Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

UK politicians' Wikipedia worries

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Did David Cameron's father buy him the Conservative Party? Has Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg slept with 3,000 women?

Mural at CeBIT tech fair in Hanover, Gernamy
Wikipedia vandals tend to be anonymous

Of course not, but in the crazy, alternative world of Wikipedia vandalism - the term the site uses for deliberately false information being inserted into entries - anything is possible.

The popular online encyclopedia's great strength - and critics say its greatest weakness - is that the vast majority of its 2.7 million entries can be instantly edited by anyone.

And in the never-ending battle to gain political advantage, that can prove irresistible.

The Conservative Party was caught out last month tampering with an entry on the painter Titian. An over-enthusiastic researcher altered the age of the artist's death in an attempt to help leader David Cameron win an obscure political argument with Gordon Brown.

This could be seen, at a stretch, as part of the normal editing process that goes on all the time on Wikipedia, with contributors battling it out until a common form of words is agreed.

But some contributors have more mischievous intent.


He should become a stand-up comedian because his face just makes you laugh

Vandalism on David Cameron's Wikipedia page

Log on to the site at various points in the past few weeks and you will have read that Mr Cameron, whose page was visited 72,441 times last month, is a typical product of aristocratic "inbreeding", was nearly recruited by British Telecom when he was a student (he was in fact approached by the KGB, proving that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction) and that his daddy bought him the Conservative Party.

You will also have read that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, whose page was viewed 8,589 times last month, is a "namby pamby liberal" and a "sanctimonious straw man" yet despite these apparent handicaps has slept with up to 3,000 women and become a member of hip-hop collective the Wu Tang Clan.

Balance

On a few occasions, the entire text of Clegg and Cameron's respective pages, running to several thousand words each, were deleted and briefly replaced by a single lewd - or just plain surreal - line of text, in most cases far too libellous or offensive to be repeated here.

Comments have also been added to biographical information, such as the observation that Mr Cameron "first and foremost, tries to be really cool. He should become a stand-up comedian because his face just makes you laugh. Look at it.....see, you can't help but chuckle!".

I think it would be in Wikipedia's own interest to maintain its impartiality and crack down hard on acts of political vandalism
Martin Horwood, Lib Dem MP

Obviously false, malicious or biased material like this is normally removed within minutes by other contributors or Wikipedia's team of volunteer administrators, who work round-the-clock to try and improve its credibility as a source of information and its commitment to balance and consensus.

Occasionally they will take more drastic action, such as blocking contributors or placing a lock on a page.

The site administrators were forced to place temporary editing restrictions on Mr Cameron's page on 11 February, the day of the Titian row, "due to excessive vandalism".

Gordon Brown's Wikipedia page, which was viewed 145,513 times last month, by contrast, enjoys "semi protected" status all the time, meaning it cannot be modified by anonymous users.

This is a privilege accorded to only a handful of figures, such as US President Barack Obama and his predecessor George Bush, whose Wikipedia pages have been subject to "heavy and persistent vandalism or violations of content policy".

Subtle alterations

As a result, the edits to Mr Brown's page tend to be restricted to minor factual or style points or the ongoing search for a more flattering picture.

But even this does not protect the prime minister from vandalism entirely.

In January a very long and bawdy poem appeared without warning in the middle of a passage on Mr Brown's political accomplishments.

"Sorry, could not resist," wrote the person responsible, who had a previously blameless record of contributions to the site: "This guy has really got to me, lost my job today."

This kind of vandalism, mostly carried out by people who are identified only by their computer's unique IP address number, may be a source of irritation or amusement for web users searching for information.

What is more worrying, for MPs and other elected representatives, are the subtle alterations and additions made to their Wikipedia pages, which the passing voter might take as fact.

'Responsibility'

Liberal Democrat MP Martin Horwood was alarmed to discover his Wikipedia entry, which in keeping with the conventions of the site was not written by him, had been altered in a way he believed would harm his chances of retaining his seat.

The Cheltenham MP was wary of altering the page himself, having been warned by Wikipedia administrators in the past that this was considered bad form.

In the end, he managed, with the help of a tech-literate friend, to find a form of words that passed muster with the administrators and neutralised his concerns about bias.

Jimmy Wales
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales wants tighter editing restrictions

With his seat being one of the battleground marginals at the next election he feels cannot afford to have inaccurate information about him presented as impartial fact.

Mr Horwood's experience is far from unusual and is likely to become even more common as the next general election approaches.

"An election does place a little bit of responsibility on Wikipedia and its volunteers to take extra care," he says.

"I think it would be in Wikipedia's own interest to maintain its impartiality and crack down hard on acts of political vandalism.

"It is a fantastic and impartial source, that is its great value, so it would be a shame if it allowed its pages to become 'point of view' pages."

'Correcting errors'

Britain's political parties are all aware of Wikipedia's power. The site's pages for David Cameron and Nick Clegg are ranked second on Google searches behind their own official sites. In Gordon Brown's case it is the top link.

In the 2008 US primaries, candidates' Wikipedia entries ranked higher on Google than their own websites for 25% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans, according to research by the Tech President website.

In the UK, the main parties all monitor Wikipedia for errors and bias - but they are reluctant to criticise something which is generally seen as a force for good.

Labour and the Conservatives both declined to comment when contacted for this article.

Mark Pack, the Liberal Democrats' internet guru, argues that the site had a much better track record than most newspapers, when it comes to corrections.

"Wikipedia is probably more prone to errors than other sources, but it is also much more prone to correcting errors," he says.

But he adds: "There is a tendency to only see it as acceptable to remove information if it is factually incorrect or extremely trivial."

Policy change

This means, he argues, that the site can sometimes be "unbalanced" in the way it presents information.

"The main weakness is that you do not get a good pen portrait of people," he argues.

There is growing concern in the US about Wikipedia vandalism, after false reports of the death of two prominent US politicians, Senators Robert Byrd and Edward Kennedy, appeared on the site.

The errors were quickly corrected but they prompted Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales to press the case for a tightening up of its editing policy.

In future, any changes may need to be approved by a group of editors, made up of regular contributors, before being made live.

Mr Wales believes such a move will improve accuracy - but it has not gone down well with some Wikipedia users who argue it goes against the egalitarian spirit of the site.

So for now, and to the dismay or delight of many in British politics, Wikipedia remains an untamed and unspun corner of the internet, with all the good and bad things that can mean.

The following comments reflect a balance of the views received.

Wikipedia is a good reference point as long as people treat what they read with the same caution they should apply to the red-top tabloids in the UK. Unfortunately, they don't in either case. At least with Wikipedia you can get a falsehood corrected.
Stuart Smith, Wigan, Lancs (UK)

Wikipedia is a great reference source but can't be relied upon for any contentious matter, whether political, historical or religious. Hopefully most users know this!
Ahmed Berger, London, UK

This phenomenon does not only affect politicians. The entry for the late actress Deborah Kerr was amended to state that after retiring from acting she moved to Britain where she opened a chain of abbatoirs.
Paul S, Dalston, London

The most revealing part about Wikipedia is people's willingness to trust almost any written information as fact, as if it was written by some higher power; a kind of "Bible mentality". Rationally, it should be sufficient for Wikipedia to make clear that anyone can edit the site and to trust content in proportion to that. I wonder what a WikiBible would have been like...
Mat, Bristol

At the end of the day, everyone knows that anyone can edit Wikipedia. If people are concerned about what's written (and vandalism's often rather obvious anyway), there's always other places they can check for information.
Amy R, London

For Pete's sake would it not be easier if people could alter Wiki entries and then administrators were to approve first before they make publication? As a user myself I fear that information I gather could be vandalised material I am reading.
Kev Hedges, Stevenage, UK

If these entries are so sensitive, subject to vandalism and likely to lead to "Unbalance" why don't all these bodies just agree to prevent any political portraits appearing on Wiki. Personally, whilst you can't "trust" as truth what is on Wiki it should realistically be only used as one of the references anyone should use.
M Thompson, Winsford, Cheshire

Would I vote, or not, for a political candidate based on what I had read about them on Wikipedia? Do you take me for a fool?

MPs ought to get their knickers out of a twist and get on with sorting the problems of our nation rather than worrying about what people might think of them after reading a Wiki entry.

Even in the most marginal of seat where a candidate's career is genuinely on a knife edge it at least gives them the unnerving sense of having their livelihood at the whim of a stranger they don't trust - gives them a taste of what we have to put up with from them.
Paul H, Walsall England

Wikipedia is a symptom of the fast and lazy "dumbing down" culture developing in the west. Everybody has got an opinion and wants that heard without having to listen, evaluate, discuss and debate other peoples point of view. and People should be taught how to research things for themselves. Taught how to obtain original and source material for themselves and how to evaluate things. Plus if they are going to postulate the information they wish to impart; they should be taught how to do so with some authority.
P Gleeson, Stoke

In fairness to wikipedia, most "bad" edits are gone within a few minutes, most of the press act like wikipedia goes out in print form like a newspaper and that hundreds of thousands of people are unwittingly reading this false information, and this is simply not case.
James, Surrey

Let's not forget how many business and political figures in america have been caught falsifying information. Sometimes those who complain the loudest are also the one's behind amendments.
A Appleyard, Leeds

You can't believe everything you see on the internet. Virtually all websites you surf to will have at least some kind of grammatical/spelling or continuity error in, and if they didn't the Internet would be a much more boring place. It's just a collection of opinions. If you're an athiest for example, wikipedia pages on religion might be considered incorrect and vice versa for religious folk. Like any source its providence is important when assessing its accuracy. You could start a wiki page answering how long a piece of string is, it wouldn't necessarily be wrong. Anyway, we all know Cleggy would never get into Wu Tang, he's best off sticking with his solo career.
Alex O'Donoghue, Norwich

Relax, its only the internet! Wikipedia is delusional if it believes that it is - or that people think it is - a source of absolute truth. The majority of people know that wikipedia, due to being user generated, is subject to innacuracy, bias, and vandalism. I once viewed the entry for Adolph Hitler, which simply read "Adolph Hitler was a very nasty man". While this entry was 100% accurate, it failed to educate me as to why Hitler came to hate the Jewish people so much, and how his military machine was assembled...but would an un-vandalised entry have been any more helpful, or as accurate?
Paul, Birmingham

Scandalous, they already spend millions of pounds on protecting the place and yet it is still full of mis-information, lies and the over hyping of already inflated egos.....sorry, thought you were talking about the House of Commons. Wikipedia. leave it alone and rely on it in the spirit that you whist brwsing it, you can create an entry and call yourself President of the USA
Pat, Shoeburyness

"I wonder what a WikiBible would have been like..." Edited by many people over a period of time to contain certain false and misleading portions of text? N Jones, Manchester, UK

in response to Mat of Bristol, I don't think a Wikibible would be much different to the current bible..
jon, manchester


A WikiBible looks something like this: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_(King_James)
Thomas Dalton, Durham

Wikipedia articles were recently found to be 99% accurate when compared to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Those who say you can't believe it are only undermining the effort Wikipedia goes to in order to give us accurate, concise and above all FREE information.
David Downey, Leeds

This "Wikipedia vandalism" is a growing trend but a small price to pay for such a wonderful resource. The percentage of accurate information far outweighs that which is inaccurate and is a great start point for research. History is written by the winners and it seemingly always will be to an extent. Congratulations to Wikipedia for trying to redress the balance, the "graffiki" isn't to much of a price to pay.
Sam, London, UK

As an teacher I find it disconcerting the number of my pupils who will just wikipedia as fact before plagarising the site in their own work....obviously as teacher we can take steps to detect and discourage this but it still a cause for concern in education but also their wider lives.
Sonya Manwaring, Tarleton, Lancashire

I saw one vandalised article on Wikipedia which I reverted and reported as vandalised. I also thought to check if the same person had also vandalized other pages.

By the time I'd worked out how to view their edit history, all their vandalism had been removed, their account blacklisted and things were back to normal again.

The vandalism barely lasted 50 seconds before the administrators had wiped out all trace of it and banned the user. Just be part of the solution and wikipedia is great.
Andy, Stockport

Wikipedia is a superb source of information and links when it comes to pages edited by passionate, knowledgeable individuals. This is the case for most pages about scientific or technological subjects, mathematics or widespread hobbies. Pages that deal with contentious subjects or biographies of politicians typically provide interesting links to other sites, but simply can't be taken as reliable on their own. This should be stated clearly at the top of pages, together with an encouragement to cross-check with other sources. Wikipedia receives far too many daily edits for a smallish team of individuals to validate -- instead of "locking down" pages, which would discourage voluntary, enthusiastic and well-meaning contributions, we should insist our schools and higher education institutions train people to read with a critical eye and never to lap up any single source as gospel.
H Crockett, London, UK everyone knows that wikipedia is capable of being edited by anyone and is thus a rather inaccurate source of information in most cases. I don't understand why why politicans and the media seem to think that it's actually important at all to crack down on "vandalism", if one could actually call it vandalism.

This is all just hysteria and sensationalism and it's really got to stop.
N Kempson, London

everyone knows that wikipedia is capable of being edited by anyone and is thus a rather inaccurate source of information in most cases. I don't understand why why politicans and the media seem to think that it's actually important at all to crack down on "vandalism", if one could actually call it vandalism.

This is all just hysteria and sensationalism and it's really got to stop.
N Kempson, London

wikipedia is the most wonderful thing on the internet, people who say otherwise haven't thought about it enough / are braindead morons. nuff said
Graham Lamb, manchester, uk

The sad fact is that you cannot have ANY unprotected space or facility on the Internet. For sure, someone will come along and mess it up. So Wiki is no exception to that rule and of course they should beef up their security so that the kiddy sandcastle tramplers on the Internet don't undo all the good work.
Maranga, Cornwall



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SEE ALSO
Editorial row engulfs Wikipedia
26 Jan 09 |  Technology
Tories admit to Wiki-alteration
11 Feb 09 |  UK Politics

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