Tuesday, January 31, 2006

wiki wars

every so often the chattering classes go into a tizzy about wikipedia, and how it allows any john q slanderer to write any old thing without an editor or accountability. of course, the whole point of wikipedia is that anyone can edit it, so anyone who comes across such slander can easily correct it.

turns out some of those slanderers are working from inside the US house of representatives:

The staff of U.S. Rep Marty Meehan wiped out references to his broken term-limits pledge as well as information about his huge campaign war chest in an independent biography of the Lowell Democrat on a Web site that bills itself as the "world's largest encyclopedia," The Sun has learned.

The Meehan alterations on Wikipedia.com represent just two of more than 1,000 changes made by congressional staffers at the U.S. House of Representatives in the past six month. Wikipedia is a global reference that relies on its Internet users to add credible information to entries on millions of topics.

it's not surprising that congressional staffers would want to replace possibly critical entries about representatives with their official bios, as meehan's staff apparently did here. and they're doing it on government computers, and most likely while "on the clock", which is probably a violation of government computer usage policies. the attempts to delete criticism are troubling, but wikipedia is largely self-correcting, with all previous edits visible, and for high-profile entries like these, these things are likely to get caught.

perhaps more interesting are those who have used house computers for vandalism:

Wikipedia's online honor system has made it ripe for abuse by vandals. Recently, a user wrote in a Wikipedia bio that Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor "smells of cow dung." Another wrote that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is "ineffective." These statements were traced to the House Internet-protocol (IP) address.

In November and December, The Sun has learned, users of the House's IP address were temporarily blocked from changing content because of violations described by the site as a "deliberate attempt to compromise the integrity of the encyclopedia."

"I'm not denying it," Jon Brandt, a spokesman for the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the House computer network, said when asked to confirm House ownership of the address.

For security reasons, Brandt declined to say to whom the address is assigned.

the same account that added the "cow dung" comment to cantor's entry also added this to the entry about karl rove: "Strangely enough he often reports to work with the faint scent of cow dung on his breath,six anonymous insiders report." (there are so many edits in the history of bill frist's entry that it's hard to know where to start.)

[update: the account mentioned here is not the right one. i got confused because of the "cow dung" comment (a veiled reference to karl rove's nickname, "turd blossom"), but apparently that's a popular epithet. this is the account referred to in the article. see my follow-up post for lots more info.]

inspired by the story, doug took a look at indiana representative mark souder, but there doesn't seem to be much drama there. more interesting is dan burton's history, which has some vandalism, as well as the history of mike pence's surprisingly short entry (wasn't pence supposed to be a contender for house leadership at some point?), which also has some vandalism. also surprisingly, the history of john hostettler's entry seem to be very civil with no flamewars, despite the fact that hostettler is probably indiana's most controversial congressman.

update: steph links to the wikipedia requests for comment about this story. if you want details, tons and tons of 'em, about what these congressional staffers are doing on wikipedia, here they are. the talk page even has partial lists of edits made with congressional IPs.


syntax said...

about six months ago i posted a screengrab of a vandalized version of karl rove's wikipedia entry before it was corrected. it was pretty funny, actually...

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