On Wikipedia, Debating 2008 Hopefuls' Every Facet

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007

On Sen. John McCain's Wikipedia entry, the argument has been over whether he is a conservative, moderate or liberal Republican. A heated exchange on former senator John Edwards's page has centered on deleting any reference to his $400 haircuts. And perhaps the most contentious dispute of all -- at least last week -- was over Fred Thompson's proper name: Is it Freddie, the name he was born with? Or Fred, as he's called now?

" 'Freddie' makes Thompson sound ridiculous," a user argued. "It's not about making Thompson look silly," another responded. "It's about having accurate information."

On Wikipedia.org, the write-it-yourself encyclopedia, everyone can be an editor, and every day thousands of them are engaging in fierce battles over the life stories of the 2008 presidential candidates.

Many of those battles, so far, are over relatively small biographical details, but the stakes are high: Wikipedia is one of the 10 most visited Web sites, drawing 6 billion page views a month, according to the Web rating service Alexa. Type a candidate's name into Google, and among the first results is a Wikipedia page, making those entries arguably as important as any ad in defining a candidate. Already, the presidential entries are being edited, dissected and debated countless times each day.

On the campaign trail, the candidates' positions on Iraq, illegal immigration and health care garner the most attention. But for the unknown number of editors of Wikipedia -- from 20-something law students to 50-something stay-at-home moms, from fierce partisans supporting their candidates to news junkies who place a premium on facts -- seemingly no issue goes unnoticed.

Thompson's first name, yes. But also Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's record as first lady. And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's two wedding ceremonies, one for Mormons, the other for those who were not members of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

"As a culture, we don't agree. We just don't. And what's fascinating about Wikipedia is that it only works if there's consensus," said David Weinberger, a Harvard fellow and the author of "Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder."

For the most part, campaigns have stayed on the sidelines of the Wikipedia wars.

"I'm pretty sure the people debating 'Fred' versus 'Freddie' are the same people who debate whether or not Britney Spears looked too fat at the MTV music awards," said Karen Hanretty, who is working for the Thompson campaign. "Seriously, how many hours do these editors spend on the site?"

Aides realize they can't control the site, and there have been few reports of campaigns editing their pages or those of their opponents. Last month, an erroneous revision about Iowa's entry into the Union (1846 instead of 1848) was traced to someone using an Obama campaign computer.

Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the campaign is "looking into this matter," though she noted that "hundreds of staff members, supporters and volunteers" have access to the campaign's computers. She added: "We will continue to update our policies and procedures to ensure the accuracy of not only Obama's Wikipedia site, but any on the site." Other campaigns, including Clinton's and Romney's, said they do not monitor their pages.

Wikipedia's founding principle is that everyone has something to contribute. And in a way, the site represents both what's good (collective knowledge) and what's potentially dangerous (rampant anonymity) about the Internet.

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