William Beutler on Wikipedia

USA Congressional Staff Edits to Wikipedia: The Saga Continues

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on April 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm by William Beutler

Last week I was asked by Politico’s Marin Cogan to provide some commentary about a situation on Wikipedia whereby a congressional staffer had tampered with her boss’ entry. This became “Rep. David Rivera’s war with Wikipedia” in last Thursday’s paper.

As the article explained, David Rivera’s press secretary, Leslie Veiga, had created an account using her real initials and last name (otherwise, she would’ve gotten away with it) in order to delete a number of negative subjects from the entry and replace them with conspicuously favorable language. Both actions are officially discouraged by site policies, but no official action was needed: the changes were rolled back, the offending account was issued a warning, and the unhelpful editing activity ceased.

Now a new section about the incident has been added to Rivera’s article, although its inclusion has been disputed (Wikipedia dislikes self-referentiality unless unavoidable, and its relevance to Rivera’s overall career is unclear) so it’s not necessarily there “forever,” as Gawker suggested. Then again, as I told Cogan: “All Wikipedia aims to do is reflect what is public knowledge and has been widely reported.” And it seems to have been covered widely enough.

As hinted above, the cynical view is that Veiga’s biggest mistake was the one thing that was laudable about her actions: her transparency. The truth is that she could have been transparent and made helpful suggestions in accordance with Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guideline… but this requires much more knowledge about Wikipedia than most staffers have. (As Politico mentions, I deal with this subject professionally and written about how it can be done it properly.) And none of this is new: the fact of congressional staff editing Wikipedia was first widely reported in early 2006 and is now memorialized in the Wikipedia article “USA Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia”.

What most staffers seem to do instead is what most uninitiated contributors do, and that is edit without creating an account, thereby displaying their IP address. The U.S. House and U.S. Senate have dedicated IP addresses serving members’ offices on Capitol Hill (I used to think there was a single IP address for each, but now I’m not so sure; if anyone knows for sure, please speak up in the comments). As Cogan writes:

The House IP address … frequently shows up in the edit histories of members, committees and constitutional amendments. Wiki editors repeatedly blocked the House IP for limited periods of time until 2009, when they apparently gave up the effort.

By following these edit histories, you can make some guesses about which offices might be doing the same as Rivera’s staffer. To be clear: most of these edits are not so blatantly self-serving as were Veiga’s; most are only mildly self-serving, such as the staffer from Rep. Jimmy Duncan’s office, who apparently tried to add his Facebook page and YouTube channel (for which one could actually make a decent case, but few know to do) only to be reverted and warned.

The Talk page associated with the IP address is also enlightening (that’s how I found the Duncan edits) and sometimes amusing; this comment (under the header “Wow”) is my favorite:

Look at all those edits of mudslinging your opponents and painting yourselves in some golden light. I expected better from our government.

Uh huh… right. And of course there is the page listing all contributions made from the House IP address, where one can find all manner of subjects that Hill staffers are interested in, besides just their bosses. Among non-political recent edits:

As you can see by the repetition of collegiate topics, one may surmise that more than a few are largely concerned with themselves. One edit from late March was undoubtedly self-centered: Congressional staffer. But their bosses do seem to be among the greatest focus. And about the fact that, in late March, edits were made to the article titled Liar, perhaps the less said the better.

P.S. Just over two years ago, I covered this topic in a post titled “Did Rep. Hinojosa Get a Free Pass on Biased Wikipedia Edits?” (Yes, for awhile.)

P.P.S. Just over one year ago, I had an article published in Campaigns & Elections’ Politics Magazine about very nearly the same topic: edits made by political campaigns, how they are most often bad and some pointers about how to make them good.