Political staffers best be wary when wrangling Wikipedia entries

A Twitter account that alerts Wikipedia edits made from parliamentary computers has been seen as shining a light on furtive attempts by political staffers to burnish the online images of their bosses — or tarnish those of their opponents. But a little image-management is not necessarily nefarious, writes Kady O'Malley.

Bot tracking anonymous edits offers quirky periscope behind the scenes on Parliament Hill

A new twitter account, @gccaedits, has been set up to monitor and broadcast anonymous edits made by computers within the House of Commons network.

A Twitter account that alerts Wikipedia edits made from parliamentary computers has been seen as shining a light on furtive attempts by political staffers to burnish the online images of their bosses — or tarnish those of their opponents.

But in this age of digital profiles and concern over the "right to be forgotten," a little image-management is not necessarily nefarious.

The @gccaedits robot account scans real-time Wikipedia access logs for anonymous edits made by machines within the IP ranges used by the House of Commons network, as well as other federal departments and agencies.The resulting Twitterstream offers a glimpse into the ad hoc reputation management strategies employed by Parliament Hill staffers.

Last week, someone behind the keyboard of a computer within the House of Commons network took it upon him or herself to add what they clearly believed to be a necessary edit to the Wikipedia article for Conservative MP Robert Goguen.

After enjoying a relatively low profile for several years, Goguen found himself in the national spotlight a few weeks earlier, when, during committee hearings on the government's proposed prostitution bill rewrite, he asked a former sex worker speaking in support of the bill if she would have felt that her right to freedom of expression had been violated had she been rescued by police from the gang rape detailed in her testimony.

The anonymous editor updated the summary of events to include the name of the witness, referred to three times as "Ms. Timea E. Nagy," and pointed out that she had actually defended the minister.

Within minutes, the change was broadcast to the Twitterverse by @gccaedits,

Unlike some more dubious recent edits to the web pages of MPs — like, for instance, an ill-fated effort to remove the section from Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover's biography on her now resolved dispute with Elections Canada, which was spotted after it was tweeted by @gccaedits and ultimately traced back to staffers within the minister's office — the addition to Goguen's page appears to have gone unchallenged.

Conflict of interest edits discouraged

Despite availing themselves of the anonymity given to unregistered users, this particular editor made sure to stay well within the parameters for acceptable edits — although they may well have been in technical violation of Wikipedia's conflict of interest policies, which strongly discourage people from directly editing entries on friends, family members and employers.

Registered users are encouraged to declare potential conflicts up front. Such transparency is impossible for those who prefer to do their editing anonymously, which is why such edits are also regularly double-checked by human Wikipedia editors, who can undo changes deemed over the line if necessary.

Even without the ability to identify a specific mischief-maker within a general IP range, Wikipedia isn't above resorting to collective punishment.

Earlier this week, the website imposed a brief but sweeping temporary ban on edits from machines within the U.S. House of Representatives, after an edit scannerbot called @congressedits first revealed, and then apparently exacerbated, a burst of "disruptive" edits.

So far, the edit log file from the House of Commons has been far less contentious.

A few recent examples of other changes, plucked from the last few months of Wikipedia edit log files:

  • April 11, 2014: A section detailing Conservative MP Laurie Hawn's "early life and career" is edited to reflect the arrival of "two grandchildren." It's a change that, while seemingly innocuous, draws the attention of the edit overlords to the continuing absence of any citations to back up the rest of the entry, which is summarily stripped of all but the most basic biographical details. Neither his children or his grandchildren make the final cut, despite the fact that the anonymous editor who contributed the information could easily have added a link to Hawn's website, which, while apparently slightly behind the times, does acknowledge his two children, as well as one grandchild.
  • June 20, 2014: Liberal MP Frank Valeriote's devotion to his children is immortalized, albeit briefly, by an unidentified House of Commons computer user, to note his "two loving children … that he adores." Moments later, an editor using the same House of Commons gateway IP address removes the last three words. Soon after, the entire section on Valeriote's family life is rewritten by non-anonymous editor Ahunt to restore the original text by undoing the "insertion of unsourced content."
  • July 4, 2014: A Wikipedia editor yanks a House of Commons anonymously added link to a petition in support of Conservative MP Russ Hiebert's bid to force unions to disclose financial information. "Not what Wikipedia articles are used for," the edit notes, "plus the same… link is in the 'External links' section."
  • March 31, 2014: An attempt to remove all information related to former New Democrat turned Liberal MP Lise St. Denis's crossing of the floor in 2012 — including links to media reports in which she explains why she did so — does not go unnoticed. "Valid and properly sourced content stripped with no explanation by an anon IP that resolves to the Parliament of Canada," notes editor Bearcat, who helpfully includes a link to the Wikipedia policy on conflict of interest.

It's not hard to spot the overriding theme that should guide the hand of any political operative or staffer with a hankering to do a little strategic rewriting.

Stick to the facts, make sure to cite credible sources, resist the temptation to edit articles on your political opponents and — perhaps most importantly — don't think for a moment that even the most minor change will go unnoticed.

On Tuesday, for instance, while this story was being written, an anonymous Wikipedia editor within the House network attempted to rename a section in Goguen's entry sub-titled "'Gang rape' comments" — first as "Politics," and moments later, "Political career."

Within minutes, registered Wikipedia editor "Shawn" in Montreal had reversed the change.

"This is not what the section is currently about," Shawn noted in the edit log.

"While a neutral section name is desirable, to rename it in this way is midleading [sic]."

He did, however, replace the original subheading with the less-specific "Controversy."

Now that @gccaedits is on the job, it won't just be other Wikipedia editors giving your proposed changes a once-over, but party researchers and Hill reporters as well, which means that any too-clever-by-half tweaks could ultimately end up adding a few new lines under "Controversies."


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.


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