On Friday August 24th, 2007, news broke that the staff of (then) Australian Prime Minister John Howard had been editing Wikipedia:
PM's staff edited Wikipedia
STAFF in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have been editing Wikipedia to remove details that might be damaging to the Government.
A new website, WikiScanner - which traces the digital fingerprints of those who make changes to entries in the online encyclopedia - points to the department as the source of 126 edits on subjects ranging from the children overboard affair to the Treasurer, Peter Costello.
On June 28 an employee of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet modified Mr Costello's entry to remove a reference to the nickname "Captain Smirk".
WikiScanner also identifies employees of another department, Defence, as the most prolific Wikipedia contributors in Australia. After the Herald made inquiries yesterday, the department said it would ban Defence staff from accessing the encyclopedia, which is billed as the "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit".
Defence computers were found to have made more than 5000 edits to Wikipedia entries, including to articles on the "9/11 Truth Movement", the Australian Defence Force Academy and even the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers.
-- Sydney Morning Herald, 24-Aug-2007
This quickly drew flurry of media reports around the globe,
"Australian politicians 'doctor Wikipedia entries'" -- Nick Squires, in The UK Telegraph
"Australian govt caught editing Wikipedia" -- Pakistan Daily Times
And people queued up to pass judgement:
"You also have to ask yourself whether it's a responsible and reasonable use of taxpayer dollars to have public servants trying to sanitise entries on Wikipedia using taxpayer-paid resources to make their point of view more acceptable to the current Government" - Dale Clapperton, Chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia.
"I notice the Prime Minister is engaging public servants to change Wikipedia," -- Australian Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd.
But is there really a story here?
First we need to distinguish between the "5000 edits" and the "126 edits". The 5000 edits came from the entire Department of Defence - a very large group of workers - and may mean little more than a few bored employees editing Wikipedia in their spare time. Most of the media attention focused on the 126 edits which came from the Prime Minister's department, rather than the 5000 from the defence department.
It may in fact be the case that these edits were not from the Prime Minister's department anyway. See PM's Dept denies making Wikipedia changes, in which Peter Shergold, the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said that the IP address belonged to another customer of the same ISP. On the other hand, an IP address lookup reveals that the IP address in question is indeed allocated to the Prime Minister's Department, according to a lookup at http://whois.domaintools.com/126.96.36.199. So perhaps Mr. Shergold is wrong.
But it doesn't matter. Let's take a worst case scenario and assume the edits really did come from the Prime Minister's department anyway. Are the edits sinister?
The majority of those edits can be seen here on the Wikipedia website, at the edit log at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Contributions&limit=500&target=188.8.131.52.
When we look at this log, we see 106 entries over 2 years. The vast majority of these are non-political. We see 25 edits to the article on the Gang-Gang Cockatoo, and various edits to basketball, AFL and rugby articles. In other words, employees editing articles of interest to them, albeit during work time.
The media focused on the edits to government-related articles, generally neglecting to mention that these were a grand total of 4 edits over 2 years. One to Peter Costello, two to Immigration to Australia, and one to Mandatory detention in Australia.
Let's look at these four edits, and see if we can find a systematic program of government intervention on Wikipedia.
What are we to make of this: well, if John Howard's staff are interfering with Wikipedia, they're doing a pretty poor job of it. They've only done 4 edits to government-related articles in the last two years, preferring instead to edit articles on bird life and sport. Of those 4 edits, only one has political spin in it, and that spin was done so unprofessionally that it had two misspellings in the six words it added.
So all we have here is a person or persons in the Prime Minister's office who occasionally edits Wikipedia while at work. This person makes about one edit per week, and on one occasion they slipped in a little bit of their personal bias. This is not news.
The only news here is the behaviour of the media. It shows that the media will put in a flashy headline without checking the facts. Even more than a decade after the explosion of the World Wide Web, the media still has a tendency to sensationalise any press release with the word "Internet" in it.
The 5000 edits from inside the Department of Defence have received less media coverage, but have also been occasionally mentioned, with the original SMH news article (quoted above) mentioning edits to 9/11 Truth Movement, the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers
The first two edits can be seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Contributions&limit=500&target=184.108.40.206, while the latter's edits can be seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Contributions&limit=500&target=220.127.116.11.
(to be continued)
(c) Peter Ballard, 29-Aug-2007. Minor update in July 2008. Peter Ballard edits Wikipedia in his spare time. (Contact details for Peter Ballard)