We Know What You Did Online Last Summer

WikipediaSelf-described "disruptive technologist" Virgil Griffith lists as his top aim in developing WikiScanner: "To create a fireworks display of public relations disasters in which everyone brings their own fireworks, and enjoys."

Here at the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), we see WikiScanner as a great way to better understand how public relations firms and other "perception managers" are subverting online discussions and social media. And what better website to track this on than Wikipedia, the world's most popular wiki, or collaboratively edited website?

Unlike CMD's wiki projects -- SourceWatch, Congresspedia and TobaccoWiki -- Wikipedia does not require people to register before they can edit the site. What WikiScanner does is map anonymous Wikipedia edits to the company, government agency or organization whose computer network was used to make those edits. It should be noted that the anonymous editors could have been carrying out official business, or could have been acting on their own initiative.

So what edits of note did CMD find?

Public relations firms

Some public relations firms promoted themselves via Wikipedia, as exemplified by Weber Shandwick's addition to the "Scottish Parliament election, 2007" article:

A tool has been produced by Weber Shandwick Public Affairs that provides information about the election, candidates and constituencies. It also includes a swingometer allowing you to see how the Parliament could change given different figures for the parties' national share of the vote.

Some firms removed potentially embarrassing information, as exemplified by Ketchum's removing the following information from an article on Susan Molinari, the president of Ketchum Public Affairs:

In November 2005 it was announced [Molinari] would spearhead the efforts of the country of Bangladesh to -- in her words -- "dispel misconceptions about alleged human rights abuses, corrupt government practices and Islamist militancy." Bangladesh was recently named the most corrupt country in the world. ...

Other firms removed undeniably embarrassing information, as exemplified by Hill & Knowlton's edits on the "Politics of the Maldives" article. H&K was retained by the government of the Maldives in 2003, to deal with growing unrest and mounting evidence of human rights abuses. H&K deleted from the article:

President Gayoom has systematically suppressed any and all political activity in the Maldives. His use of election rigging and imprisonment of political activists have all ensured that he went unchallenged for over 26 years in office. President Gayoom routinely uses torture, propaganda, and censorship as a means to cling on to political power.

Independent news media is non-existent. The three running dailies are controlled by cabinet ministers of President Gayoom.

H&K also softened the article's language on the repression of political parties in the Maldives, explaining that:

[T]he Maldivian political system was based around the election of individuals, rather than the more common system of election according to party platform...

Government agencies and contractors

Of course, PR firms aren't the only entities manipulating the public record. Consider the somewhat-tortured justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, added to the "Iraq Survey Group" article by someone on a U.S. Energy Department computer:

[I]t is quite clear that Iraq at the time of the start of the Iraq War had for decades invested heavily in its efforts to produce fissile materials suitable for use in making a nuclear weapon [see http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/iraq/nuke/program.htm]. Once it became obvious that Iraq was pursuing gas centrifuge technology for this purpose (a technology that is far easier to conceal than gaseous diffusion or magnetic isotope separation as well as a technology considered to be more likely to succeed), the continuation of the "cat and mouse" search for Iraq's nuclear weapons program became much less tenable.

The subsequent search for nuclear WMD that was enabled by the US invasion of Iraq was a success in the sense that no nuclear devices were found. If a nuclear device had been found, the search would have been too late as it would have been likely that other such weapons also existed or soon would have been produced. ...

Lastly, some edits seem to be the work of people blowing off steam. Understandable, but at times highly inappropriate, like these additions to the "American Civil Liberties Union" article, made on a computer at Science Applications International Corporation, a major U.S. military contractor:

[T]he ACLU's real mission is to create a Eugenicist Communist society based on principles of Anarchy against the will of the American people.

The ACLU is trying to destroy America. ...

In his WikiScanner FAQ, Virgil Griffith says that while identifying anonymous editors may help strengthen Wikipedia articles on more controversial topics, anonymous speech is important and Wikipedia "seems to work" pretty well. Most of the edits described above were quickly reverted by other Wikipedia contributors.

Cyber spinners, beware! We have new debunking tools, and we know how to use them.

Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.

Want to help unmask Wikipedia spinners? See our project page on how it's done, and please add what you find to SourceWatch.