The UK Guardian reported on Saturday that Grant Shapps, a prominent UK Conservative politician, had “secretly altered his Wikipedia biography to edit out references to his performance at school, political gaffes and the identity of donors to his private office”.
There is rather more to this story than the Guardian writer, Daniel Boffey, divulged. Adding some of the missing details will make a useful case study.
Also prominent in the news: Wikipedia’s continuing admin crisis, the image filter debacle, the Tom Luna biography, and Philip Roth’s Open Letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker. Read more about these stories below.
Grant Shapps: an analysis
The first thing to note about this story is its timing. While Boffey’s article in The Guardian, “Grant Shapps altered school performance entry on Wikipedia”, does not say so, the edits he refers to were in fact made several years ago. (We’ll return to the question why The Guardian only reported on them now below.)
Looking at the article’s editing history, the point mentioned in The Guardian’s headline, about Shapps’ O-levels and school grades, was a comparatively minor one. Shapps removed a short unsourced summary of his (very mediocre) school performance, which he said was wrong (and it probably was).
Here, however, is the most substantial change attributed to Shapps, from 30 May 2008, with the edit summary, “politically slanted comments removed. repeat posting may be taken as abuse of system”. (The linked page shows the old text on the left, and the new text on the right). He was clearly unhappy. In his edit, Shapps took out two unflattering paragraphs and replaced them with new material showing him in a positive light. The passage Shapps added described his publications, especially on the topic of homelessness, and a foundation he had launched. While this material was not adequately referenced and somewhat self-promotional, it was probably grounded in fact.
What is of more interest is the material that Shapps removed. This was originally added in this edit, by an editor who calls himself “Modernway” and keeps his real identity secret. The editor’s user page only discloses that “Modernway is a British liberal. He lives in London and Brussels.” (Readers should bear in mind that the edits discussed here predate the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition.)
Modernway’s additions included the following paragraph, shown here in its original wiki code:
It was revealed in May 2008 that Grant Shapps, along with several other shadow ministers, had taken large donations from companies related to his frontbench portfolio. The revelations were potentially damaging for Shapps given the extent of the donations he had received – tens of thousands of pounds from two online mortgage brokers, an estate agent, a commercial property developer and a firm of solicitors specialising in conveyancing and remortgaging – and the suggestion that these might be influencing Conservative policies. <ref> [http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/may/16/conservatives Shadow ministers take cash from firms linked to their portfolios] ”The Guardian”, 16 May 2008</ref> Shapps has taken a prominent role in fighting the government’s [[Home Information Pack]]s, which have been opposed by the housing industry, especially estate agents.
The source cited after the <ref> code was a Guardian article, too. Let’s look at what it actually said on the matter:
At least four members of the Conservative team have received money from companies connected with their briefs, according to Lyon’s findings. Although this does not break parliamentary rules, critics will say there is a potential conflict of interest.
Grant Shapps, the party’s housing spokesman, disclosed to the commissioner that he had taken tens of thousands of pounds from five different companies associated with his portfolio.
They were two online mortgage brokers, Charcol and Edeus Creators; Douglas & Gordon, a west London estate agent; the Sapcote Group, a commercial property developer; and Goldsmith Williams, a firm of solicitors that specialises in conveyancing and remortgaging.
Many of the donors were originally recruited by Michael Gove, who is now the shadow children’s secretary.
Shapps said in a letter to the commissioner: “Some of the individuals belatedly introduced themselves at dinners or industry functions.” Yesterday he was with Cameron, launching the Homelessness Foundation.
Shapps has taken a prominent role in fighting the government’s home information packs, which have been opposed by the housing industry, especially estate agents. But the Conservative party said yesterday that its opposition predated financial donations from the industry. “Some of the Conservative policy on housing is actually against the policy of the donors,” a party spokesman said.
A comparison of the two texts shows that in summarising the Guardian article, the anonymous Wikipedian, “Modernway”, omitted various items of balancing information that were present in the original Guardian piece. These include:
- that the donations did not in fact break parliamentary rules – something that would not have been obvious to the reader,
- that Shapps disclosed the donations himself – the Wikipedia text merely said “it was revealed” and described them as “revelations”, creating the impression they may have been uncovered by a third party,
- that the donors were not recruited by Shapps but by his predecessor,
- that according to the Conservative party, Conservative policy predated the donations, and was in part opposed to that of the donors.
Including contextual and balancing information like this is a cornerstone of ethical and professional journalism. The Guardian article included it. Wikipedia did not.
Another paragraph by Modernway that Shapps took out in his edit read:
Grant Shapps has also received media attention for a number of unfortunate gaffes during his time on the Conservative frontbench.
In July 2007, he was caught out using his personal YouTube account to impersonate a Liberal Democrat supporter, in an effort to discredit the party’s prospects in an approaching by-election.  A few days later, he attacked an alleged Labour campaign plot involving a Labour Party member pretending to be a member of the public, stating: “The Labour Party is resorting to dirty tricks by a party apparatchik posing as a member of the public to harangue David Cameron” – that statement was apparently not ironic.
That paragraph and its sourcing can be critiqued from the viewpoint of Wikipedia’s own policies. The first sentence, referring to “a number of unfortunate gaffes”, was completely unsourced. It does not even pretend to reflect any prior source, as Wikipedia policies would require: it’s just the frame Modernway wanted to establish.
The first source, no. 6, is “Guido Fawkes’ blog of plots, rumours and conspiracy”. A well-known political blog, but not a top-drawer encyclopedic source, perhaps? Furthermore, the Guido Fawkes piece included a (perhaps unconvincing) statement from Shapps saying his account was hacked. Again, good, neutral journalistic practice is to present both sides, and let readers draw their own conclusions. Guido Fawkes did exactly that; Wikipedia did not. The Guido Fawkes blog also included a “hat-tip” to the Liberal Democrat Voice, a blog run by members of Modernway’s political party.
The sentence “that statement was apparently not ironic”, which concludes Modernway’s paragraph, also appears to violate Wikipedia policy as it combines two sources (6+7) to arrive at a novel, unpublished conclusion – Modernway’s own dig at Shapps. This is not how Wikipedia articles are supposed to be written, according to Wikipedia policy. But theory and practice invariably differ. In this case the writer’s bias was quite apparent. Shapps might be excused for feeling that Wikipedia was picking on him.
This is the unseen part of the story. When a notable person is found editing their own article, the media rarely take the time to investigate whether the article’s prior status was erroneous, defamatory, or in violation of Wikipedia’s own policies. They overlook that in the vast majority of cases it is a grossly unfair article that prompts a biography subject to take action.
One welcome exception is this insightful analysis of the story by Willard Foxton, writing for The Telegraph:
A quick browse through the profiles of MPs reveal that a huge number have entries which tortuously detail trivial events in their political lives. For example, Damian Green’s Wikipedia entry devotes well over 1,000 words to his 2008 arrest alone; for comparison that’s more than three times as much wiki-ink as any of Disraeli’s governments.
This happens because Wikipedia has become a magnet for political nerds who want to fight proxy battles. With a general election two and a half years away, some think the best way to damage the other side is to use Wikipedia as a vehicle for smears. Equally, many see it as nothing more than an online CV service.
You may question if it matters whether Shapps is reported as having four or five O-levels. The trouble is that ease of access to articles on Wikipedia means they’re often used as sources for the media. Wikipedia has mutated from an encyclopedia into the central source for information on public figures. An untrue fact can cascade through a person’s life, causing all manner of problems for them.
Self-editing is forbidden to stop self-promotion; however, it can lead to frustrating situations when false information appears. For example, Philip Roth complained recently that Wikipedia would not accept him as a reliable source on his own novels.
However, Wikipedia allows anonymous editing. Thus those who honestly correct incorrect information are penalised, whereas those willing to edit anonymously, or create sinister false online personas, are given free rein. Johann Hari used Wikipedia as a weapon to attack other journalists, and puff his own achievements. Since then, plenty of others have adopted Hari’s tactics.
This sums up the problem in a nutshell. One thing Wikipedia could do to alleviate the issue would be to finally introduce the “flagged revisions” feature that was announced to the media several years ago, or at least introduce it for biographies of living persons. This would ensure that every anonymous edit would be scrutinised for policy compliance by a second more trusted editor (who would still be anonymous, of course, and could be just as biased as the first, but could at least be held accountable on the site). However, Wikipedia’s anonymous editors are against even such a weak quality control system … they want anonymous changes to be shown to the public immediately.
To return to the other question raised above, why is this four-year-old incident being dredged up now? Boffey’s article in The Guardian gives a clue: “Shapps replaced Baroness (Sayeeda) Warsi as Tory party chairman last week in the governmental reshuffle.”
As for Shapps himself, he seems to be trying to shrug the matter off. He told the Daily Mail that he had not touched his Wikipedia article in years (which appears to be true; the last edits attributable to him in the article’s history were made more than two years ago). He added, “these days when I see stuff that’s blatantly wrong on my Wiki page, I just shrug my shoulders. If people want to claim I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, agnostic or crashed a car into a school wall – all real edits I’d previously changed – then I just leave them to it.” Shapps is not exaggerating here: the changes he refers to, and their reversions, can indeed be found in the Wikipedia article’s edit history. Visit our forum discussion here.
Falling administrator numbers: Crisis? What crisis?
In July, Jimmy Wales told the BBC there was no admin recruitment crisis. “The number of admins has been stable for about two years, there’s really nothing going on,” he said. As The Telegraph reports, Wikimedia’s own data disagree with him. Join our forum discussion here.
“I strongly support the creation of a personal image filter” – the difference between words and actions
Also in July, Jimmy Wales said, “I strongly support the creation of a personal image filter. […] What I think we can do is convene a small group of people (design by massive wiki discussion tends to suck) to design a very lightweight solution, taking into account and resolving genuine and thoughtful objections, and hold a project-wide vote to get a clear instruction for the Foundation. I am confident that this can take place relatively quickly.” Fox News reports that two months later, nothing has been done. The discussion Wales started quickly petered out (he stopped contributing to it after just one day), and no one at Wikimedia is interested in a solution. Visit our forum discussions here and here (because it references sexual content, the second of these discussions is only available to registered forum members).
NPR: “Anyone can go in, anyone can make changes, whether these changes make the information right or wrong.”
Boise State Public Radio (part of the NPR network) reported on problems with another political biography, that of Tom Luna, Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Join our forum discussion here.
Philip Roth’s Open letter to Wikipedia
In an open letter to Wikipedia on the website of The New Yorker, Philip Roth says he tried and failed to have “a serious misstatement” removed from the Wikipedia article on “The Human Stain”, one of his novels: specifically, by whom the novel was inspired. For further details, visit our forum discussion here.
Image credits: Flickr/ sahlgoode, Wikimedia Commons/Matthew Bisanz. These files are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.