By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006
This is what passes for an extreme makeover in Washington: A summer intern for seven-term Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) altered the congressman's profile on the Wikipedia Web site to remove an old promise that he would limit his service to four terms.
Someone doctored Sen. Robert C. Byrd's (D-W.Va.) profile on the site to list his age as 180. (He is 88.) An erroneous entry for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) claimed that he "was voted the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress."
Last week, Wikipedia temporarily blocked certain Capitol Hill Web addresses from altering any entries in the otherwise wide-open forum. Wikipedia is a vast, growing information database written and maintained solely by volunteers. In December, the database received 4.7 million edits from viewers, of which a relatively small number -- "a couple of thousand," according to founder Jimmy Wales -- constituted vandalism.
As the site becomes one of the most heavily visited spots on the Internet, it's testing the limits of collective smarts and integrity. But when it comes to Washington, where intrigue and passions run high, keeping such a public record is a particular challenge. Not only is there the obvious temptation to tinker with an opponent's bio, there's the whole subjective nature of political truth itself.
When the Wikipedia entry for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) noted that he had criticized the president, for example, someone modified it to say that Reid had "rightfully" criticized the president. Someone also recast the state legislative record of Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), changing a passage reading, "one of her final, failed bills would have made it much more difficult for same-sex parents to see their children in the hospital during an emergency" to the less inflammatory, "Musgrave spent much of her time on social issues, particularly authoring bills to protect children and the traditional definition of marriage, as well as gun owner's rights."
A popular change in recent weeks has been deleting mentions of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) from politicians' profiles. Politically motivated edits aren't just coming from Capitol Hill; some comments are being traced back to other parts of political Washington, including the Justice Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Navy and Marines.
It seems like the kind of thing that must happen all the time on a site where absolutely anybody can weigh in on any topic. But such online behavior is actually the exception at Wikipedia, Wales said.
Wales started the project five years ago and, on the whole, said the experience has strengthened his faith in humanity. With some notable exceptions. "When somebody writes that Senator so-and-so is a [bad word], we figure that's not a legitimate edit," he said.
"The goal is to give people a free encyclopedia to every person in the world, in their own language," Wales said. "Not just in a 'free beer' kind of way, but also in the free speech kind of way."
Other open-source ventures on the Internet have proven productive; software developers have successfully designed and improved hundreds of online programs like Linux, which is made available for free to the public. Online marketplaces such as eBay Inc. rely on customer-satisfaction ratings to help buyers self-police their communities.
But, human nature being what it is, the experiment doesn't always work. Both the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, for example, have aborted projects that invited open critiques of their editorial content after being deluged with crude comments.
Washington has posed a special problem for Wikipedia, which is monitored by 800 to 1,000 active editor-volunteers. In the recent flare-up, a community of Wikipedia editors read a story in the Lowell Sun newspaper in which staffers for Meehan acknowledged replacing an entry on him with more flattering verbiage. That prompted last week's Capitol Hill Wikipedia blackout; all computers connected to servers at the House of Representatives, identified by a numerical Web address, were denied access.
In Meehan's case, the edits were carried out by an intern who was updating the congressman's profile on his own Web site and altered the existing Wikipedia entry to mirror that, said Sandra Salstrom, a spokeswoman for Meehan. Among other things, the intern deleted an earlier campaign promise by Meehan to retire after four terms.
Wikipedia considers this "whitewashing," a benign edit compared with, say, "bad faith" and "vandal" edits.
Generally, clear violations are taken down within minutes, as was the case with recent commentary on President Bush. (Because of the frequency of attempted vandalism on Bush's site, it is no longer open to editing by new or anonymous Wikipedia users.) In one case, however, an erroneous entry suggesting that John Siegenthaler Sr., a former special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had a role in the Kennedy assassinations went unnoticed for four months.
Kat Walsh of Herndon, a bassoonist and Wikipedia editor, said the site dissuades people from editing terms or profiles they feel personally invested in. But it happens, occasionally, and not just in politics: Some companies have tried to beautify their entries by entering press releases, she said.
Even Wales, the Wikipedia founder, has admitted repeatedly editing his own entry, a move he said he did openly but now regrets.
Standard operating procedure is to replace offensive alterations with the original text, and send a warning letter to the user of the Internet address that made the problematic change.
"You have not been blocked because you appear to have refrained from continued vandalism," a sample warning to Senate staffers reads. "We welcome contributions from all possible editors, including staff of the United States Congress. However, please comply with our policies, especially those pertaining to personal attacks and neutrality."
Neutrality can be a tricky or nuanced thing with political terms, which is why disputes are sometimes vetted by mediators and arbitration committees, also made up of volunteers, Wales said.
"Especially with politics, it gets more and more borderline on what's in bad faith or good faith," he said. "Reasonable people can find a way to work together. Unreasonable people get blocked, of course."