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What Happened to CongressEdits?
The Thrilling Life and Untold Death of Twitter’s Most Important Wikipedia Bot

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on January 17, 2019 at 11:59 am

Wikipedia and Twitter are very different internet platforms, but parallels can be found if you look closely enough (as The Wikipedian did a few years back). One important commonality is bots written by developers that automate certain tasks. On Wikipedia, bots can be found fixing typos, reverting vandalism, and performing repetitive administrative procedures. On Twitter, bots automate tweeting, retweeting, and related behaviors.

One of the most newsworthy bots of the past five years ties both platforms together. We’re talking, of course, about @CongressEdits, created to track edits made to Wikipedia from U.S. Capitol computers.

Launched in summer 2014, the account quickly became a cause célèbre, and if you wonder why, I’d like to invite you to familiarize yourself with the unavoidably self-referential Wikipedia article titled “United States Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia”. (Congressional staffers edit Wikipedia a lot, often embarrassingly, sometimes scandalously.) Over the next few years, CongressEdits would prove to be the source of news stories both serious and just for fun, revealing efforts to hide unflattering information and announce the availability of Choco Tacos in congressional vending machines. But then, in late 2018, @CongressEdits disappeared. If you visit today, you’ll see a standard message: “This account has been suspended.”

CongressEdits in 2014

What happened? Let’s start at the beginning: the account was set up (and the code behind it written) by Ed Summers, a software developer then working at the Library of Congress. He had previously established other Twitter bots, and also created WikiStream, a visualization of recent changes to Wikipedia displayed in real-time. CongressEdits was hardly a planned project, in fact it was “largely just an experiment,” as Summers explained to The Wikipedian in an interview. His inspiration for the new account came from the sudden appearance of @ParliamentEdits, which then and now tracks Wikipedia edits made from the UK Parliament. The creator of that account, Tom Scott, had piped the two known IP addresses for Parliament through the IFTTT automation service, which then published its findings to Twitter. ParliamentEdits was simple and clever. But a similar tool focused on the U.S. Congress would not be so simple: computers at the Capitol Building and its half-dozen office buildings are known to have multiple ranges and within them[1]Approximately 30 are known to be in use. —Last updated 1/22/19 thousands of possible addresses. After asking around, Summers received a list of known congressional IP addresses from GovTrack.us, an organization focused on government transparency. Summers put in a few hours of coding, and on July 8, 2014, CongressEdits was born.

Almost from the start, CongressEdits was the subject of supportive coverage—first from tech and politics sites like Ars Technica and TechPresident, and soon enough from The New York Times as well. Before long, the bot had its very own article on Wikipedia. What’s more, all the attention on CongressEdits (and to a lesser extent, ParliamentEdits) inspired developers in other countries to borrow the idea—and in some cases, Summers’ open source code—to create similar Twitter bots focused on the legislatures of Australia, Canada, Germany, and other countries. Summers is happy to have played the role he did, but also thinks it would have happened without him. “If I didn’t do it, somebody else would have done it soon after me,” he said. “It was just in the air at the time.” Still, CongressEdits proved to be the most famous among the bots, eventually gaining more than 60,000 followers.[2]Encouraged by the success of his side project, Summers created another bot, called @CongressEditors, which tracks edits made to the Wikipedia biographies of congressional members themselves. Later, he returned to CongressEdits and added screenshots of each edit, making it easier still for followers to scrutinize congressional IP edits.

Twitter-addicted journalists were soon mining CongressEdits for story opportunities, whether frivolous (The Daily Beast interviewed a 20-year-old congressional intern who admitted to vandalizing Wikipedia for funsies) or frightening (Mashable discovered edits watering down Wikipedia’s description of a Senate report on CIA torture). On multiple occasions, Wikipedia went so far as to temporarily block IP addresses from editing Wikipedia, for periods of up to three months, before restoring access in the name of openness. Some wondered if CongressEdits actually encouraged bad behavior. These included Wikipedia’s own Jimmy Wales, who speculated in an interview with the BBC “that it only provoke[s] someone—some prankster there in the office—to have an audience now for the pranks”. Others saw worse scenarios—as one developer said: “I just wonder when the first smear campaign leverages the watch bots.”

Which brings us to the autumn of 2018. The Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh started off as a routine exercise in shared powers among the U.S. government branches, but ended as one of the most bitterly partisan nomination battles in history. On Wednesday, September 27, in a dramatic sequence of events before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christine Blasey Ford, a former high school classmate of the judge, accused him of sexual assault, a charge Kavanaugh angrily rebutted. It was the next big moment in the #metoo movement, and the fight turned personal—in the committee hearing room, around dinner tables, and especially on social media.

On Thursday, September 28, a journalist alerted Summers that a CongressEdits tweet was going viral. This was nothing new, and Summers didn’t investigate until the next morning—when he found that Twitter had suspended the account. The story was already in the Washington Post: an anonymous person using a congressional IP address had “doxxed” several Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, posting their phone numbers and even home addresses—“personally identifiable information”, or PII in legal terminology. This was no regular chicanery, Summers said: “In the past, people have noticed that the bot had a lot of followers and then if they edited Wikipedia from within the Capitol building, they could basically send messages. … But leaking PII through the edits themselves was something new.”

Redacted CongressEdits doxxing tweet

On Wikipedia, the edits were swiftly reverted and suppressed from public view. On Twitter, with the offending tweets deleted, Summers appealed to Twitter for reinstatement. The request was approved, and soon CongressEdits was operating as normal. But this didn’t last either: the senators’ personal information was again added from a Capitol IP address, and Twitter suspended the account once more. Within days a former Democratic staffer was identified and arrested, but for CongressEdits it was too late.

Aghast, Summers was ready to simply give up. His mind changed after speaking to Daniel Schuman, policy director for the government transparency organization Demand Progress,[3]co-founded by the late activist, programmer, and Wikipedia contributor Aaron Swartz who persuaded him that additional code could be introduced which would scan edits for patterns common to such information: seven-digit strings for phone numbers, @ symbols for email addresses, and the like. Offending tweets could be withheld, or put in a queue for review, and Summers was willing to do it. He appealed again to Twitter, explaining that he would introduce a filter were the account to be restored. Instead he simply received a form letter stating: “Your account was permanently suspended due to multiple or repeat violations of Twitter Rules … This account will not be restored.”

As of January 2019, the account remains suspended.[4]There is, however, an archive on GitHub. Reached for comment, a Twitter spokesperson told The Wikipedian, “We don’t comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.” Summers eventually did post the revised code to the Twitter alternative site Mastodon, and so CongressEdits lives on—but in a place where almost no one will think to look for it. It now has just 382 followers.

The controversy surrounding CongressEdits thus became another casualty of the weaponization of social media, an increasingly common phenomenon. Twitter knows it has a harassment problem, has made repeated pledges to address the issue, and has taken serious steps to crack down on abusive bots and individuals. So far, they have yielded mixed results. It’s not uncommon to find stories of accounts suspended for reasons mild and mysterious. Sometimes Twitter’s rules enforcement has arguably contributed to the problem—for instance, the decision to ban @ImposterBuster, a bot which confronted users making racist comments.

To be sure, bots deserve more scrutiny than individual users. Last summer, Twitter introduced stringent new guidelines requiring botmakers to resubmit applications to continue their operations, no matter their content. These rules have apparently imperiled another internet-famous bot, @RealPressSecBot, which reformats tweets from @RealDonaldTrump to look like an official White House press release. In a December tweet thread, its creator, Russel Neiss, expressed his frustration and refusal to comply, and promptly began selling sponsored posts to monetize his protest until such time as this bot, too, is shut down.

Should CongressEdits return to Twitter, it will return to a much different internet than the one that gave birth to it. Using open technology for spirited problem-solving has given way to recently-realized threats and increased security measures. If unblocked, Summers says he would consider bringing it back to Twitter, but wouldn’t do so absent a clear message of support from the Wikipedia community: “I would take it up at that point,” he said, “but I didn’t feel like I was going to unilaterally do that.”

Unable to speak up for itself, CongressEdits’ legacy is undefined. Given the events of last fall, its critics might seem to be vindicated. Schuman, who had sought to help Summers restore the account, believes its real value was invisible: “I actually viewed it as something that inhibited people who have conflicts of interest from editing their own pages,” he told The Wikipedian. Summers is more cautious, but stands by his creation: “If I had to say if it’s a net positive or net negative, I would definitely say it’s a net positive, right? … I think it’s useful to think critically about our information sources that way.”

But now, Schuman laments, “This valuable tool just doesn’t exist anymore.”

Notes

Notes
1 Approximately 30 are known to be in use. —Last updated 1/22/19
2 Encouraged by the success of his side project, Summers created another bot, called @CongressEditors, which tracks edits made to the Wikipedia biographies of congressional members themselves. Later, he returned to CongressEdits and added screenshots of each edit, making it easier still for followers to scrutinize congressional IP edits.
3 co-founded by the late activist, programmer, and Wikipedia contributor Aaron Swartz
4 There is, however, an archive on GitHub.