Political Staffers Tried to Delete the Senate Scandal (and Other Bad Behaviour) from Wikipedia
Jul 15 2014
Yesterday I wrote an article about a new Twitterbot called GCCAEdits, which monitors revisions made to Wikipedia articles and tweets every time it catches an edit made from a Canadian government computer. In my piece yesterday, I focused on the more humourous edits I noticed government employees making—like adding the phrase “poopy balls” to an article about Pomeranian dogs. But after digging a bit deeper, I discovered a common, poorly hidden pattern of government computers making edits to Wikipedia pages in order to completely remove controversial sections from various entries about politicians.
The most glaring edit was made on July 10, 2013 to Pamela Wallin’s Wikipedia page—just shy of two months before Pamela Wallin had to reimburse the Senate for what was determined to be overspending. She has since been suspended from the Senate for wasting too much of the public’s money. The edit to her Wikipedia page on July 10th was made from a House of Commons IP address, and it removed an entire section of her entry entitled “Residency and travel expense controversy” that outlined, in detail, Pamela’s excessive travel expenses and subsequent resignation from the Senate.
The information about Pamela’s spending problem was added back to Wikipedia by non-government users—with a comment reading: ‘unexplained removal of content,’ tagged to it—while the July 10 edit was negatively rated for “section blanking,” a phrase Wiki uses to describe an edit that completely erases a particular section.
Pamela Wallin was unavailable for comment, as her government email (which is still listed on her official website) no longer exists.
Also connected to the Senate scandal is an edit made to Conservative senator Yonah Martin’s Wikipedia page on April 24, 2014, from a House of Commons computer, that completely removed any mention of Yonah’s involvement in having Pamela Wallin—along with Patrick Brazeau and Mike Duffy—suspended. In reality, Yonah “introduced the second attempt to suspend Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy without pay,” but someone within the House of Commons doesn’t want that on her Wikipedia page.
That edit has stuck, presumably because her page is under much less scrutiny than Pamela’s, so currently Yonah Martin’s Wikipedia page does not include any mention of her involvement in policing the Senate scandal.
In a statement to VICE, a representative for Senator Martin confirmed that the senator did, indeed, “approve” the edits made to her Wikipedia page in April. They went on to say: “The statement in question was removed as we didn't feel that it was accurate.... The statement is not accurate as it says she ‘authored’ the suspension motions. The actual authoring is done in consult with the Leader of the Government in the Senate's Office as well as Table Officers and/or Senate legal counsel.”
When I asked why the statement was removed, rather than edited for accuracy, I received the following response: “We could have tried to correct it and explain, however, the decision at the time was simply to remove it rather than add to an incorrect statement.”
So, a gametime decision was made, and censoring the information just seemed a lot easier than correcting it for the public...
Outside of the Senate scandal, other Conservative politicians are also manicuring their Wikipedia pages by removing their personal misdeeds. On the Wiki article for Patrick Brown, a Conservative MP from Barrie, an edit was made from a House of Commons computer on December 4, 2013, which completely removed his “Controversies” section that outlined his support of reopening the abortion debate, despite Harper’s suggestion that doing so would be for dummies. The section also made mention of a complaint lodged against him by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who were concerned about his use of a House of Commons account to send out campaign mailings.
The “Controversies” section has since been readded to Patrick Brown’s Wikipedia page—abortion support and all. Patrick Brown did not respond by the time of publication to a request for comment from VICE.
Yet another Conservative, Shelly Glover, an MP and the Minister of Canadian Heritage, had her Wikipedia page edited yesterday from the House of Commons. That edit completely removed a section called, “Request for suspension by Elections Canada,” which contained information about a request to suspend Glover as an MP for failing to file proper financial documents pertaining to her overspent campaign in 2011.
A Wikipedia user who uses the handle DrunkenMonkey restored the controversial section minutes after Glover’s staff attempted to remove it.
According to a representative of Glover who spoke to VICE: “Part of the communications responsibility of an MP's political staff is to correct the record when false or inaccurate information is found in the public domain, in any number of ways. This could include writing letters to the editor or news releases, interacting with the media, or engaging in online communication.”
So, to Team Glover, deleting an entire section from an encyclopedia article is akin to bringing a factual correction to a newspaper editor, and having them revise their article.
The representative went on to write: “In this instance a political staff member from the MP's office was made aware of inaccurate and improperly sourced information on Wikipedia, and removed it. All relevant information about the issue in question is available on the Elections Canada website."
Glover’s representative did not clarify what about her boss’s suspension scandal was incorrect. Nor did she say why her office elected to remove the entire section about the controversy, rather than correct the alleged misinformation. While the Elections Canada complaint against Glover has since been resolved, mainly because she promised not to overspend in her next campaign, it seems excessive that her staff would remove all information about it from Wikipedia outright.
It’s not just the Conservatives, however, who are getting in on the fun of trying to remove embarrassing truths from the internet. On June 20th, 2013, a computer from the House of Commons edited the Wikipedia page for the Bloc Quebecois' House of Commons leader Louis Plamondon by removing a section that described his legal trouble from April 1993, when he was caught with a sex worker during an undercover sting operation.
Unfortunately for Louis, that information was added back into his Wikipedia article. VICE did not hear back from Louis before this article ran.
While it seems as if staffers are willing to hide behind the “it’s our job” excuse for editing Wikipedia articles, or simply that they were just trying to correct some misinformation, the idea that political staffers are using their work time to censor and delete information from the internet’s encyclopedia seems like a massive waste of resources at the very least.
Given that all of these edits fall under the “section blanking” category—meaning that information was removed en masse, in lieu of simply correcting facts—there appears to be a widespread tactic of censoring Wikipedia pages in order to improve the public image of predominantly Conservative politicians.
That kind of strategy is disturbing, though it is unsurprising in a political climate where robocalls and attack ads are the norm, and CSEC, our cybersurveillance agency, is made up of mystery, smoke, and mirrors.
Thanks to the transparency built into Wikipedia, however, these poorly executed censorships (which are usually reversed by the Wikipedia community nearly instantaneously) are logged for all to see. That said, you would think these staffers would at least be smart enough to make the edits at the closest coffee shop.