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.

Three weeks ago, for example, an editor going by the name of Gen Bigjegs uploaded a photo of naked black men on Sen. Barack Obama's article. Another editor, Tvoz, who happened to be on Wikipedia at the time, removed the photo two minutes later.

But at the same time, it's hard to find a more up-to-date, detailed, thorough article on Obama than Wikipedia's. As of Friday, Obama's article -- more than 22 pages long, with 15 sections covering his personal and professional life -- had a reference list of 167 sources.

"You can't stop the vandals, in real life or on the Internet," said Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder. "But . . . each of these articles are constantly evolving, constantly being edited, constantly being improved."

Wikipedia is available in 250 languages, and the English-language version has about 4.5 million registered users. The number of users most likely is vastly higher, because anyone can edit the site without registering. The site is free, and since the English-language Wikipedia was launched six years ago, it has been driven by volunteers self-policing one another's work.

Like YouTube and MySpace, Wikipedia has a distinct culture. A general hierarchy exists: Voyeurs, who mainly visit the site to read its more than 2 million pages in English, are at the bottom, and at the top are "admins," the powers-that-be who oversee the editors. The admins can close off a page from editing -- think of it as a Wiki timeout -- when disagreements flare. "Sometimes the editors just get so worked up," said Dan Rosenthal, 24, a law student at American University who is one of more than 1,250 admins.

An article's "talk page," where editing issues are often passionately addressed, is key to the site's ethos. Civility is valued. It's the kind of virtual playground where prickly wordsmiths and news junkies (editing is supposed to be based on reliable sources such as newspapers, magazines and books) write in carefully constructed sentences, waxing earnestly about fairness, accuracy and neutrality. AGF -- assume good faith -- is the guiding principle. The goal is consensus, but disagreements are inescapable.

A survey of the "talk pages" reveals the tension between candidates' supporters and detractors, who are always duking it out, often not as discreetly as they'd like to appear. Supporters pump up their candidates' qualifications. Critics pounce on any negative reports.

The spat over Thompson's name has been waged largely between Tvoz, a 56-year-old freelance publicist and mother of two whose real name is Tina Vozick, and another editor who goes only by Ferrylodge, a Republican and a Thompson supporter. (He recently gave the former Tennessee senator a $100 donation.) Ferrylodge, a 45-year-old patent lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is certain that Tvoz is a Democrat. She is, though she's not yet sure who she will support.

"I've been accused of being on the staffs of Edwards, Clinton and Obama," Vozick said.

Experts have tried to determine how reliable the information on Wikipedia is. It's difficult to know, for example, whether campaign staffers are editing articles about their candidates. But that kind of embarrassing revelation is what Virgil Griffith had in mind when he released the free WikiScanner last month.

Griffith, a visiting researcher at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and a "disruptive technologist," has caused public relations disasters for corporations and federal agencies. WikiScanner traces the millions of changes back to the editor's network.

"Campaigns are clever. If they're going to make any changes, good or bad, they'll make it from their home offices or computers, not at campaign headquarters. Or so you'd think," said Griffith, 24.

Early last week, scientists at the Augmented Social Cognition Research Group in California launched WikiDashboard, a quick way to find the most active editors of an article. On Clinton's article, Tvoz ranked third highest. On Thompson's, Ferrylodge was unmatched.

For more than a week, the two have been among the most active editors of Thompson's page.

Thompson's "talk page" is the busiest of the candidate pages, primarily because of two topics: how to address the 25-year age difference between Thompson and his wife, Jeri, and the Sept. 6 Los Angeles Times article that said Thompson's birth name was Freddie.

Tvoz insists that the article should begin with "Freddie Dalton 'Fred' Thompson." Ferrylodge argues that it should be "Fred Dalton Thompson (born Freddie Dalton Thompson)."

Ferrylodge said with a sigh: "We're still waiting for a consensus."

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