Wikipedia Faces Congressional Vandalism

The volunteer-run, online reference site Wikipedia is built on idea that by involving the larger Internet community, they can collectively create a useful and comprehensive online reference tool for everyone. And they seem to be correct: from humble beginnings, in the last five years Wikipedia has turned into a widely-used information source, recently found to compare favorably with the vaunted Encyclopedia Britannica on the accuracy of its science topics.

But as Wikipedia’s coverage areas expand, the effort faces growing concerns over free-form creation and editing of articles, particularly in cases where self-appointed editors have a vested interest in portraying a subject or spinning a topic a certain way. The latest twist: Washington D.C. politicos are changing articles to remove or alter unpleasant facts, insert partisan posturing, whitewash records, and even vandalize entries about rival politicians.

Wikipedia keeps records of edits made to its articles, including the IP numbers of the computers making the changes. While those computers may turn out to be proxies (some anonymous), researchers have found computers linked to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have made changes to several online biographies, including those of Senators Dianne Feinstein, Tom Harkin, and Norm Coleman: edits removed a reference to Senator Harkin having falsely claimed to have flown combat missions in Viet Nam; Senator Coleman’s college political stance was recharacterized from “liberal” to “activist,” and staffers apparently deleted a reference to Coleman voting with President Bush 98 percent of the time in 2003. But it gets more brazen: a full-fledged “edit war” erupted over Senator Jay Rockefeller’s entry, with different parties tussling to add and remove material. Democratic representative Marty Meehan flat-out admits his staffers polished his own Wikipedia biography, removing a pledge to serve for only fur terms and removing information about his campaign finances. Meehan’s chief of staff Erich Mische told the Associated Press, “They’ve got an edit provision on there for the sake of editing when things are not accurate. I presume that if they did not want people to edit, they wouldn’t allow you to edit.”

Wikipedia volunteers have taken measured to reduce these and other forms of online vandalism


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