William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for June 2011

Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and the Boring Truth About Wikipedia Vandalism

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on June 29, 2011 at 10:02 am

The Wikipedian was traveling for most of this past month, and so I’ve missed out on a few interesting Wikipedia-related stories of late. None was more frustrating (and entertaining) than the case of Sarah Palin’s supporters’ edits to and arguments about Paul Revere’s famous ride. In case you missed it (or, as it is so often abbreviated in campaign e-mail blasts, “ICYMI”) Palin stated in early June that Revere had warned the British—not the American revolutionaries—and a few of her supporters attempted to change the Paul Revere article to more closely reflect her version of events.

Yes, I missed that one, but maybe I’m not too late: according to nearly back-to-back posts by left-wing bloggers at ThinkProgress and Raw Story, the same thing is happening to various Wikipedia articles following erroneous statements by newly-declared Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. At issue:

  • During her campaign announcement speech, Bachmann referred to the late film actor John Wayne’s hometown as Waterloo, Iowa, when in fact it was Winterset, Iowa. As an aside, I seriously doubt, as widely asserted, that she was thinking of John Wayne Gacy (who is most closely associated with Chicago) and, for what it’s worth, Bachmann later pointed out that Wayne’s parents met in Waterloo.
  • Later, interviewed by ABC News, Bachmann referred to John Quincy Adams as a “founding father” although the U.S. president was only a child during the American revolution (he was, of course, the son of founding father John Adams). The last I heard, she was sticking to her guns on this one, as little sense as that makes.

As reported by ThinkProgress and Raw Story, the Wikipedia articles about John Wayne and John Quincy Adams were undoubtedly changed, more than once, to reflect Bachmann’s erroneous statements. I’ll tell you what, though: upon closer inspection, I think this hardly rises to the same level as the Palin-Revere controversy, and really says more about the partisan / ideological online media than it does about Michele Bachmann or her political supporters—let alone Wikipedia.

To wit: On Monday, an IP editor (meaning one who has not registered for an account and so is represented by their IP address) from Pennsylvania changed John Wayne’s birthplace to “Waterloo” from “Winterset”. It was changed back pretty quickly. On the discussion page, there was little actual debate of the issue—and it started anyway with a sarcastic post by someone clearly not a Bachmann fan.

The next day, on the John Quincy Adams page, an IP editor (using the IP address 128.200.11.106, associated with UC-Irvine) added “a founding father” as a subordinate clause in the very first sentence. This too was removed, and a brief, detached conversation occurred on that discussion page as well.

I decided to look at the edit history of the IP editors responsible for the above edits. It turned out the editor responsible for the Wayne edit had made no prior edits and has made none since. The editor responsible for the JQA edit has possibly edited a few times before (IP addresses can be shared, so identity is difficult to establish). On the discussion page associated with the IP address, an established editor politely suggested that the individual create an account, whereupon the IP editor replied:

Are you joking? It was obviously vandalism, so why try to act like I was acting in good faith?

Yeah, that’s about right. You won’t hear it from ThinkProgress or Raw Story, but the Palin-Revere controversy was a much bigger deal, kicking up a much more heated debate, lasting more than a week and encompassing several related discussion threads. And whereas actual Sarah Palin fans seem to have become involved there, there is no reason to think that actual Bachmann supporters are involved here. The best take on it comes from an editor, BusterD, who wrote on the JQA discussion page:

Up to this point, what is reported is not actually happening. A few ip editors have been injecting the phrase “founding father”, sometimes as a clear jest and sometimes modifying the father who is considered one of the founders, but most of what’s going on is normal ip vandalism which occurs when an historical figure gets mentioned in the media. Semi-protection is now in force; nobody has been editing the page in any but the most minor ways. Sure would be a good time to get cites on everything and tighten the page up some.

That’s exactly right. Activity on Wikipedia articles, whether helpful or unhelpful, is often driven by what’s in the news, and this case seems to be no different. General mischief on Wikipedia is an everyday fact of life, and the idle hands motivated to cause such trouble frequently draw inspiration from the headlines. Wikipedia’s Recent changes patrol (and a few automated scripts) keep the most obvious at bay; most of it is caught within minutes. Politically motivated edits are usually much more subtle and focused on specific politicians rather than general topics momentarily associated with them. It seems clear that the Bachmann-related edits were not done to make a point but simply for the lulz.

Whether these incidents say anything about the respective supporters of Michele Bachmann vs. those of Sarah Palin, I pass no judgment. As to the blog-first-ask-questions-later nature of the political mediasphere, well, I think this post speaks for itself.