Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Wikipedia spinning -- watching the watchbird (More...)

This is another "watchbird" post.

I'm a big fan of Wikipedia. I love the way it uses the Web in real time to report news and quickly disseminate information of all kinds. I also like that for just about any topic under the sun there are dedicated groupies obsessed with keeping up with the most trivial information, quick to jump on anything that fails to meet careful scrutiny. And compared to how it will work over time, measured in generations instead of years, the phenomenon has only just started. Barring some disruptive change of course, our grandchildren will have access to a Wikipedia that will be history's most complete and impressive repository of information...ever.

In the meantime growing numbers of individuals and institutions are working hard to cover their butts and/or obscure information they don't want interpreted the wrong way. Spinning, it's called. But the design of Wikipedia makes it possible to track the sources of every edit. Digital fingerprints connect the dots in ways that indicate old-fashioned manipulation in the manner that Wikipedia articles are written.

The secret of Wikipedia's phenomenal success is that anyone can edit the millions of comments, facts and statistics published on the pages of the world's most popular online encyclopaedia. But that of course is also its greatest weakness.

The chance to rewrite history in flattering and uncritical terms has proved too much of a temptation for scores of multinational companies, political parties and well-known organisations across the world.

Introducing Wikipedia 2.0. The watchbirds are flocking, starting with what may be the start of a second-generation analytical approach. Instead of checking the facts, Wikiscanner is in the business of revealing the sources and how they present information. The results are interesting.

Exxon Mobil and the giant oil slick

An IP address that belongs to ExxonMobil, the oil giant, is linked to sweeping changes to an entry on the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. An allegation that the company "has not yet paid the $5 billion in spill damages it owes to the 32,000 Alaskan fishermen" was replaced with references to the funds the company has paid out.

The Republican Party and Iraq

The Republican Party edited Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party entry so it made it clear that the US-led invasion was not a "US-led occupation" but a "US-led liberation."

The CIA and casualties of war

A computer with a CIA IP address was used to change a graphic on casualties of the Iraq war by adding the warning that many of the figures were estimated and not broken down by class. Another entry on former CIA chief William Colby was edited to expand his cv.

That's only a sample. The linked story from the Independent lists lots more (Dow Chemical and the Bhopal disaster, Diebold and the dubious voting machines, The Israeli government and the West Bank wall, The dog breeders and fatal maulings, The gun lobby and fatal shootings, Discovery Channel and guerrilla marketing, The church's child abuse cover-up, The FBI and Guantánamo, Scientologists and sensitivity, and a delicious list of others) but the importance of this next generatiion Internet investigative tool is just starting to be revealed.

H/T Tom Smith

[Added two days later...]

A couple of interesting items came up since this was posted.

►Within hours I noticed a little spike in traffic from Exxon-Mobil of all places! Google Finance picked up the post and linked it from the XOM information page (it's gone now) because they were mentioned above. Someone is watching somewhere, no? Are we just a little bit sensitive or what?

The New York Times published a similar story.

Internet experts, for the most part, have welcomed WikiScanner. “I’m very glad that this has been exposed,” said Susan P. Crawford, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School. “Wikipedia is a reliable first stop for getting information about a huge variety of things, and it shouldn’t be manipulated as a public relations arm of major companies.”

Most of the corporate revisions did not stay posted for long. Many Wikipedia entries are in a constant state of flux as they are edited and re-edited, and the site’s many regular volunteers and administrators tend to keep an eye out for bias.

In general, changes to a Wikipedia page cannot be traced to an individual, only to the owner of a particular network. In 2004, someone using a computer at ExxonMobil made substantial changes to a description of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, playing down its impact on the area’s wildlife and casting a positive light on compensation payments the company had made to victims of the spill.

Gantt Walton, a spokesman for the company, said that although the revisions appeared to have come from an ExxonMobil computer, the company has more than 80,000 employees around the world, making it “more than a difficult task” to figure out who made the changes.

Mr. Walton said ExxonMobil employees “are not authorized to update Wikipedia with company computers without company endorsement.” The company’s preferred approach, he said, would be to use Wikipedia’s “talk” pages, a forum for discussing Wikipedia entries.

Mr. Wales [founder of the Wikimedia Foundation] also said the “talk” pages are where Wikipedia encourages editors with a conflict of interest to suggest revisions.

“If someone sees a simple factual error about their company, we really don’t mind if they go in and edit,” he said. But if a revision is likely to be controversial, he added, “the best thing to do is log in, go to the ‘talk’ page, identify yourself openly, and say, ‘I’m the communications person from such and such company.’ The community responds very well, especially if the person isn’t combative.”

Uh, not to put too fine a point on it, XOM sure didn't let grass grow under their feet before insuring writers at the New York Times would 'splain thier position properly. Anyone notice that hot-link to the XOM financial page at the Times???

►Freelance writer Kirsten Anderson riffs on the story at Huffington Post, focusing on how the presidential race keeps the spinmeisters busy polishing the images of their respective candidates. Fred Thompson and Barack Obama illustrate the point...

With all the editors working on Wikipedia (on Wikipedia, anyone can make a change and thus become an editor), it's no surprise that there is a constant flow of additional information. The "more you know factor," though, can just as easily confuse rather than clarify. The big debate on the Fred Thompson page was his religious affiliation: was it the Churches of Christ or Disciples of Christ, and if he is elected president, would he be the second president after James Garfield to belong to this denomination? The statement, "If elected president, he would become the second president in U.S. history (after James Garfield) to belong to the Churches of Christ, a non-denominational Christian group that was formed on the day of Pentecost as found in the book of Acts," now stands as, "Thompson belongs to the Churches of Christ, a non-denomination group of churches descended from the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. If elected president, he would become the third Stone-Cambellite president in U.S. history, after James Garfield and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ belonged to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the split happened after Garfield's time.)" Very specific, indeed. File under "Things to Keep in Mind While Pondering James Garfield and Schisms of 19th Century American Protestant Sects."
Wikipedia Campaign '08 isn't all denominational hair-splitting and wedding parties, though. Barack Obama's page was the site for more familiar fights involving class warfare and American hegemony -- with a peculiarly Wikipedian twist, though.

The class warfare issue started when an admin (these are higher-level editors who have been given special superpowers, such as being able to protect, or lock down a page) noticed heavy activity on the Obama page. A flurry of edits -- often on mind-numbingly small details, such as whether to add a "Jr.," to Obama's name -- were constantly being made and then reverted by other editors, with no reason listed other than "sock puppet." A sock puppet is a false identity; essentially, people create sock puppets by registering as editors under a series of different names, usually for the purpose of hiding their identities or to build the appearance of consensus on an issue when there is really only one advocate.

The admin, suspecting some kind of trouble, put the Obama page into "semi-protection," that is locked it down temporarily in order to find out what was going on. This led to a serious of furious exchanges on the discussion page, with allegations of abuse of power by the admin, and anger that this had been done without bothering to understand that the "edit-warring" was not a real problem, but simply the result of (in what is so far the phrase of the year, and unlikely to be challenged for that title) "a rolling band of disruptive socks."

Things got even worse when another admin stopped by, studied the situation, and advised that the protection be taken off. The first admin agreed and lifted the lock. Now people began to call out the first admin for only listening to other admins. As one editor put it: "It is most definitely a good thing that us lowly plebeians don't have any pull with an elite admin like yourself. Imagine if you had to listen when uppity non-admins challenged your actions. That would be dreadfully unnerving, mixing with the baser classes and all." Heavens to Murgatroyd, what would Barack have to say about all this? (probably, "Uh, I don't use Jr. with my name. Thanks for asking.")

The other problem was a complaint involving what some described as typical American arrogance and others considered just an issue of user-friendliness. If users typed Obama into the search box, what page should come up? Should it go directly to Barack Obama's main biographical page? Or should it go to what is known as a "disambiguation page," that is a page that lists a number of possibilities for a word. For example, typing in "Clinton," leads to a disambiguation page that lists page links for Hillary, Bill, Chelsea, George Clinton, DeWitt Clinton, and any number of towns named Clinton. Obama, one group of editors argued, should go to a disambiguation page because of options such as the Japanese town of Obama and the president of Equatorial Guinea, Ricardo Mangue Obama Nfubea--both, they argued, much more important and of international significance than a junior senator from Illinois who may or may not make it to the Democratic primary. The others pointed out that the Barack Obama page was amongst the most viewed Wikipedia pages and therefore for ease of use, searches should automatically go there, with the page featuring a link to an Obama disambiguation page.

When several admins quietly moved the search result from the direct to Barack version to the Obama disambig, name-calling started, with accusations of "cabals" and "collaborations." In an attempt to calm things down, someone started a poll to see which result was preferred. Rather than vote, though, many editors wrote statements of protest, saying they wouldn't participate in a poll when they felt the result was already rigged by the cabal of Obama disambig-ers (latest update: currently the search automatically goes to Barack Obama, with the disambiguation link). Again, what would Barack think? (probably something like, "Is there a link to my entry? Okay.")


I went to the comments thread looking for "sock puppets." I don't think I found any, but there were a couple of interesting observations.

Comment: The facts and truth keep changing so they have to be modified.

Reply: No...the facts and truth are not like the price of a turnip at a Bulgarian outdoor market. They never change. Only people's perceptions change, and what you're allowed to say and write changes. That is the problem with wikipedia. Even as a snapshot of what people are thinking, it is worthless, because some articles are so carefully guarded.
Try writing that Patti Reagan was born to Nancy "Just Say No" Reagan as a full-term baby seven months after the Reagans got married, and WHOOOSH, it will disappear within minutes. Try entering that Eleanor Roosevelt was a lesbian. WHOOOOOSH! Gone. Yet both are facts. I wouldn't recommend wikipedia to a 10-year old doing a book report.

And this line is worth repeating:

Wikipedia sites that Alfred E. Neuman has periodically been offered as a candidate for president with the slogan “ You could do worse….and always have!”

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