William Beutler on Wikipedia

Words and Deeds: Wikipedia and the Virginia Governor’s Race

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on June 14, 2009 at 8:03 am by William Beutler

The Democratic Party of Virginia settled on a nominee for governor this past week, choosing state senator Creigh Deeds over two better-known rivals, including former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe. (On the Republican side, Bob McDonnell was unopposed for the nomination.) Following the race, Virginia blogger and Wikipedia contributor Waldo Jaquith posted about “Wikipedia’s role in Sen. Deeds’ nomination“, featuring quotes from a live discussion WashingtonPost.com. Wrote one voter:

I voted for Deeds. The WaPo endorsement really helped. I started doing the research this weekend and was disappointed that the WaPo did not have a quick guide the issues. I searched for a half an hour and did not find a quick rundown of the candidates and the issues.

Also, Deeds had a wikipedia page about his past stances. That really helped. The other two did not have similar pages.

Interestingly, the specific page quoted — “Political positions of Creigh Deeds” — has been merged back into the main Deeds article, but the content appears intact. Jaquith writes:

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Wikipedia is going to play a large role in year’s Virginia elections. The campaigns that a) understand that, b) harness that and c) do so in a fair, unbiased way will reap the benefits. The campaigns that ignore Wikipedia or attempt to manipulate its information in a way that is anything less than fully truthful will be penalized accordingly.

In fact, that seems to have already occurred in the primary. As noted in an overexcited but basically correct diary at Daily Kos last week, ““You can’t handle the truth!” TMac’s dogs scrub Wikipedia of facts” supporters of McAuliffe did remove sourced information, none of which has been restored as of this writing.

In the first instance, material about a land deal and disgraced Democratic fundraiser John Huang because it “lacked NPOV” (i.e. not written from a neutral point of view), and in the second about business deals involving Telergy and inPhonic “for being unsourced.” Well. Lacking a neutral tone is cause to rewrite a section, but not a reason to delete — certainly not as a first resort. Second, the inPhonic material was properly sourced, and better than deleting the Telergy section would have been to find a citation. On the other hand, this goes both ways — the material was almost certainly added to cast doubt upon McAuliffe’s fitness for office, and according to the discussion page about McAuliffe’s article, much of this criticism popped up just days before the Tuesday primary vote. And so it goes.

So now the Commonwealth turns to the general election where, if Jaquith’s prediction is correct, the articles about Deeds and McDonnell will be both important resources as well as the locus of battles to establish narratives about each candidate. Indeed, both articles are the top non-official sites listed in Google searches for each candidate’s name. (Another important article will be Virginia gubernatorial election, 2009.)

As yet, Deeds’ article is the better one, in part because of the aforementioned section outlining Deeds’ political positions. His article is also somewhat more active, probably due to the active primary, and more experienced editors working on the page. Recent contributors to Deeds’ page include Virginia resident John Broughton, who literally wrote the book on editing Wikipedia, whereas most recent work on McDonnell’s page has been done from unregistered accounts represented only by the user’s IP address. Jaquith, for his part, has recently edited both.

It’s a good bet that, after the summer, editing on both articles will ramp up as November draws closer. It will be interesting to see how they develop.