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Wikipedia goes to Washington

By Gregory Kohs

Throughout mid-2008, a number of people interested in analysis of Wikipedia joined me in a project to methodically enumerate one calendar quarter’s worth (4Q 2007) of edit data underlying the 100 Wikipedia articles about the (then) current United States Senators. What they found was alarming at times. While most vandalized edits were brief in duration and clearly juvenile in content, a substantial portion of edits were plainly intended to be hurtful and defamatory against the Senators. Most of the vandalized edits were reverted within a minute or two. However, many of them endured for hours at time. Some for several days. And a few persisted for weeks on end.

But, no matter how hateful or how libelous the edit, no matter how long it persists on Wikipedia, the folks who own and operate Wikipedia’s servers who have the ultimate editorial control over what stays and what gets jettisoned from important portions of the website, are virtually free from liability. This is thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which I feel is due for a serious legal challenge or legislative revamp at some point soon.

Sorry, Max

One edit that was captured during the U.S. Senate biography audit persisted not for weeks, but for months. In fact, nearly a year passed before it was finally amended.

For that entire time, for every reader of that Wikipedia passage, the reputation of Senator Max Baucus (Democrat, Montana) was tarnished to some degree. Today, I’d like to take you on a deeper dive into that edit.

The defamatory edit begins on December 19, 2007, thanks to a rather single-minded editor focused exclusively on two Montana politicians. The content added to Wikipedia:

“In the Washington AP (Bozeman Daily Chronicle 12-22-05) article Baucus admits campaign finance violations.”

The spurious content was removed from Wikipedia on November 19, 2008, thanks to the efforts of an even more single-minded editor.

The content was purportedly sourced to the December 22, 2005 edition of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Search of the Chronicle’s web archives shows no mentions of “Baucus” between the dates December 21-23, 2005. The Chronicle’s managing editor, Nick Ehli, confirmed to me by telephone that nothing about Baucus ran in his newspaper on December 22. The paper did run a reprint (on December 20) of an AP wire article that mentioned Jack Abramoff money being returned by Baucus. Does this constitute “admits campaign finance violations”? Hardly.

The same axe-grinding editor then went on to compose, “The good Senator also just voted himself/family a big bonus from the federal farm bill $230,237 in subsidies”, cited to a Los Angeles Times article. While this edit was removed in a couple of days, it was extremely unfair. The dollar amount mentioned actually reflects total mineral rights royalties collected over at least a decade (1995-2005) by the Baucus family — thanks to legislation for which he didn’t “vote himself”, and (unless there’s a secret congressional time machine) impossibly linked to the 2007 farm bill that the pseudonymous Wikipedia operative saddled with the blame.

Still, that first edit (“Baucus admits campaign finance violations”) received about 130 views per day during most of the period in question, but substantially spiked upward in October and November 2008, when Baucus was up for re-election. In the thirty days prior to the November 4 election, presumably when many voters would be making up their minds about candidates, the article was viewed an estimated 6,618 times, or an average of 220 times per day. In the 15 days immediately following the election, the article was viewed still another 5,944 times (an average of 396 daily views). Each one of these page views rendered the falsely-sourced defamatory claim firmly in place in the lead section of the portion of the biography covering his Senate career, until it was finally removed on November 19, 2008.

Senator Baucus has not yet responded to an invitation to comment about this long-term incident. I will update this post if he does respond, or he is of course welcome to comment below.

The Lieberman factor

Supporters of Wikipedia’s apparent legal right to host libelous and defamatory content would argue that “the vast majority” of Wikipedia vandalism is fixed very quickly, and they would also express an apologist viewpoint along the lines of, “The staff and board of the Wikimedia Foundation can’t be expected to editorially control every article about the United States senators, much less all the biographies of living people on Wikipedia.”

It’s funny, then, to point out the Wikipedia article about Senator Joe Lieberman. On and off over the past three years, the ability of general users of Wikipedia to edit that particular article has been restricted by various site administrators, then allowed to lapse again. One particular restriction lasted just five hours — on December 11, 2007.

Who protected the Lieberman biography that day? None other than Wikipedia’s co-founder and board member, Jimmy Wales.

Why did Wales protect Lieberman from defamatory and libelous edits for five hours that specific day? Simple! That was the morning when Jimmy Wales had been invited to provide testimony to a Senate sub-committee. He spoke about topics related to the possible introduction of wikis into government communications. Guess who chaired that sub-committee? None other than Joe Lieberman.

Does anyone find it ironic that while Wales was testifying about how helpful and informative wikis could be within government, he suspended the “wiki process” for the day when it might prove embarrassing?

Of course, it was only half a day after Wales lifted the document protection before some anonymous joker published the following within Lieberman’s wiki-based biography:

On December 10th, 2007 Lieberman appeared on the Ellen Degeneres Show and outed himself on live television as a flaming homo. This is a surprise as he has been openly opposed to homosexual relationships in the past. He demonstrated to Ellen the positions him and his partner experiment with from time to time. He stated numerous times that he is proudly the “receiver” in the relationship and cross dresses from time to time.

More than five hours later, Wikipedia administrator and search engine marketer, Jonathan Hochman would finally discover and revert that stroke of vandalism against his fellow native son of the Nutmeg State. Before we paint Hochman a hero, though, do note that his rescue of Lieberman’s heterosexual manhood that day is only one data point within a long string of discoveries and reversals regarding Lieberman’s persona on Wikipedia.

Studying the vandalism

It was a lot of hard work for those of us who organized and conducted that volunteer study of the vandalism perpetrated against the 100 Wikipedia articles about the senators. We had hoped that our research results would be picked up by the blogosphere, perhaps by the mainstream media, or even come to the attention of the Senate itself. Sadly, with a few small exceptions, the study hasn’t gained traction in the media. One noted Wikipedia apologist even called our effort “comical”.

However, a few years later I received word from a Business student at Hogeschool-Universiteit in Brussels. His Statistics professor there, Edward Omey, had actually given the class an assignment — to review the methodology, sample, and execution of our Senate vandalism database, and identify its substantial flaws.

Nobody likes to have their voluntarily-fielded work criticized, but we actually took up the yoke and helped address various shortcomings that we and others had found. Indeed, one process design fault in the study suggests that the problem of vandalism on Wikipedia may well be worse, not better, than we discovered. Namely, we did not fully read the articles themselves. Rather, we traced through each of the edit differences (or, “diffs“) made to the articles. So, in fact, we were only reading changes to the articles, not the full articles. This is a design “flaw”, in that, if there was volatile content buried in the article, and it was inserted before the calendar quarter of the study, and it was never reverted until after the calendar quarter, then we would have failed to notice and account for a vandal’s edit, and one of great duration, at that!

It’s not every day that one’s work enters the international college curriculum, and that’s some comfort to offset the fact that the 100 U.S. senators don’t seem themselves terribly concerned about their being libeled perpetually on Wikipedia.


Photo credits:

These works are in the public domain in the United States because they are work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of  Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.  

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