William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for July 2009

Too Hot to Handel? Wikipedia’s Troubled Role in State Political Campaigns Continues

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on July 6, 2009 at 8:59 am

As noted here recently in the case of Creigh Deeds, a well-written, informative Wikipedia article can have a positive impact on a candidate’s reputation. As noted here a couple months back in the case of Ryan Coonerty, a Wikipedia article edited primarily by opponents can have the opposite effect.

The case of Georgia secretary of state and gubernatorial hopeful Karen Handel is one of the latter, and it points to exactly why politicians should keep a close watch on their page as well as just what can happen when they do not.

In early June, a relatively new editor going by the name RomneyGingrich12 changed Handel’s article from…

She served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice-President Quayle’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, where she worked to promote breast cancer awareness.

to

She dropped out of highschool, but later got her GED. She forwent college to served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice-President Quayle’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, where she worked to promote breast cancer awareness.

Forget the typos. Forget the lack of a source. And forget the tendentious nature of the change. This was not obvious vandalism — the edit contained neither obscenity nor nonsense — and it remained on the page for 20 more days, until Georgia politico Erick Erickson — known nationally for editing the conservative website RedState — posted about it on his Peach Pundit blog:

In fact, Handel both graduated from high school and went on to college until getting a job in the White House.

Judging by RomneyGingrich12’s history on Wikipedia, he appears to be a big fan of John Oxendine, having edited the Ox’s bio religiously and also having made sure to point out in Ray McBerry’s biography that McBerry came in second in a straw poll to Oxendine. The original reference to McBerry just said he came in second.

And it so happens that Stu Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst, had already picked up the GED information from Handel’s Wikipedia article. Jim Galloway at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioned Rothenberg on the subject:

We called Rothenberg this afternoon. The political analyst said he picked up information about the GED by talking to his Georgia contacts. Rothenberg acknowledged that he saw the information on Wikipedia as well, but said that’s not what he based his reporting on.

“I may have made a mistake,” Rothenberg said. But the columnist said he has also asked Handel’s staff for more information. “I’m waiting for a response,” he said. “I’m waiting for data on the woman’s life.”

Granted, it’s hard to fault Rothenberg if a detail he found on Wikipedia was backed up by interviews in the state. The GED claim was finally removed on June 29, but by then it was too late for Handel to stay quiet. On July 3, WBS-TV in Atlanta ran a story titled “Karen Handel Upset Over Altered Wikipedia Entry” which begins:

Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican running for governor, wants to set the record straight about her education.

“For the record, yes, I have a high school diploma,” said Handel.

Yikes. Although Handel seems to have dealt with the situation appropriately, by the time this kind of thing gets into the press, the damage has been done. After all, one thing people know about her is a false story — and they may or may not know it is false. Now the page is attracting vandals from beyond Georgia, some of whom are writing much worse things.

Erickson claims to have identified RomneyGingrich12 as an Oxendine staffer, and while the circumstantial evidence is certainly there, it seems unlikely to hurt Oxendine as much without a smoking gun, resignation or firing — and one can expect the Oxendine camp to do whatever they can to avoid such a scenario. That may not be fair, but that’s politics.

If there is one leveler here, it is that now both the Oxendine and Handel pages currently are affixed with the same warning templates:

handel-oxendine-warnings

Those won’t last forever, and I have to wonder which article will be improved first. So far, all the news has not resulted in significant changes to either. Both campaigns need to have open representatives working through the Wikipedia community to make sure their articles are written as fairly as possible. Until then, the coverage will continue.