Wikipedia Scanner Reveals Sculduggery
Knowing that any entry in a Wiki can be changed by any reader, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of what I read on Wikipedia. Still, I find that Google often points me to Wikipedia articles, and most of the time, they seem pretty authoritative and accurate (if I’m at all suspicious, I verify with other sources, and it usually checks out).
Now it turns out I was right to be suspicious. Virgil Griffith, a grad student at CalTech, invented a system to track the IP addresses of people who change Wikipedia entries–and the results are scary. While the majority of changes are innocuous–correcting typos and that sort of thing, a number of well-known entities have deliberately distorted facts. A few among many examples:
According to the Wired article (one of several from mainstream news sources, including BBC and ABC),
Griffith thus downloaded the entire encyclopedia, isolating the XML-based records of anonymous changes and IP addresses. He then correlated those IP addresses with public net-address lookup services such as ARIN, as well as private domain-name data provided by IP2Location.com.
The result: A database of 34.4 million edits, performed by 2.6 million organizations or individuals ranging from the CIA to Microsoft to Congressional offices, now linked to the edits they or someone at their organization’s net address has made.
So who’s been playing fast and loose with the truth?
The CIA edited entries about Iranian President Ahmadinejad
Diebold, the voting machine company, removed incriminating material about its machines and faulty election results
Someone at a Democratic Party computer edited the entry about Rush Limbaugh to call him Limbaugh “idiotic,” “racist”, and a “bigot”–and about his audience, “Most of them are legally retarded.”
Microsoft listed its MSN as a “major competitor” to Google, whle adding deprecating material to Apple’s entry
Wal-Mart toned down criticism of its labor policies
Even the Vatican removed passages about Sinn Fein’s Gerry Addams that linked him to a 1971 murder.
Needless to say, this raises a lot of ethical questions. As a start, it would seem logical that Wikipedia should keep a running, public list of any IP addresses that altered a particular entry–right on that page. And also, perhaps, each page could display its history, so that previous versions would be visible and readers could draw their own conclusions.