William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Washington Post’

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.

Audrey Tomason: Newly Minted Star of Washington, and Wikipedia?

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on May 10, 2011 at 11:01 am

Washington, DC (and those outside the Beltway who share its mindset) can’t get enough of celebrity and celebrities. This is why it imports them each April for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This is why phrases such as “famous for DC” and the blog Famous DC and the saying “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people” exist. And it explains, at least in part, the sudden prominence of one Audrey Tomason, the subject of several recent “who is she?” news treatments from the Washington Post, Daily Beast, Daily Mail and elsewhere. She is also now the subject of a one week-old Wikipedia article that has been viewed more than 42,000 times:

Audrey Tomason Wikipedia article

And yet it’s not even agreed that she warrants a standalone Wikipedia article: there is so little information available that one of the few facts currently included is that she “regularly donates to the ‘Tufts Fund for Arts, Sciences and Engineering.'” An outright majority of sources in the article are from Tufts University (three annual report links, one alumni magazine) and one is simply a link to a brief appearance on C-SPAN in which she introduces somebody else. That’s awfully thin.

Wikipedia often chooses to delete articles about people notable for only one event, and in this case one might argue she is only possibly notable for appearing in a famous photograph. On the other hand, the Daily Mail reports that she is Director of Counterterrorism for the National Security Council, which sounds pretty important, although Wikipedia editors have expressed skepticism about the report. As one has pointed out, at this point she is more Internet meme than public figure.

So, will the article survive? It’s too soon to say; for now editors are taking a wait-and-see approach. The answer ultimately may be up to the United States federal government, and whether they are willing to let her talk to the press. Chances are slim, and as the Washington Post points out, Wikipedia itself could even play a role:

If it’s true that Tomason’s job is of the clandestine nature, it’s reasonable to think that this photo will not be good for her career. Neither will her new Wikipedia page.

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

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on June 14, 2009 at 8:03 am

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.