The oligarchs' socks: For whom do the Bells toil?
The Signpost
Владимир Путин (10-01-2022) (cropped).jpg
Vladimir Putin

When Russian president Vladimir Putin gave the order for Russian troops to invade Ukraine, he set off a search for information on his friends and supporters known as the Russian oligarchs. Some of the sought-after information is on the location of their yachts, luxury jet planes, and financial assets, in order for Western governments to seize these assets and pressure Putin to stop the war.

There are several dozen Russians commonly called oligarchs. They include some of the richest people in the world who acquired their riches with the support of Putin's regime and in turn have supported Putin and his policies. They tend to be secretive, carefully protecting their privacy. The New Yorker in its article "How Putin's Oligarchs Bought London" cites Oliver Bullough's view that the oligarchs came to London for, among other reasons, luxury homes, experienced lawyers and tax accountants, PR firms, and "'reputation managers' for inconvenient backstories".[1]

There are many articles on Wikipedia about the oligarchs. We selected the articles on some of the richest and best known to see if they – or more likely their employees – have edited Wikipedia to remove embarrassing information, and whether known sockpuppets have edited the articles about them.

Алишер Усманов. 2015-2.jpg
Alisher Usmanov

The Signpost's investigation has found that well known oligarch Alisher Usmanov hired the PR firm RLM Finsbury, whose employees then edited the Wikipedia article about Usmanov.[2][3] Also, employees of the infamous PR firm Bell Pottinger, who were later blocked as sockpuppets, edited the articles of lesser known oligarchs Alexander Nesis[4] and Arkadiy Abramovich.[5]

Bell Pottinger was exposed to the world as an unethical Wikipedia whitewasher in 2011 following an undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Bell Pottinger had told the reporters, who posed as Uzbeki officials known for human rights violations, that they could remove material from Wikipedia using "dark arts".[6] Bell Pottinger continued to represent controversial clients. In 2017 they were forced to close after it was discovered that they were working for the Gupta family using a social media campaign that promoted racial hatred in South Africa.

RLM Finsbury was exposed as a whitewasher in 2012 when they were caught editing Wikipedia for Usmanov. They admitted their mistake and promised never to repeat it. Finsbury also represented another Russian oligarch, Andrei Skoch, and attempted to have information about his yacht removed from the social media site SuperYacht Fan.

But not all the articles on oligarchs that we examined showed such direct evidence of them rewriting the articles about themselves. The article on Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea F.C. and the father of Arkadiy, more or less appeared to neutrally present the facts of his life, even though it had been edited by about 50 now-blocked sockpuppets (deceptive users of multiple accounts). The articles on four other oligarchs were of varying quality with varying levels of evidence of sockpuppeting, but together they show a pattern of sockpuppet edits, often performed by the same sockpuppets or sockfarms (groups of sockpuppets who appear to be cooperating, and who are often blocked as a group) on the articles of multiple oligarchs.

Sockpuppets do not usually whitewash the same article with each edit. Some may simply update the oligarch's net worth frequently or copy edit the article. Others may add positive information or push negative information toward the bottom of the article. Some may even appear to be working against the oligarch's interest.

We remind our readers that any investigation of onWiki editing cannot prove who edited the articles based purely on editing records and other information made available on Wikipedia. For example an editor may mimic a sockpuppet or undeclared paid editor in an effort to embarrass the subject of an article, a practice known as "joe jobbing". We can, however, gather the evidence that is available either on-Wiki or off-Wiki.

The results of oligarch editing

An experienced Wikipedia editor, who asked to remain anonymous, described how the oligarch articles looked before the war.

Many of these articles had all the hallmarks of conflict-of-interest editing: The subject is highly controversial, but the controversies are obfuscated. They are lost in the body of the article among extensive details, trivia and poorly sourced puffery. This may include detailed coverage of every single philanthropic endeavor the subject has ever been involved in. The same pattern can be seen in articles related to political and economic elites in kleptocracies and autocracies in general.

Exceptions to this rule include the articles on Roman Abramovich and Alexander Nesis. "I was surprised by the extent that the article covered how Abramovich earned his wealth", said the anonymous editor, pointing out a recent BBC News article with new evidence, "yet the Wikipedia article had included similar material long before". The Nesis article seems "relatively small for an article heavily edited by COI accounts. COI accounts usually fill these articles with mundane trivia and puffery while also removing negative content."

Who's who and what happened to the articles?

The Wikipedia articles The Signpost investigated include the following:

Alisher Usmanov is considered to be among the richest and most powerful of the oligarchs and one of the closest to Putin.[7][8][9] Although he was born in Uzbekistan, he is a resident of Russia and owns or controls Metalloinvest, MegaFon, and the newspaper Kommersant.

From August 2007 through April 2011 a firm controlled by Usmanov was the largest shareholder of Arsenal F.C. as he tried and failed to gain full control of the club. Usmanov's yacht, the Dilbar, valued at about $594 million, was seized by German authorities in early March. [10]

Sixteen now-banned sockpuppets – some from well known sockfarms – have edited the article. These include CarryOn95 and AliAlvi55 – both from the Antony1821 sockfarm, as well as Alfaweiss and Creative2016 – both from the Mikenew1953 sockfarm. The editing on the talk page was extensive and contentious. It included edits favoring Usmanov by three now-blocked editors Zezen, Demiurge1000 (who is also globally locked), and FoCuSandLeArN (who was blocked for undeclared paid editing).

The strongest evidence that Usmanov's employees edited the Wikipedia article about him is provided by The Times,[2] with additional reporting by The Daily Telegraph[3] and The Guardian.[11] of a 2012 story that the RLM Finsbury PR firm which was employed by Usmanov to help in the London IPO of the firm MegaFon, edited the Wikipedia article to remove Usmanov's criminal history. He was convicted for corruption, fraud and the theft of state property and served six years in prison before the conviction was expunged in 1989. Finsbury admitted making the edits, but claimed that Usmanov was unaware of the edits and did not ask for them.

Roman Abramovich.png
Roman Abramovich
Roman Abramovich is perhaps the best-known Russian oligarch. He made his first billions of dollars in the 1990s during the controversial loans-for-shares privatization in oil, and then in the aluminum industry. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin left office, Abramovich became a close advisor to the new president, Putin. In 2003 he bought London's Chelsea F.C. and turned it into a top European club. The New Yorker reports unconfirmed stories that Putin personally ordered Abramovich to buy the soccer club.[1]

Perhaps because of his long exposure in the British press as the owner of Chelsea F.C., the controversies surrounding Abramovich have been well covered in the Wikipedia article about him. Sockpuppets who have actively edited the article, such as Avaya1, have tended to copy edit, remove edits biased against Abramovich, or document his gifts to charities, e.g. here or in one case paint him as a victim of an unscrupulous Russian scammer [1].

Over 50 now-blocked sockpuppets edited this article. These include Earflaps, who edited articles on other oligarchs and on financial articles as part of the MusicLover650 sockfarm; CoffeeStation95, part of the Antony1821 sockfarm; DeltaGr, part of the Mikenew1953 sockfarm; and Russavia, a former Wikimedia Commons administrator who engaged in broad disruption of the English Wikipedia, and promoted the Russian airline industry.

Arkadiy Abramovich is the eldest son of Roman Abramovich. He became established in business in about 2010 when he was age 17. His investments have been in the oil, gas, and financial industries.

The article was edited by the sockpuppet Charlesstewart99, who was blocked for editing for the disgraced and now-defunct PR firm Bell Pottinger. The firm admitted to using "black arts" on Wikipedia while editing for the government of Uzbekistan but not for either Abramovich.

Дерипаска Олег Владимирович.jpg
Oleg Deripaska

Oleg Deripaska also made his first billions during the Yeltsin era privatizations, mostly in aluminum. He has owned Rusal, the world's largest aluminum producer and the company Basic Element. After Yeltsin left office, he became close to Putin.

Thirty now-blocked sockpuppets edited the article about him, including some of the same socks who edited the article on Roman Abramovich, including Earflaps and CoffeeStation95. Selimabner6, part of the BurritoSlayer sock farm, completely rewrote many sections of the article in nine consecutive edits [2], whitewashing much of the article, for example changing "oligarch" to "business magnate".

Mikhail Fridman by Anton Nossik (cropped).JPG
Mikhail Fridman

Mikhail Fridman may be the most sympathetic oligarch. According to a March 17 interview in Bloomberg Business Week "Broke Oligarch Says Sanctioned Billionaires Have No Sway Over Putin" he was worth about $15 billion before the start of the war and may be worth $10 billion now, but because of the sanctions placed on him, he doesn’t have access to most of his cash now. He was born and raised in Lviv, Ukraine and has spoken out against the war. He is a longtime resident of London and is a citizen of both Russia and Israel. He became an entrepreneur in 1988 before the break-up of the Soviet Union. He made much of his money in banking with Alfa-Bank and later in oil with TNK-BP.

In 2018 SmartSE, a trusted editor and opponent of undeclared paid editing, wrote on the talk page of the Mikhail Fridman article "This article was written entirely by Earflaps who was an undisclosed paid editor." SmartSE was only slightly exaggerating: from September – November 2016, Earflaps made 71 edits to the Wikipedia article, almost completely rewriting it. Five other sockpuppets who edited the article, including Glaewnis (who was blocked for undeclared paid editing), Sovietsky pioneer and Poor billionaire – members of the Pionier sockfarm, as well as members of the BurritoSlayer and Antony1821 sockfarms.

German Khan, February 2010.jpeg
German Khan

German Khan is a close business associate of Mikhail Fridman, working with both Alfa Group and TNK-BP. The Wikipedia article about him has been tagged with a conflict-of-interest warning since December 2016 which was placed there by Doc James (who was not acting in his role as WMF trustee). Doc James requested the original sockpuppet investigation into Earflaps after noticing that he had written the majority of the article. Four other now-blocked socks, including Russavia and the undeclared paid editor Glaewnis, have edited the article.

Alexander Nesis.jpg
Alexander Nesis

Alexander Nesis is an engineer who got his start in the shipbuilding industry. He founded the ICT Group, which owns companies in the engineering, precious metals, and finance industries. Though the Wikipedia article on Nesis is fairly modest and well written, he may deserve the rank of oligarch. He is ICT Group's largest shareholder and had a net worth of $2.9 billion in 2020.

Mofgl68, an editor working for Bell Pottinger, was a single purpose account, who only edited the Nesis article, with one edit to ICT Group. Other blocked sockpuppets editing the article were Mddkpp and Oranjblud, who were blocked during the same sockpuppet investigation, as well as LamdaGr, and DeltaGr who was part of the Mikenew1953 sockfarm.

Скоч Андрей.jpg
Andrei Skoch

Andrei Skoch began his professional life as a banker and then met Usmanov and entered the metals industry, and eventually became a shareholder in Lebedinsky Mining, and Metalloinvest. In 1999 he was elected to Russia's Duma. The Guardian reported in 2012 that he was suspected of having ties to the mafia group Solntsevskaya Bratva.[11] In 2020 his net worth was reported at over $6 billion. He hired RLM Finsbury as his PR firm – which also represented Usmanov at about the same time. Finsbury tried to remove information about Skoch's ownership of the yacht Madame Gu from a social media website.[12]

Only two editors to have been blocked for sockpuppeting after editing the Wikipedia article about Skoch, including DeltaGr, part of the Mikenew1953 sockfarm. The now-blocked paid editor Glaewnis also edited the article.

Conclusion

We do not conclude that all of the above named oligarchs used paid editors to whitewash the Wikipedia pages about themselves. There is little doubt, however, that Alisher Usmanov hired the PR firm RLM Finsbury who then edited his Wikipedia article. Finsbury admitted as much in 2012. The evidence on Arkadiy Abramovich and Alexander Nesis is almost as strong. Bell Pottinger admitted that they edited the Wikipedia articles of their clients, though they did not mention the specific clients. Wikipedia's checkusers were then able to identify the Bell Pottinger paid accounts, including one which edited the Arkadiy Abranovich article and another which edited the Alexander Nesis article.

The evidence on the other five oligarchs is circumstantial. Fifty now-blocked sockpuppets or paid editors edited the article on Roman Abramovich, thirty edited the Deripaska article, but only six edited the Fridman article, only five edited the German Khan article, and only three edited the article on Skoch. The pattern of editing by the same sockpuppets or sockfarms suggests that a network of sockpuppets were used to edit many articles about oligarchs.

  • Earflaps and the MusicLover650 sockfarm edited at least four of these articles – Roman Abramovich, Deripaska, Fridman, and Khan.
  • The Mikenew sockfarm edited at least four – Usmanov, R. Abramovich, Nesis and Skoch
  • The Antony1821 sockfarm also edited at least three of these articles – Usmanov, R. Abramovich, and Fridman.
  • The now-blocked paid editor Glaewnis edited at least three – Fridman, Khan and Skoch
  • The BurritoSlayer sockfarm edited at least two – Deripaska and Fridman
  • The former Wikimedia Commons administrator Russavia edited at least two – R. Abramovich and Khan.

Notes

  1. ^ a b "How Putin's Oligarchs Bought London", March 17, 2022, by Patrick Radden Keefe
  2. ^ a b The Times (archive November 12, 2012)
  3. ^ a b The Daily Telegraph
  4. ^ Special:Contributions/Mofgl68
  5. ^ See this investigation under "Abramovich".
  6. ^ "Revealed: The Wikipedia pages changed by Bell Pottinger", Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 7 December 2011
  7. ^ The Wall Street Journal
  8. ^ Financial Times
  9. ^ "Oligarch Usmanov stands aside as FIE President in wake of EU sanctions". www.insidethegames.biz. 1 March 2022.
  10. ^ Fortune
  11. ^ a b Man behind MegaFon pictured with alleged Russian gangsters, The Guardian, 28 November 2812
  12. ^ SuperYacht Fan


+ Add a commentDiscuss this story
  • Thank you for this tremendous masterpiece! May I also provide a link: Government of Tatarstan paying for editing (Wikipedia Signpost 1 November 2020). --ssr (talk) 15:38, 28 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
    • For those who read Russian, an additional link. --ssr (talk) 15:47, 28 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
      • Thanks for the kind words @Ssr:, I like the 2017 article and the previous one. Send me an email when you have some time! Smallbones(smalltalk) 17:53, 28 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
        • @Smallbones: I've sent an email to the address I was writing to you before! =) --ssr (talk) 19:13, 28 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
  • From February 2008 through April 2001 a firm controlled by Usmanov was the largest shareholder of Arsenal F.C. - something is wrong here.--Nicoljaus (talk) 16:30, 28 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
    • It should have said through 2011; thanks, it's been fixed. ☆ Bri (talk) 17:45, 28 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
    • Good catch, I've corrected it to August 2007 - April 2011. Thanks Smallbones(smalltalk) 17:47, 28 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
  • The Fridman entry links Greece-based Alpha Bank instead of Russia-based Alfa-Bank. Worse still, Khan's entry connects him with Alpha Group, a FSB special unit, rather than (presumably) Alfa Group. Granted, our articles may need some moving around, as they too heavily rely on WP:SMALLDETAILS. No such user (talk) 09:11, 29 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
  • The tone of surprise in "Some may even appear to be working against the oligarch's interest" is surely unjustified. Many, many people don't like "oligarchs", and where they own sports clubs, especially English football clubs, there's a whole new dimension... Johnbod (talk) 12:59, 29 March 2022 (UTC}
    • I don't think that experienced editors will be surprised that oligarchs, or indeed any billionaires, would have editors who dislike them, who might even put unfair edits into articles about them. But this was to underline this to inexperienced editors, or to non-Wikipedians who might be interested in this article. I am a bit surprised however that they would take it to the level of sockpuppeting, or even to socking by undeclared paid editing. The editors mentioned here (other than SmartSE and Doc James) have been indefinite;y blocked (or worse) for sockpuppeting or UPE, so this is at a different level than somebody just not liking them or "accidental socking".
    • You are absolutely right that owning a famous sports franchise opens a new can of worms, and will confuse things. Sports fans might be especially prone to bad behavior (e.g. tearing down goal posts) in the name of having fun. This discussion might ultimately lead to the phenomena of Sportswashing, which IIRC is about bigshots buying sports teams to give themselves the aura of "civic leaders". I guess there's a downside to that. That likely accounts for *some* of the socking at R. Abramovich. Maybe it's time to write a Signpost article on sportswashing. Smallbones(smalltalk)
  • The photo of Abramovitch used in the Signpost article is from 2008... his Wikipedia article is now using this one ca. 2021 — worth here, too? FeRDNYC (talk) 14:21, 29 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
(I thought he looked awfully young to be a post-Yeltsin Brollionaire... And it turns out I was right, since in that photo he was only 42. If he was currently age 42, he'd have been only 14 or 15 when he amassed the bulk of his wealth!) FeRDNYC (talk) 14:29, 29 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
  • I really disliked the 2021 photo - and there weren't many alternatives. It's obviously highly posed, and it looks like he's trying to appear as a professor or maybe a literary critic. In short it looks like propaganda or "sportswahing" to me. Smallbones(smalltalk) 17:05, 29 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]

"Russian oligarchs" equal "Russian robber barons"

  • They include some of the richest people in the world who acquired their riches with the support of Putin's regime and in turn have supported Putin and his policies.. May be there are some. But most of Russian "oligarchs" acquired their reaches by robbing the Russian people after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Loew Galitz (talk) 02:05, 30 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
  • His investments have been in the oil, gas, and financial industries. - And what did he invest, may I ask? The correct say would be "He robbed Russian people of oil and gas industries and invested the acquired reaches into banking". Loew Galitz (talk) 02:05, 30 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]

Or course, someone had to privatize all these owner-less riches in one way or another and unfortunately there were no better ways. But let's not forget how all this started in Russia and that there virtually not a single Russian oligarch without a skeleton or two in their cupboard. Loew Galitz (talk) 02:05, 30 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]

Excellent reporting, thank you! --Piotr Konieczny aka Prokonsul Piotrus| reply here 10:04, 30 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]

Error

  • Because user:Russavia was an admin on Wikimedia Commons, but not on English Wikipedia, I have deleted the paragraph that expressed how concerning it was that Russavia had been an admin on English Wikipedia. DS (talk) 15:25, 11 April 2022 (UTC)[reply]

Mentions in media

François Robere (talk) 11:59, 29 April 2022 (UTC)[reply]

also in English now. Haaretz --JéRRy.雨雨.talk.hk 17:07, 12 May 2022 (UTC)[reply]