Contributors to Wikipedia, the online user-written encyclopedia, have exposed extensive efforts by political staff in Washington to change the biographies of senators and congressmen in order to show them in a more favourable light.

Wikinews, an offshoot where contributors act as journalists, reported it had traced to Capitol Hill offices the internet addresses of anonymous users editing politicians’ entries. All Wikipedia entries include a full public history of changes made to articles.

Among the revisionism taking place, Senator Joe Biden’s office removed a reference to a 1996 plagiarism scandal, while California staffers took out a reference to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s 1997 conflict of interest issue over her husband’s investments in China. An aide for Representative Marty Meehan replaced his Wikipedia biography with a flattering official one and removed a reference about a pledge by the seven-term congressman to serve only four terms.

The Wikinews reporters also found a handful of entries vandalised by Washington politicos, including a description of Senator Tom Coburn as being voted “the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress”.

Wikinews traced the culprits by noting their unique Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and identifying them with those of the US Senate sergeant-at-arms. This was further narrowed down by sending emails to politicians’ offices and noting the IP addresses contained in their replies.

Wikipedia has been criticised for its open nature allowing bias, inaccuracies and unsubstantiated opinions to appear in entries, although a constant review process usually leads to quick corrections.

In other fields, Adam Curry, a well-known podcaster, was exposed as modifying the Wikipedia entry on the subject to play down the role of others in developing downloadable audio. Mr Curry later apologised.

John Siegenthaler, a former USA Today editor and aide to Robert Kennedy, strongly criticised the reference site when his entry was modified to implicate him wrongly in the assassinations of Mr Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

The Washington incident illustrates that the work of Wikinews citizen journalists can also act as a check on the system. Wikinews said its investigation revealed that the vast majority of edits made from Senate internet addresses were helpful and beneficial.

Wikipedia discourages points of view being expressed in entries, but in the online discussion covering the article written by Wikinews, there was some debate among contributors over whether there had been a Republican bias in the reporting, with the indiscretions of Democrats receiving more attention.

As well as correcting the altered entries, Wikipedia had blocked the House of Representatives from editing entries for one week while it reviewed the issue.

Get alerts on Capitol Hill when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article