Wikinews investigates Wikipedia usage by U.S. Senate staff members

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Tuesday, February 7, 2006

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The chambers of the U.S. Senate are located on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Staff members of the offices of United States Senators, using Senate-linked IP addresses, have been editing Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that allows its users to edit its content. In some cases, they have removed facts from the articles.

Using the public history of edits on Wikipedia, Wikinews reporters collected every Senate IP address from which Wikipedia edits had been made as of February 3, then examined where the IPs came from and the edits that were made from computers connected at those addresses. IP, or Internet Protocol, addresses are unique numbers electronic devices use to communicate with each other on an individual basis.

The investigation showed the vast majority of edits from Senate IPs were beneficial and helpful to Wikipedia. Examples include the creation of the articles on Click Back America, which organizes students to promote microfinance in the developing world, and Washington's Tomb, which was designed to hold the body of first U.S. President George Washington within the White House Capitol building; and significantly expanding the article on closed sessions of the United States Senate in November. Dozens of small corrections have been made to grammar, spelling, or small facts — many of them related to the Senate.

Senators' staff members have sometimes had to fight to correct inaccuracies. An edit to Jay Rockefeller's article by his staff removed information which may have been biased or untrue. The staff member who edited said, "Apologies, I was new to using Wikipedia, and I didn't fully realize the workings of the website," after other users continuously reinserted the information. The staffer removed the suspect paragraphs 12 times until another Wikipedia user finally removed the information. Four days later, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales got involved.

The Senators' offices were contacted about this article, but no response was received before press time.

Joe Biden

Staffers in the offices of Senator Joe Biden, who, according to his changed Wikipedia biography, "announced in mid-June 2005 that he will seek the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008 if he believes his message and vision for the country resonate with Americans," removed a paragraph about a 1996 plagiarism scandal, as well as changing the section regarding a possible 2008 candidacy to read very positively. A second staffer toned down and removed information about other plagiarism issues as well. The same addresses from Biden's office edited the article on Hamas, which has recently won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, and is listed as a terrorist organization by Australia, Canada, the European Union, Israel, and the United States, to give its first two paragraphs a more biased stance by removing information about its social welfare programs.

Conrad Burns

References, citations, and descriptions of Conrad Burns' use of the word "ragheads" were removed from Wikipedia's article, as was mention of legislation, co-sponsored by Burns, that would reduce Native American tribal sovereignty. These were replaced by a paragraph titled "A Voice for the Farmer". The citations supported the discussion of Senator Burns's legislative record regarding tribal sovereignty.

Norm Coleman

The staffers of Senator Norm Coleman changed a description of Coleman as a liberal Democrat in college to an "activist Democrat," and then to "an active college student." They removed references to Coleman's voting record during his first year of Congress, which lined up with President Bush 98% of the time, which cited Congressional Quarterly. They also removed a reference to Coleman being persuaded by Karl Rove to run for senator instead of governor in 2002.

"When you put 'edia' in there, it makes it sound as if this is a benign, objective piece of information," said Erich Mische, Senator Coleman's Chief of Staff, to the Associated Press. Mr. Mische admitted the Senator's office had made the edits, and he would take responsibility for removal of the sentence about the voting record. "That probably should have stayed in there."

"It appears to be a major rewrite of the article to make it more favorable. If they're trying to edit in such a way to change the public record, that's a problem," Jimmy Wales said to the Associated Press about the incident.

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "Coleman's decision to run for senator, rather than governor, was sealed during a walk with President Bush in the White House's Rose Garden," rather than Karl Rove. Rove had actually persuaded the former House majority leader of Minnesota and current governor, Tim Pawlenty, not to challenge Norm Coleman in the Senate elections. Still, other portions of the edit removed references to Karl Rove entirely, and their citations, while accentuating the positive side of several issues, including changing "a budget bill that cut funding from a number of programs" to "a deficit-reduction bill."

Dianne Feinstein

The California block of Senate IP addresses made several edits to the Dianne Feinstein article, removing reference to her membership in the Trilateral Commission and to her net worth, with husband Richard C. Blum, but also adding an extensive list of awards.

Even more problematic than the edits to the article about Dianne Feinstein, however, were those made to the article about her husband. References to a 1992 fine for failing to disclose Mr. Blum had guaranteed her campaign loans were removed, along with citations, and a paragraph regarding a conflict of interest debate from 1997 when Mr. Blum had invested millions of dollars in Chinese businesses when Ms. Feinstein was campaigning in the Senate to lift trade sanctions against the country. Mr. Blum later announced he would donate all profits from his Chinese investments to charity.

Tom Harkin

The staffers of Senator Tom Harkin removed a paragraph relating to Harkin's having falsely claimed to have flown combat missions over North Vietnam, and his subsequent recantation after inquiries by the Wall Street Journal and Barry Goldwater. Another paragraph removed related to a supposed pro-Israeli stance.

Other edits to Senate articles

Wikinews reporters also discovered that a handful of miscellaneous vandalism edits had been made to some Senators' articles. Vandalized articles included those of Tom Coburn and Harry Reid. The edits to Reid's were made three times, while the Coburn vandalism was made two times, after it had been restored to a prior version. An edit to an article about a controversy over Senator Rick Santorum's statements about Constitutional rights to privacy with regards to sexual acts, seemingly coming from Rick Santorum's staff members, removed a reference to an effort to redefine Santorum's last name as a neologism meaning "the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."


IP address mapping

The U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms owns the IP block 156.33.0.0 to 156.33.255.255. Requests to learn the mapping of these thousands of IPs were not responded to at press time. However, the lower 100 blocks of addresses appear to be mapped to the 100 Senators based on their state's alphabetical listing. This was partially confirmed using e-mail responses from the offices of Senators; where the originating computer was connected to the network directly and was not a part of block 222 (a section which seems to be reserved for servers), the IP addresses matched the predicted pattern.

When examining the edit behavior of IPs it also tended to match the predicted pattern. IPs which were assigned to Florida had edits to Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez and other Florida-related pages primarily, while those assigned to California had edited Dianne Feinstein. Edits coming from the U.S. House of Representatives were less traceable because they came through a proxy server---meaning they all showed up under one IP address.

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