A call to edit: Congress and Wikipedia told to peacefully co-exist


The U.S. Capitol at sunset. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The first rule when it comes to congressional staffers and Wikipedia: "It's probably just a bad idea to edit members' pages," said Jim Harper, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, at a briefing on Wikipedia editing held Monday for Hill aides. Left unsaid: It's also probably not a terrific notion for Hill aides to anonymously update the crowd-sourced online encyclopedia with moon-landing conspiracy theories or unfounded charges against media organizations. Especially when the @CongressEdits Twitter bot is tweeting out changes to Wikipedia made from Hill IP addresses.

But Harper and his Cato colleagues were in the Rayburn Building with a positive message, too, and that's that House and Senate staffers should, they argued, be encouraged to get their hands dirty in Wikipedia by editing entries on bills before Congress.

Congressional staffers are understandably worried about being tagged with either skewing Wikipedia with their political agendas or wasting time and taxpayer dollars online. But on the table Monday was whether Hill aides can finesse their contributions to the site in a way that benefits both their bosses and the world's case of legislative information.

The pitch being made by Cato — a libertarian think tank whose staffers insist is only interested here in government transparency — is that there's a natural symbiosis between Capitol Hill and Wikipedia. "You guys know more about this information than anyone does," said Michelle Newby, a legislative researcher and writer at Cato. As Wikipedia editor HistoricMN44, Newby has started articles for more than 300 bills since starting on the project last year. She aims to start an article on every one of all but the most trivial bills discussed before the House and Senate each week.

But that's a heavy lift, and Newby says she could use help. (That Newby's name is a homophone for the oft-used term for beginners on Wikipedia is, remarkably, just a coincidence.)

The poor flow of information between Capitol Hill and the public has been a long-standing problem, and one arguably often made worse, not better, by the rise of the Internet. That imbalance leaves most of the power in the hands of those on the ground and in the know, which often means lobbyists. Newby made the crowd giggle by relating a story in which one civilian Wikipedia editor insisted on trying to add what would otherwise be a welcomed map to an article on an (anonymous) Senate voice vote. But what's obvious on the Hill can be enormously confusing elsewhere.

And if Congress looks down upon Wikipedia as a source of information, Newby reminded staffers who owe their jobs to the masses that "ordinary people read Wikipedia, and most of the world is full of ordinary, normal people."

Off course, Wikipedia famously cherishes its neutrality, which is not a characteristic for which Congress is known. Cato's stub pages rely upon Congressional Research Service summaries for basic bill details and the Congressional Budget Office for cost figures; the procedural histories on those pages tick through dates in straightforward fashion. But, the thinking goes, politics on Wikipedia is all too often written by the winners. "It is easy to find what one side is saying about the bill," said Newby. And so balancing pages often involves simply adding an alternative version of what a bill might do.

No one at Monday's briefing believed that the change would come without some amount of acclimation all around. Wikipedia has its own special practices: The online encyclopedia doesn't allow citations to Facebook; meanwhile, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) often discloses his reasoning for his lone-wolf votes only on his Facebook page. The Hill has its own practices, too: Hill leadership office's regularly take down their legislative schedules calendars at end of the week; Wikipedia has a strong preference for linking to online resources that last.

But the argument is that it's worth figuring out, even just out of self-interest: "Quality articles about bills will convince or dissuade people on their merits," said Harper, though he did add, "Your first day or two on the job of Wikipedia editor may not be very comfortable." Cato's doing their part. They've got a Twitter bot of their own: @WikiBills, only it tweets out Hill-connected edits to Wikipedia as if they're a good thing.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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