The WikiMedia Foundation Office. Photo by Dmgultekin.
Last week, I looked into the edits that computers inside of Canada’s House of Commons had been making to Wikipedia, and found out that several Canadian politicians had their staffers edit out sections of their boss’s articles pertaining to their personal controversies, ethics investigations, and spending scandals. Digging into the Wikipedia edits made by powerful organizations is not necessarily a new thing, but after code was released earlier this month for a Twitterbot that automatically tweets anytime a computer within a certain IP range (an array of internet addresses associated to a government or corporation) edits Wikipedia, online alert systems that monitor edits from known government and corporate IPs sprung up all across the web. For the Canadian government, that account is called @GCCAEdits.
This proliferation of Twitterbots has created a landslide of data, and much of it is fairly innocuous. Oftentimes, this data simply reveals that government employees or corporate workerbees are editing Wikipedia articles to pass the time, that often pertains to nerdy subjects like video games or TV shows. But every so often you can catch an example of censorship—usually reversed by the Wikipedia community—where a government or corporate actor tries to blur, or simply redact, certain truths from the internet.
Since writing about the Wikipedia edits last week, I found a few interesting edits that provide a glimpse into the biases and agendas of both government and industry.
For example, a computer from Enbridge Gas changed every mention of Canadian “tar sands” oil in an article about the horrible Kalamazoo River spill (that they caused) to “bituminous sands” because it is technically more correct, I guess, but probably because it’s less icky to read about. They also made several edits to the Wikipedia page of their own CEO, mainly to add in new photos of him, while fluffing it up with positive information about his career.
Another edit I discovered was from a computer inside CAPP’s network (the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers), which added in a passage to the article for Alberta’s Federation of Labour (AFL), that made mention of the AFL’s president catching a DUI and crashing his car. I guess someone at CAPP has a beef with the AFL!
A third edit I caught came from Canada’s House of Commons, where the Wikipedia page for CFS Leitrim, a Canadian Forces base in Ottawa known to house signals interception equipment for CSEC (our version of the NSA) was edited to remove all information about CSEC.
Part of me thinks this was done just to fuck with those of us watching the Wikipedia edits, since it was made after the well-publicized GCCAEdits Twitterbot went live. But maybe a government employee thought scrubbing information about the super-secret spy agency would be effective. Either way, the CFS Leitrim article has since been edited so that CSEC is mentioned once more.
It’s hard to say whether these edits are made by government figures who think they’re being sneaky, or if this is some troll against civilian watchdogs. Brazen government edits are occurring despite these Twitterbots watching Wikipedia. As recently as Saturday, a computer known to be on a Russian government network edited the MH17 article to assign guilt to the Ukrainian military.
Given how many potentially interesting edits there are to discover that reveal some peculiar tendencies from our governments and the world’s most powerful corporations, it’s only natural that someone would want to categorize and organize this data. That’s why Jari Bakken, a developer from Oslo, put together this archive of edits from the Austrian, Australian, Canadian, German, Irish, Israeli, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, and Ukrainian governments. He also organized edits made from the CIA and the Pentagon. Not to mention several corporations considered to be Big Oil, along with the United Nations, NATO, and more.
I reached out to Jari this morning to chat with him about his interest in powerful organizations editing Wikipedia. He told me: “Anyone with a basic understanding of democracy will understand why it's interesting to know how people in power behave when they can edit an encyclopedia anonymously. I also think it's a nice example of how technology can be used creatively to make the exercise of power more transparent, which hopefully will inspire further ideas.”
Using a resource provided by Google called BigQuery, Jari obtained a dataset that contains a complete history of revisions from the origins of Wikipedia until April 2010. Jari now has the information about “156 million anonymous edits across 13 languages,” which he says is “a fun dataset to play around with.”
Jari then uses that dataset to dig up edits made by IPs from government or big corporations. Since large entities need a whole wack of IP addresses, they’re pretty easy to spot, and therefore so are their Wikipedia edits. That said, IP addresses can change, but Jari let me know that the community of developers behind these Twitterbots are dedicated to keeping an updated list of government and corporate IP addresses to keep their projects relevant.
I asked Jari how he thinks projects like his can send a message to people in power. He told me: “I think it's easy to forget that even more important than the big revelations [that are sometimes uncovered by looking at Wiki edits], is the message projects like these sends to people in positions of power. Hopefully it works as a reminder that citizens are watching and that they can't expect to operate in the dark. I hope it's a small push towards a culture of more open institutions.” While a more open form of corporate or government power would surely be welcomed, one concern of mine is that instead of creating more open institutions, governments and corporations will farm their edits out to agencies or other groups that are less traceable.
Jari was more optimistic: “It's unavoidable that some people will make an effort to hide their edits, but that doesn't mean they will get away with anything. The Wikipedia community has all sorts of techniques to keep the quality of their articles high. This isn't going to change that.”