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Whole Foods Wikified: The Scanner Report

July 7, 2008

What do Bill Clinton, cannabis, right-wing politics and robber barrons have in common? Well, their Wikipedia pages have been subject to some interesting interventions by Whole Foods Market Inc. For this assignment I decided to apply my graduate-student curiosity to my own employer. I chose to report on the WikiScanner data for Whole Foods, provided that I have never been involved in any Wkipedia activity from within the company, and I discovered over 400 changes introduced to various Wikipedia pages from IP addresses associated with Whole Foods’ global headquarters in Austin, Texas.

THE SELF-EDITS

It is not surprising that the most numerous changes made by the company on a single Wikipedia page are on the Whole Foods Market page . Those are total of 22 changes introduced from March 2005 to August 2007, when WikiScanner was last updated. It is reasonable for every organization to keep tack of the information describing it in the world’s largest free online encyclopedia and intervene with updates and/or corrections of factual errors when necessary. Let’s take a closer look at the online edits made by Whole Foods, which in some cases are  self-explanatory and in other leave us food for thought about the implications of the changes…

Labor Issues

In relation to common criticim received by Whole Foods about its lack of labor union structures, it is intersting to observe how one sentence was changed several times on the company’s Wikipedia page in October 2005. It started out as: “2004 Madison, Wisconsin Whole Foods Market elects to rid themselves of the union” and was finally left at: “2004: Whole Foods Market Madison no longer union after NLRB (National Labor Relations Boardruling.” The sentence is absent from the current page whatsoever.

The FTC & SEC Case

Another major page edit is in relation to the latest controversy surrounding the company in the summer of 2007 – the Federal Trade Commision‘s investigation challenging the aquisition of Wild Oats by Whole Foods Market. The edit of July 7, 2007, says: “… CEO John Mackey has taken the unusual step of initiating a blog on the subject to explain his opposition to the FTC’s stance.” In reallity the opposite happened – the CEO’s existing blog was suspended a week later, due to an informal inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission about the online annonymous postings of John Mackey in financial forums. The blog was relaunched in May 2008 after the end of the investigation.

Product Quality

Two more types of information were tweeked by Whole Foods in the company’s Wikipedia page. One of the changes shows how a quote by the Organic Consumers Association about the company’s product quality was shortened by removing the second sentence claiming that: “Supposedly, Whole Foods’ food is grown traditionally and sometimes genetically altered. ” Another correction under the Product Quality section made one statement about toxic substances sound more general – not necessarily associated with Whole Foods’ products, but with just products by and large.

PETA

The last of the curious self-edits on the page is a change in the order of listing between a 2003 PETA protest against Whole Foods’s purchasig duck from farms with animal-cruelty practices and the fact that in 2005 the company established its Animal Compassion Foundation to help producers raise farm animals humanely. The chronological order of the two facts is reversed to the advantage of the 2005 event.

THE “OTHER” EDITS

Bill Clinton

cannabis

John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller

So, what about Bill Clinton, cannabis, right-wing politics and robber barrons? Someone at Whole Foods likes Bill Clinton very much. To the point that they went into his Wikipedia page in March 2006 and declared that “… (Clinton) went on to become one of our nations greatest and most fair minded presidents in our nations history.” Another person at Whole Foods  must have decided that the ancient history of the drug cannabisand the way it was used in rituals by traditional cultures for centuries might be unnecessary or irrelevant to Wikpedia readers and with one stroke of the Del key ereased a huge chunk of comprehensive, referenced information. The same day Clinton’s page was edited, someone else from the same company set an alarm in the Right-wing politics page: “… the conservative mastermindes are plotting to overthrow us and send our great country into a whirlwind of economic depression…” Meant as joke or not, but the name of Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackay appeared at one point in June 2007 in the list of robber barrons in Wikpedia and… the entry was made from his own company’s IP address.

INTERESTING FIREWORKS

Some of the findings of this report are surprising, others – not. Has Whole Foods displayed the common kinds of disinformation bahavior listed by WikiScanner creator Virgil Griffith? Can we call the above examples “wholesale removal” of text paragraphs or “white-washing”? The answer to this is up to the reader.  After all, one of the reasons why Virgil gave WikiScaner to the world is for us “To see what “interesting organizations” are up to.” He has indeed succeeded to create a “fireworks display” of public relations bloopers and no single company is safe from them.

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