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Wikipedia Objects to Editing for Political Incorrectness

Anyone can change data on the free online encyclopedia, but Capitol Hill is denied access after entries are falsified or prettied up.

February 12, 2006|Yuki Noguchi | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — This is what passes for an extreme makeover in Washington: A summer intern for seven-term Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) altered the congressman's profile on the Wikipedia website to remove an old promise that he would limit his service to four terms.

Someone doctored the profile of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) on the site to list his age as 180. (He is 88.)

An erroneous entry for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) claimed that he "was voted the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress."

A week ago, Wikipedia temporarily blocked certain Capitol Hill Web addresses from altering any entries in the otherwise wide-open forum. Wikipedia is a vast, growing information database written and maintained solely by volunteers. In December, the database received 4.7 million edits from viewers, of which a relatively small number -- "a couple of thousand," according to founder Jimmy Wales -- constituted vandalism.

As the site becomes one of the most heavily visited spots on the Internet, it's testing the limits of collective smarts and integrity. But when it comes to Washington, where intrigue and passions run high, keeping such a public record is a particular challenge. Besides the temptation to tinker with an opponent's bio, there's also the subjective nature of political truth.

When the Wikipedia entry for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted that he had criticized the president, someone modified it to say that Reid had "rightfully" criticized the president.

Someone also recast the state legislative record of Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave (R-Colo.), changing a passage reading, "one of her final, failed bills would have made it much more difficult for same-sex parents to see their children in the hospital during an emergency" to the less inflammatory, "Musgrave spent much of her time on social issues, particularly authoring bills to protect children and the traditional definition of marriage, as well as gun owner's rights."

A popular change in recent weeks has been deleting mentions of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from politicians' profiles. Politically motivated edits aren't coming just from Capitol Hill; some comments are being traced to other parts of political Washington, including the Justice Department, the CIA, the Navy and the Marines.

It seems like the kind of thing that must happen all the time on a site where anyone can weigh in on any topic. But such online behavior is the exception at Wikipedia, Wales said.

Wales started the project five years ago and, on the whole, said the experience had strengthened his faith in humanity. With some notable exceptions. "When somebody writes that senator so-and-so is a [bad word], we figure that's not a legitimate edit," he said.

"The goal is to give people a free encyclopedia to every person in the world, in their own language," Wales said. "Not just in a 'free beer' kind of way, but also in the free-speech kind of way."

Other open-source ventures on the Internet have proven productive; software developers have successfully designed and improved hundreds of online programs like Linux, which is made available free to the public. Online marketplaces such as eBay Inc. rely on customer-satisfaction ratings to help buyers self-police their communities.

But, human nature being what it is, the experiment doesn't always work. The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have aborted projects that invited edits or critiques of their editorial content after being deluged with crude comments.

Washington has posed a special problem for Wikipedia, which is monitored by 800 to 1,000 active editor-volunteers. In the recent flare-up, Wikipedia editors read a story in the Lowell Sun newspaper in which staffers for Meehan acknowledged replacing an entry on him with more flattering verbiage. That prompted the recent Capitol Hill Wikipedia blackout; all computers connected to servers at the House of Representatives, identified by a numerical Web address, were denied access.

In Meehan's case, the edits were carried out by an intern who was updating the congressman's profile on his own website and altered the existing Wikipedia entry to mirror that, said Sandra Salstrom, a spokeswoman for Meehan. Among other things, the intern deleted an earlier campaign promise by Meehan to retire after four terms.

Wikipedia considers this "whitewashing," a comparatively benign edit compared to, say, "bad faith" and "vandal" edits.

Generally, clear violations are taken down within minutes, as was the case with recent commentary on President Bush. (Because of the frequency of attempted vandalism on Bush's site, it is no longer open to editing by new or anonymous Wikipedia users.) In one case, however, an erroneous entry suggesting that John Siegenthaler Sr., a former special assistant to Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, had a role in the Kennedy assassinations went unnoticed for four months.

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