Wikipedia's power lies in its openness, but how can you prevent the powers-that-be from gaming the system? A new series of Twitter bots aims to shed light on government officials tinkering with Wikipedia's articles by tracking and posting any edits made from government IP addresses.
It started with the Parliament WikiEdits account, which was set up a couple of days ago in the UK. Made by Tom Scott, the Twitter feed runs off a bot that automatically updates whenever an edit is made from the Parliamentary IP addresses.
This is presumably in response to the revelation that some obnoxious Wikipedia edits were traced back to the country's political headquarters, as reported by regional newspaper The Liverpool Echo in April. As other journalists dug into the story, it turned out that anti-Muslim statements, including “all Muslims are terrorists," and homophobic remarks also originated from a government intranet.
— Parliament WikiEdits (@parliamentedits) July 9, 2014
The Parliament WikiEdits account hasn't actually tweeted any results yet, so it remains to be seen if the UK government trolls are going to crawl up from under their bridge once again, or if all that media exposure scared them off. (Staffers may also have wisened up enough to make their edits from home.)
International copycat accounts have taken up the mantle, and they've already shown some success. Congress-edits, the US-focused account, has broadcast that the Wikipedia entry for "Horse head mask" was changed yesterday. Another tweet notes edits to the Zhou Jiping article, and two changes in very quick succession on the Corpus Christi, Texas entry. Because these changes were made anonymously, and the only info to go in is the IP address, it cannot be determined which government employee decided to correct someone.
Corpus Christi, Texas Wikipedia article edited anonymously by US House of Representatives http://t.co/wPjOFakbvQ
— congress-edits (@congressedits) July 10, 2014
The person behind the congress-edits account also handily provided a link to the Wikipedia article entitled US Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia, which reminds readers of controversial rewrites involving American politicians. Back in 2006, The Lowell Sun reported on changes made by staff of U.S. Rep Marty Meehan, deleting references to failed campaign promises. Another case details how Joe Biden's staff edited his Wikipedia biography, blanketing over incident of alleged plagiarism.
The code relies on another project called govtrack, which keeps an eye on the default IP ranges for the US Congress. At the time of writing, there are also Canadian and Swedish versions of the bot, with the former—in what may create tension with the United States—picking up on a change in the "International Federation of American Football" post.
Far from a trivial little toy to entertain Twitter users, these bots could be powerful tools to keep our politicians in check when it comes to changing publicly available information. For an open platform like Wikipedia, understanding who makes edits is just as important as ensuring that information is correct, and projects like these bots help shed light on any potential massaging being done by official sources.