. The young founder and head of tiny DC-based nonprofit Patients not Patents hit the wires recently, charging that Abbott Laboratories had edited its entry in Wikipedia, the online everybody-can-play encyclopedia, trying to make itself look better. Using a brand-new online tool called the Wiki Scanner, which allows anyone to track the source of any change entered into any of Wikipedia's 2 million articles, Light discovered that at 4:38 P.M. on July 2, 2007, several edits to the article on Abbott were made from a computer at Abbott's Chicago office.

Now, Wikipedia's editorial process is anything but smooth. The spouse of one of the editors of this magazine looked up "Leonardo da Vinci" one day to see him described as "a famous Italian artist, scientist, and penis-head." (Don't bother looking. Like Abbott's edits, it was gone in a matter of hours—scrubbed off by Wiki's army of volunteer monitors.) Since the site accepts input from literally any contributor, it's always playing catch-up and ends up making its editorial calls by consensus, which is not the same thing as "truth." Still, it does pretty well (2.5 million hits a day), if only because today's gaffe is tomorrow's distant memory.

So how bad were Abbott's alleged Wiki-crimes? Well, one was the deletion of a link to a Web site that recruits potential plaintiffs for attorneys pursuing liability suits against the company's flagship arthritis blockbuster, Humira. (IMHO, that clearly had no business being there, but the fact that it was explains why Abbott was online in the first place.) A second deletion was of the watchdog group Public Citizen's unsuccessful lobbying to withdraw the weight-loss drug Meridia from market because of what it claimed was an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. (The risk, if supported by the data, certainly belonged in the article. Public Citizen is a judgment call.) And the third deletion was of a Mayo Clinic study published in JAMA that found that Humira is associated with a risk of cancer and other complications not listed on the label.

That was the edit that raised eyebrows and headlines, and Jeffrey Light ran with it. "As Abbott's actions have demonstrated, drug companies will attempt to hide unfavorable safety information when they think nobody is watching," he wrote in his press release. "The argument that [it] can be trusted to provide adequate safety information on [its] own products has been used by the pharmaceutical industry to fight against government regulation of consumer advertising. Clearly such trust is misplaced."

That's a bit of a leap—from an Abbott employee who might or might not have been authorized to the entire drug industry, and from Wikipedia to DTC advertising—but you can see his point. You don't get trust on the big issues if you don't earn it on the small ones.

And yet.

Three thoughts occur to me:

  • If you invite people to edit your stuff, as Wikipedia does, they'll edit your stuff. That's the messy problem with "open source": Anybody can get in there and add or subtract error and bias. In fact, it's precisely the people who have an agenda or a scheme or even just a grudge who are most likely to take an interest. Still, at the end of the day, the system worked and proved its own robustness. That makes it hard to get too worked up about corporate "vandals." If they start winning, that will be quite another story.
  • Corporations, all of them, need to face the realities of the information age. If you cheat the truth a little, if you try to disguise the fact that it's your company or your employee speaking, you're going to get caught. Really. (So kudos to the Wiki Scanner.)
  • Bias comes in many forms. Take Jeffrey Light. He's an activist, not exactly a neutral party. He believes, for example, that "medicines are one of those products that are too important to be left up to private industry" and that current patent laws are both a boondoggle as far as spurring the drug development drugs for serious diseases and a windfall for Big Pharma. So he has an ax or two to grind—in particular with Abbott, for its recent hardball play against Thailand after the nation threatened to break the patent on Abbott's HIV drug Kaletra. That doesn't mean he was wrong in what he discovered about Abbott and Wikipedia. It just means he's not the only person who should be heard from. (BTW, Abbott chose not to comment on any of this when we contacted the company.)

Vigorous dispute and competing interests. If we're lucky, the occasional intervention of a cool head. That's life, of course, not Wikipedia. But on a good day, they both work roughly the same way. –WALTER ARMSTRONG