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 corproate revisionists who believed their censorial interventions had gone unnoticed.
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. ”
Wikipedia says Mr Griffith has found something they had long suspected. A Wikipedia spokes-man 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 organisations or individuals since 2002.
Exxon Mobil 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
The Republican Party edited Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party entry so it made it clear that the US-led invasion was not a “US-led occupation” but a “US-led liberation.”
Diebold and the dubious voting machines
Voting-machine company Diebold apparently excised long paragraphs detailing the US security industry’s concerns over the integrity of their voting machines, and information about the company’s chief executive’s fundraising for President Bush. The text, deleted in November 2005, was very rapidly restored by another Wikipedia contributor, who advised the anonymous editor, “Please stop removing content from Wikipedia. It is considered vandalism.”
The Israeli government and the West Bank wall
A computer linked to the Israeli government twice tried to delete an entire article about the West Bank wall that was critical of the policy. An edit from the same address also modified the entry for Hizbollah describing all its operations as being “mostly military in nature”.
The gun lobby and fatal shootings
The National Rifle Association of America doctored concerns about its role in the increase in gun fatalities by replacing the passage with a reference to the association’s conservation work in America.
MySpace and self-censorship
Someone working from an IP address linked to MySpace appears to have been so irritated by references to the social networking website’s over-censorial policy that they removed a paragraph accusing MySpace of censorship.
The church’s child abuse cover-up
Barbara Alton, assistant to Episcopal Bishop Charles Bennison, in America, deleted information concerning a cover-up of child sexual abuse, allegations that the Bishop misappropriated $11.6 million in trust funds, and evidence of other scandals. When challenged about this, Alton claims she was ordered to delete the information by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori.
Nestle and corporate criticism
Someone from Nestle removed criticisms of some of the company’s controversial business practices, which have all subsequently been re-added.
The FBI and Guantánamo
The FBI has removed aerial images of the Guantánamo Bay Naval base in Cuba.
Scientologists and sensitivity
Computers with IP addresses traced to the Church of Scientology were used to expunge critical paragraphs about the cult’s world-wide operations.