Friday, February 10, 2006

Memory Hole

"No, no, Earlene: type this- 'Among his other achievements Representative Delay was also the 563,873rd shopper at the Houston PD gift store.'"

Disturbing news about congressional abuse of one of my favorite go-to reference points on the web, Wikipedia:

Congress 'made Wikipedia changes'

Online reference site Wikipedia blames US Congress staff for partisan changes to a number of political biographies. Computers traced to Capitol Hill removed unpalatable facts from articles on senators, while other entries were "vandalised", the site said.

Using the public history of edits on Wikipedia, researchers collected the internet protocol numbers of computers linked to the US Senate and tracked the changes made to online pages. The site lists half a dozen prominent biographies that had been changed by Senate computers, including those of Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, California Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Senator Coleman's office has confirmed that staff there had made a number of changes to his online record. Where he was described as a "liberal" back in college, this was changed to "activist". Among other changes, staff also deleted a reference to Mr Coleman voting with President Bush 98% of the time in 2003, despite running as a moderate the year before.

Wikipedia said staffers of Senator Tom Harkin had removed a paragraph relating to Mr Harkin's having falsely claimed to have flown combat missions over North Vietnam, and his subsequent recantation.

A handful of miscellaneous vandalism edits had been made to some senators' articles, it said. One example was the entry for Republican Senator Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, who it was falsely alleged had been voted "most annoying senator".
(EVERYONE knows that title belongs to Ted Stevens of Alaska. Edit by WW.)

Senator Coleman's chief of staff, Erich Mische, said editing was done to correct inaccuracies and delete information that was not reflective of the politician.

"They've got an edit provision on there for the sake of editing when things are not accurate," Mr Mische told the Associated Press. "I presume that if they did not want people to edit, they wouldn't allow you to edit."

Wikipedia says the controversy raises questions about whether it is ethical for those with a vested interest in the subject to edit entries about it. It said the Congressional computer network has been blocked from editing for brief periods on a number of occasions in the last six months due to the inappropriate contributions.

The article on President Bush has been altered so many times - not just from within Congress - that Wikipedia's volunteer monitors have had to block further "editing".

But it also says its investigation showed the vast majority of edits from Senate IPs were "beneficial and helpful".

Massachusetts newspapers disclosed last month that staffers for Representative Marty Meehan had polished the boss's Wikipedia biography. Deleted were references to a long-abandoned promise to serve only four terms, and to his campaign war chest.

Wikipedia was founded in 2001 and has since grown to more than 1.8 million articles in 200 languages. Some 800,000 entries are in English. It is based on wikis, open-source software which lets anyone fiddle with a webpage. Anyone reading a subject entry can disagree, edit, add, delete, or replace the entry. A December 2005 study by the British journal Nature found it was about as accurate on science as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But it has been criticised for the correctness of entries, most recently over the biography of prominent US journalist John Seigenthaler - which incorrectly linked him to the Kennedy assassinations.

"He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."


Mac said...
I hadn't heard about this. It's appalling and priceless, all at once.

Jim said...

I, like you, have come to appreciate Wikipedia. It usually has information on most subjects and despite the problems associated with anyone being able to add to, or edit subject-matter, most of the material is surprisingly accurate--not any less so than other web-based information sites.

While not unbelievable, but disturbing, nonetheless, the right-wing's fervor at revisionism has become one of democracy's greatest challenges.

It really does take effort to ferret out information that is accurate and trustworthy. I've really come to depend on blogs (like yours) and other trusted sites to gather news and information; it isn't always easy and can be time-consuming.

My concern is that many don't have the skills, understanding, or even the time to check multiple sources--instead, they get their news from sources that might be termed dubious, at best.

weasel said...

Mac; its par for the course, its just that this sort of revisionism is saved for a politician's funeral. I guess they are getting things in early.

Jim; I agree with your second point. I wish your first: "the right-wing's fervor at revisionism has become one of democracy's greatest challenges" was more applicable here. To whit, this is how the story came to light:

"Massachusetts newspapers disclosed last month that staffers for Representative Marty Meehan had polished the boss's Wikipedia biography. Deleted were references to a long-abandoned promise to serve only four terms, and to his campaign war chest."

Meehan is a left-leaning Democrat. Interestingly, he is also a co-sponsor of the Internet Anti-Corruption and Free Speech Protection Act of 2005.

I'll say again, its time consuming, but take trig points on any story or statement regardless of source. And this in the week that I heard NPR atrtacked for fact-checking the State of the Union address; apparently applying quantatative tests to the persident's claims about his policies is partisan now...

Wes said...

I have never trusted Wikipedia because the editing capability makes this sort of thing possible. However, I never thought Congressmen would actually have their staff tweak their entries. God, I really am naive.

weasel said...

I agree- Wikipedia is a source like any other; suceptible to bias and falsehood. The one reason I tend to trust it is because it is so instantaneous; for every right winger their is a left winger looking over their shoulder and vice versa. Holding the balance is a great mass of folks who strive for a degree of objectivity. And unlike a book, the debate over history and legacies takes place before our eyes rather than in editorial suites or academic departments. And dusty fallacies don't hang around on bookshelves on Wikipedia.

I don't trust Wikipedia either, but I do use it. As for politicians, I have a rule of thumb that states whatever they are complaining about the loudest is usually the things they are most guilty of. As soon as some in Congress started in on "moral relativism' a couple of years back I've been expecting this sort of thing. Wikipedia could perhaps solve this by having three categories per entry- biography (fairly standard), haigography (written by staff), and Kitty Kelleyography (written by enemies, detailing all the times said politician has been found in bed with the proverbial dead girl or live boy).

weasel said...

Although fair play to you Wes; given your profession I imagine airy debates about the mutability of fact mean bollocks when you are on deadline and need good, clean info.