Wikipedia's Help From the Hill
Thursday, February 9, 2006
The scope of the scandal keeps growing, and now that an investigation has been launched, a growing list of Capitol Hill members and their staff appear to be involved.
No, this isn't about fallout from the shenanigans of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This concerns Wikipedia -- the online encyclopedia written and edited by anyone who wants to contribute -- and the suspected perpetrators of untruths about certain lawmakers.
Recent reports about editorial antics taking place on the site -- selective erasures of past faux pas, outright insults and dozens of other politically motivated revisions -- prompted Wikipedia to block temporarily some addresses on Capitol Hill from being able to edit entries.
At the same time, Wikinews, the affiliated news site about Wikipedia, launched an investigation into changes from Senate offices. Wayne Saewyc, a volunteer Wikinews editor, designed a computer program to match up more than 65,000 possible Internet addresses to offending changes, and it traced them back to various lawmakers' offices. (A similar gumshoe tactic could not be used on House offices, because those computers share an Internet address, according to Wikipedia and Wikinews).
This crime-scene-style investigation points to staff members of at least five offices: Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
In all cases the edits removed factually accurate but unflattering descriptions of the lawmakers, and in many cases they added some beautifying language describing awards or glorifying legislative records.
An entry for Feinstein removed references to her net worth and a $190,000 fine she paid for not disclosing that her husband, Richard C. Blum, had guaranteed her gubernatorial campaign loans in 1990.
Edits allegedly made by Burns's staff removed references to his calling Arabs "ragheads," inserting a paragraph instead called "A Voice for the Farmer" that touted his advocacy for agriculture.
"I don't know why this is a story," said James Pendleton, a spokesman for Burns. "There is no sanctity in Wikipedia. Somebody will always come and change it." He declined to comment on Wikipedia's assertion that some of the changes came from his office.
The edits to Feinstein's entry were done by a former staffer acting alone, said Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the senator. "Online encyclopedias are prone to errors," he said, but staff members have been directed to coordinate changes with the senator's communications people, who are to contact Wikipedia directly.
Wikipedia maintains that, by soliciting edits from all volunteers, the site generally arrives at a neutral description of people and events -- a contention challenged by some on the Hill.
"There were several factual things that were wrong," said Tom Steward, a spokesman for Coleman, defending the staff's changes to the senator's voting record. "There are some subjective things in there, but obviously, as the editors of their site, they have the final say in what they write."
The edits to Biden's entry removed and altered references to incidents of alleged plagiarism. Biden spokesman Norm Kurz said changes that were "made to Biden's site by this office were designed to make it more fair and accurate."
Harkin's spokeswoman, Allison Dobson, said that the alterations were made by a junior staff member and that the office has reemphasized a policy that any changes must be authorized.
Saewyc, the Wikinews editor, said he solicited comment from the senators' offices but has not received any replies.
Meanwhile, some congressional offices are doing their own sleuthing. Staff members for Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) traced one offending change -- inserting that "he likes to beat his wife and children" -- to an Internet address in Omaha. But the person couldn't be identified from the general address, said Jen Rae Hein, a spokeswoman for the congressman.
Instead, the office called Wikipedia, which put a temporary freeze on edits on Terry's entry and took down all references to the offending edit.