Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Wikinews contributors have discovered that members of the United States Congress or members of their staff have recently been making questionable edits to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia anyone can edit. This continues the trend identified by four exclusive Wikinews reports over a four-year period exposing questionable and fraudulent edits made beginning in 2005 by Congress members or staff.
Beginning in 2006, Wikinews reported that members of Congress or their staff were vandalizing Wikipedia by removing critical information in various articles, or adding false or offensive information. These edits were and continue to be done using computers owned or operated by the United States government.
In this new investigation, Wikinews has found that at least two of the three major Internet Protocol Addresses (IP) attached to computers used by members of the U.S. House of Representatives and their staff have been the source of Wikipedia edits for several years. As recently as April 2009 they have been adding or removing false and/or offensive information from articles related to political figures or members of Congress.
Although the IP addresses belong exclusively to the U.S Congress as a whole, they are linked to many different computers throughout the U.S. which are used by many different House representatives or their staff members. In response to an edit, another Wikipedia contributor posts a message on the user discussion page for the IP address, advising anyone that may view the page that the address belongs to Congress.
In January, one individual using a Congressional computer removed a source in an article. Five minutes later, using the same congressional IP address, someone replaced the source with an apology saying, “sorry–House of Reps IPs should not be editing [Wikipedia], even other office’s pages on lunch break.” Despite the advisories, Wikinews has found that the individuals continued to make vandal-like edits to the encyclopedia.
In one instance, Wikinews found that someone with one of the IP addresses, 22.214.171.124, began to edit the Wikipedia article for Steve Austria, the Republican representative for Ohio’s 7th congressional district. The individual began to edit on March 18, 2009 at 23:32 UTC. He or she used the official House of Representatives gateway to remove a section of information relating to inaccurate comments Austria made about The Great Depression. Austria stated in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch in February that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933 caused the U.S. to go into a depression.
“When Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression. … He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That’s just history,” said Austria during the February 11 interview. He later admitted that his statement was wrong, saying Roosevelt’s spending “did not have the desired effect,” which caused the depression. Exactly two minutes later on March 18, the same IP address removed information relating to bloggers accusing Austria of plagiarism in 2008. They accused him of taking credit for a column that was published in his name in the Xenia Gazette on September 2, 2008. Bloggers had discovered that the column was a direct copy of a report on the history of Labor Day originally published by the U.S. Department of Labor. The edits were reverted, the last being over four hours after the information was removed. Despite some constructive edits, such as correcting the spelling of Wisconsin congressman Steve Kagen’s name and correcting grammatical errors, the same IP removed the information in both sections a total of six times from March 18 to April 24, 2009.
After seeing the suspicious edits, Wikinews examined the edit history for Austria’s article to see if any other suspicious edits were made. After a brief search, Wikinews discovered that the IP address 126.96.36.199 removed the same information just 15 days earlier on March 3, being the first address to remove the information. Only one edit has been made to Wikipedia from that IP address so far. After tracing the address, Wikinews discovered the person who made the edits lives in or near Fairborn, which is located 8.5 miles from Beavercreek, where Austria currently resides. Austria also grew up in Xenia which is located just 12 miles from Fairborn and only 8 miles from Beavercreek.
Another individual, with the IP address 188.8.131.52, also removed the allegations of plagiarism from Austria’s article in February. The individual removed what they called “Politically Motivated BS [bullshit]” from the article of Deborah Pryce, former congresswoman for Ohio’s 15th congressional district. The information was related to fundraisers between 2001 and 2004 that were held at restaurants belonging to convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. After tracing the IP address, Wikinews found that the edit was made from a computer located in Columbus, Ohio, the location of Pryce’s offices and one of the cities in Pryce’s district. Wikinews contacted Austria by e-mail for a statement, but so far there has been no response.
Following those discoveries, Wikinews investigated another IP address used by the U.S. House of Representatives. On April 30, 2009, the address 184.108.40.206 made an edit that listed Devin Nunes, the representative for California’s 21st congressional district, as being a member of the Nazi Party. The address also made less questionable edits, but after investigating further, it was discovered that the IP address removed critical information on April 29 from the article of Gregory Meeks, the representative for New York’s 6th congressional district. The information removed was related to a column by the the New York Times which stated that Meeks initially supported former 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the race for the White House. According to the Times, Meeks changed his support to Obama because he was part of “a young black political class [which was] seeking to assert the neighborhood’s power against what it sees as an older establishment, based in Harlem, that has long exercised disproportionate influence in New York City.”
The address 220.127.116.11 was also responsible for adding highly biased statements to articles related to abortion. On March 16, 2009 it altered the Wikipedia article Crisis pregnancy center, adding that the centers were “abortion mills, which exist only to kill people, also present themselves as medical facilities.” On March 20, the IP changed the Project Rachel article to include, “millions of women have deep regrets and, often, suffer psychological problems after undergoing an abortion–a fact the abortion industry and mass media will not admit.” 18.104.22.168 also added racial slurs and references to gay pedophilia into William A. Donohue’s article in February, saying he has “participated in the controversial act of ‘tabeling’, in which he takes a small child, places him upon a table, and ‘puts the lord inside him.’”
In an attempt to find out where the edits were being made and by whom, Wikinews contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation to receive advice on how to file an information request with the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The request would have been made to release the names of the individuals and offices responsible for the edits. However, according to Marcia Hofmann, a staff attorney for the EFF, who specializes in FOIA related matters, the U.S. government is not required to provide the information.
“None of the U.S. open government laws extends to records in the possession of members of Congress or their employees. Put differently, it’s not so much a question of what the information is (identities of congressional staff) as where the information is (in congressional offices, which aren’t covered by open government laws),” said Hoffmann in an exclusive interview with Wikinews. She also added that “FOIA [requests] cover records in executive branch agencies and departments” only.
Suspicious and/or fraudulent edits to Wikipedia made by Congress and other government entities were first reported by Wikinews in February 2006, after the U.S. government engaged in Wikipedia vandalism and other forms of perceived biased editing of articles. The House of Representatives IP addresses were briefly banned from editing Wikipedia articles in the wake of the initial controversy. A few days later, Wikinews reported that staff members of the offices of United States Senators, using Senate-linked IP addresses, also edited Wikipedia, in some cases, removing facts and sourced material from articles. In 2008, Wikinews also reported that staff members for then 2008 candidates for U.S. president Barack Obama and John McCain made questionable edits to Wikipedia.