Invisible editors of Wikipedia outed

NEW YORK | Guess who’s been messing with Wikipedia, which bills itself as the free online encyclopedia anyone can edit?

The CIA, the Democratic Party, the Vatican, SeaWorld and voting machine supplier Diebold.

All have anonymously edited articles, according to the British Broadcasting Corp. and various technical publications.

The invisible editors were outed by Wikipedia Scanner, an application recently invented by graduate student Virgil Griffiths, which has compared 5.3 million edits in the past five years against more than 2 million Internet addresses whose owners are public knowledge.

Last year, someone edited the Wikipedia entry for the SeaWorld theme parks to change all mentions of “orcas” to “killer whales,” insisting that this was a more accurate name for the species.

There was another, unexplained edit: A paragraph about criticism of SeaWorld’s “lack of respect toward its orcas” disappeared.

Both changes, it turns out, originated at a computer at Anheuser-Busch, SeaWorld’s owner.

A computer traced to a CIA address added “Wahhhhhh!” to a profile of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. CIA employees also tweaked articles about TV shows.

Someone using a computer owned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh “idiotic,” a “racist” and a “bigot,” and said of his listeners: “Most of them are legally retarded.”

Vatican computers removed links to newspaper stories written in 2006 about Gerry Adams, leader of Ireland’s Sinn Fein party. The articles alleged that Adams’ fingerprints were found on a car used in a double murder in 1971.

Computers registered to the Church of Scientology were used to remove criticism of the church from the page about it.

Diebold, which supplied machines used in some controversial votes, removed 15 paragraphs from the entry about it. One had named its chief executive as a top fundraiser for President Bush. Others contained information about and links to charges that the 2000 presidential election was rigged. The paragraphs since have been reinstated.

Last year, someone at PepsiCo deleted several paragraphs of the Pepsi entry that focused on its detrimental health effects.

Griffiths noted that the program cannot identify the individuals editing the articles.

“Technically, we don’t know whether it came from an agent of that company. However, we do know that edit came from someone with access to their network,” he wrote on the Wikipedia Scanner Web site.

Diebold did not respond to requests to comment. Other organizations responded the way the CIA did.

“I cannot confirm that the traffic came from agency computers,” a CIA official told the BBC. “I’d like in any case to underscore a far larger and more significant point that no one should doubt or forget: The CIA has a vital mission in protecting the United States, and the focus of the agency is there, on that decisive work.”

Wikipedia Scanner also might protect Wikipedia. It “may prevent an organization or individuals from editing articles that they’re really not supposed to,” a Wikipedia official said.

Most of the corporate revisions did not stay posted for long. Many Wikipedia entries are edited and re-edited, and the site’s many regular volunteers and administrators tend to keep an eye out for bias.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday August 18, 2007.
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