What edits on Wikipedia have been made by the
, and the
? A new online tool called WikiScanner reveals answers to such questions.
As the Web encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedia encourages participants to adopt online user names, but it also lets contributors be recognized by their computers’ numeric Internet addresses. Often that does not cover self-interested editing campaigns, for instance when PCs in congressional offices were discovered to have been involved in Wikipedia entries trashing political opponents.
Those episodes inspired Virgil Griffith, 24, an entering CalTech grad student, who is also a visiting researcher at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, to automate the process with WikiScanner. The free Scanner uses the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of anonymous Wikipedia edits in the past five years, to trace the source of millions of changes to Wikipedia. By combining that with public information about which IP addresses belong to whom, the Scanner reveals Wikipedia changes made from computers assigned to a bevy of organizations.
Griffith, who spent two weeks this summer writing the software for the site, said he got interested in creating such a tool last year after hearing of members of Congress who were editing their own entries.
Since Wired News first wrote about WikiScanner last week, Internet users have spotted plenty of interesting changes to Wikipedia by people at nonprofit groups and government entities like the Central Intelligence Agency. Perhaps the most shocking self-interested edits are of CIA and FBI employees editing entries on topics including the Iraq war and the Guantanamo Bay prison. WikiScanner revealed that CIA computers were used to edit an entry on the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. A graphic on casualties was edited to add that many figures were estimated and were not broken down by class. Another entry on former CIA chief William Colby was edited by CIA computers to expand his career history and discuss the merits of a Vietnam War rural pacification program that he headed. Aerial and satellite images of the U.S. prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were removed using a computer traced to the FBI, WikiScanner showed.
CIA spokesman George Little said he could not confirm whether CIA computers were used in the changes, adding that "the agency always expects its computer systems to be used responsibly." It is not known whether changes were made by an official representative, Griffith said, but it was certain the change was made by someone with access to the organization’s network.
One alarming example of international abuse was to Isreal’s Wikipedia entry. In 2006, the beginning of Isreal’s profile was edited, rife with spelling and grammatical errors, to say "The Jews did to the indiginous people of Palestine what Hitler had done to them. Jews were the first people to start the terrorist attacks in the region. They have stolen the land of the Palestinians. Jews believe that they are chosen by God and that they are better than other people." The vandalism was traced directly back to Al Jazeera headquarters. WikiScanner found many more propagandist edits on other profiles such as Taliban, (former President of Afghanistan) Burhanuddin Rabbani, The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, Tunisia, and (Afghanistan’s once ruling political party) Jamiat Islami. A user of a computer on the Al Jazeera network then wrote "if anyone doubts that Wikipedia is not a Jewish propaganda site try to change something against Israel in the Israel page," on the profiles of the United States, Turkey, and Egypt.
However, many of the blatant self-serving edits have come from corporate networks. Last year, someone at PepsiCo deleted several paragraphs of the Pepsi entry that focused on its detrimental health effects. In 2005, an employee at Diebold deleted paragraphs that criticized the company’s electronic voting machines. That same year, someone inside Wal-Mart Stores changed an entry about employee compensation.
In general, changes to a Wikipedia page cannot be traced to an individual, only to the owner of a particular network. In 2004, someone using a computer at ExxonMobil made substantial changes to a description of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, playing down its impact on the area’s wildlife and casting a positive light on compensation payments the company had made to victims of the spill. Gantt Walton, a spokesman for the company, said that although the revisions appeared to have come from an ExxonMobil computer, the company has more than 80,000 employees around the world, making it “more than a difficult task” to figure out who made the changes.
At Dell, the computer maker, employees are told that they need to identify their employer if they write about the company online. “Whether it’s Wikipedia, Twitter or MySpace, our policy is you have to let someone know you’re from Dell,” said Bob Pearson, a Dell spokesman. Before that policy was put in place a year ago, changes to parts of Dell’s Wikipedia entry discussing its offshore outsourcing of customer service were made by someone from the Dell corporate network.
Most people editing Wikipedia entries on company networks show interest in topics that have little to do with their work, although sometimes they cannot resist a childish dig at the competition. Last year, an employee at the Washington Post changed the name of the owner of The Washington Examiner, from Philip Anschutz to Charles Manson. A person using a computer at CBS updated the page on CNN’s Wolf Blitzer to falsely append that his real name was Irving Federman.
Griffith wrote that he hopes "to create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike", and that he “was expecting a few people to get nailed pretty hard” after his service became public. “The yield, in terms of public relations disasters, is about what I expected.”
Whatever comes of it, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is an eager WikiScanner fan, stating that the program “is fabulous and I strongly support it.” Wales is also considering some essential changes to Wikipedia to assist anonymous editors in better understanding what information is recorded about them. “When someone clicks on ‘edit,’ it would be interesting if we could say, ‘Hi, thank you for editing. We see you’re logged in from The New York Times. Keep in mind that we know that, and it’s public information.’ That might make them stop and think.”