1/30/2006

Senator staffers spam Wikipedia

Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor "smells of cow dung."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is "ineffective." And U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan never promised to surrender his seat in 2000.

Those assertions were inserted into the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia by congressional House staffers, who executed at least 1,000 changes in the past six months to entries on an array of topics — from biographical changes to facial dimples.

Wikipedia is a global reference that relies on its users — anyone with an Internet connection — to add credible information to entries on millions of topics.

In November and December, the Transcript has learned, users of the House address were temporarily blocked from changing content because of vandalism, violations described by the site as a "deliberate attempt to compromise the integrity of the encyclopedia."

Most House changes, it seems, were meant to enhance various encyclopedia entries.

Slurs against Cantor and Frist, which have been removed, is the first example of abuse that Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, has seen derive directly from the legislative branch of the U.S. government.

"That's definitely not cool. I was not aware of this," Wales said in an interview.

Wikipedia records every change to its site, and who made it. The encyclopedia prefers that editors log in with a user name. But it's not necessary, and many make changes anonymously; Wikipedia identifies these users by tracking the number assigned to their Internet entry point, called an Internet protocol address.

An IP address assigned to the House is connected to at least 1,000 changes since June, according to the encyclopedia and the nonprofit American Registry for Internet Numbers, a search engine that tracks IP addresses.

Jon Brandt, a spokesman for the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the House computer network, confirmed House ownership of the address.

For security reasons, he declined to say to whom the address is assigned, whether it's a central launching point for all 10,000 House employees or how many addresses the House has.

Laudatory content

Not all changes disparaging and at least one supplanted unflatteringly information with laudatory content.

Matt Vogel, chief of staff for Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, said he authorized an intern last year to replace existing Wikipedia content with a staff-written biography of the lawmaker.

"It makes sense to me the biography we submit would be the biography we write," Vogel said.

The change, made by the intern last July, deleted a reference to Meehan's campaign promise to surrender his seat after serving eight years, a pledge Meehan later eschewed. It also deleted a reference to the size of his campaign account, the largest of any House member at $4.8 million, according to the latest data available from the Federal Election Commission.

North Adams Transcript - Headlines

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