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 organisa-tions across the world.
If a misdemeanour from a politician’s colourful past becomes an inconvenient fact at election time then why not just strike it from the Wikipedia record? Or if a public company is embarking on a sensitive takeover why should its investors know of the target business’s human rights abuses?
Now a website designed to monitor editorial changes made on Wikipedia has found thousands of self-serving edits and traced them to their original source. It has turned out to be hugely embarrassing for armies of political spin doctors and cor-proate revisionists who believed their censorial interventions had gone unnoticed.
Some of the guilty parties identified by the website, such as the Labour Party, the CIA, Republican Party and the Church of Scientology, are well-known for their obsession with PR. But others, such as the Anglican and Catholic churches or even the obscurely titled Perro de Presa Canario Dog Breeders Association of America, are new to the dark arts of spin.
The website, Wikiscanner, was designed by Virgil Griffith, a graduate student from the California Institute of Technology, who downloaded the entire encyclopaedia, isolating the internet-based records of anonymous changes and IP addresses.
He matched those IP addresses with public net-address services and helped uncover the world’s biggest spinning operation.
Mr Griffith says: “I came up with the idea when I heard about Congressmen getting caught for white-washing their Wikipedia pages. Every time I hear about a new security vulnerability, I think about whether it could be done on a massive scale and indexed. I had the idea back then, I’ve been busy with scientific work so I sat on it until a few weeks ago when I started working on the WikiScanner.”
Wikipedia says Mr Griffith has found something they had long suspected. A Wikipedia spokesman said: “Wikipedia is only a working draft of history, it is constantly changing and so relies on volunteers editing the pages. But deliberate attempts to remove facts or reasonable interpretation of facts is considered vandalism. We are dealing with this kind of thing all time, so that our volunteer workers are changing edits back when we think they should be changed. But it’s not perfect, it is just more transparent than some people realise.”
Wikiscanner has analysed a database of 34.4 million edits performed by 2.6 million organisa-tions or individuals since 2002.
Although it is not known who made each individual edit, or how senior that person was within any organisation, Mr Griffith says it is fair to link the change to the owner of the computer’s IP address.
ExxonMobil 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
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.
The Labour Party and careerist MPs
An anonymous surfer at the Labour Party’s headquarters removed a section about Labour students referring to “careerist MPs”, and criticisms that the party’s student arm was no longer radical.