Wikipedia and the art of censorship
It was hailed as a breakthrough in the democratisation of knowledge. But the online encyclopedia has since been hijacked by forces who decided that certain things were best left unknown. By Robert Verkaik
The secret of Wikipedia's phenomenal success is that anyone can edit the millions of comments, facts and statistics published on the pages of the world's most popular online encyclopaedia. But that of course is also its greatest weakness.
The chance to rewrite history in flattering and uncritical terms has proved too much of a temptation for scores of multinational companies, political parties and well-known organisations across the world.
If a misdemeanour from a politician's colourful past becomes an inconvenient fact at election time then why not just strike it from the Wikipedia record? Or if a public company is embarking on a sensitive takeover why should its investors know of the target business's human rights abuses?
Now a website designed to monitor editorial changes made on Wikipedia has found thousands of self-serving edits and traced them to their original source. It has turned out to be hugely embarrassing for armies of political spin doctors and corproate revisionists who believed their censorial interventions had gone unnoticed.
Some of the guilty parties identified by the website, such as the Labour Party, the CIA, Republican Party and the Church of Scientology, are well-known for their obsession with PR. But others, such as the Anglican and Catholic churches or even the obscurely titled Perro de Presa Canario Dog Breeders Association of America, are new to the dark arts of spin.
The website, Wikiscanner, was designed by Virgil Griffith, a graduate student from the California Institute of Technology, who downloaded the entire encyclopaedia, isolating the internet-based records of anonymous changes and IP addresses.
He matched those IP addresses with public net-address services and helped uncover the world's biggest spinning operation.
Mr Griffith says: "I came up with the idea when I heard about Congressmen getting caught for white-washing their Wikipedia pages. Every time I hear about a new security vulnerability, I think about whether it could be done on a massive scale and indexed. I had the idea back then, I've been busy with scientific work so I sat on it until a few weeks ago when I started working on the WikiScanner."
Wikipedia says Mr Griffith has found something they had long suspected. A Wikipedia spokes-man said: "Wikipedia is only a working draft of history, it is constantly changing and so relies on volunteers editing the pages. But deliberate attempts to remove facts or reasonable interpretation of facts is considered vandalism. We are dealing with this kind of thing all time, so that our volunteer workers are changing edits back when we think they should be changed. But it's not perfect, it is just more transparent than some people realise."
Wikiscanner has analysed a database of 34.4 million edits performed by 2.6 million organisations or individuals since 2002.
Although it is not known who made each individual edit, or how senior that person was within any organisation, Mr Griffith says it is fair to link the change to the owner of the computer's IP address.
Exxon Mobil and the giant oil slick
An IP address that belongs to ExxonMobil, the oil giant, is linked to sweeping changes to an entry on the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. An allegation that the company "has not yet paid the $5 billion in spill damages it owes to the 32,000 Alaskan fishermen" was replaced with references to the funds the company has paid out.
The Republican Party and Iraq
The Republican Party edited Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party entry so it made it clear that the US-led invasion was not a "US-led occupation" but a "US-led liberation."
The CIA and casualties of war
A computer with a CIA IP address was used to change a graphic on casualties of the Iraq war by adding the warning that many of the figures were estimated and not broken down by class. Another entry on former CIA chief William Colby was edited to expand his cv.
The Labour Party and careerist MPs
An anonymous surfer at the Labour Party's headquarters removed a section about Labour students referring to "careerist MPs", and criticisms that the party's student arm was no longer radical.
Dow Chemical and the Bhopal disaster
A computer registered to the Dow Chemical Company is recorded as deleting a passage on the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984, which occurred at a plant operated by Union Carbide, now a wholly owned Dow subsidiary. The incident cost up to 20,000 lives.
Diebold and the dubious voting machines
Voting-machine company Diebold apparently excised long paragraphs detailing the US security industry's concerns over the integrity of their voting machines, and information about the company's chief executive's fundraising for President Bush. The text, deleted in November 2005, was very rapidly restored by another Wikipedia contributor, who advised the anonymous editor, "Please stop removing content from Wikipedia. It is considered vandalism."
The Israeli government and the West Bank wall
A computer linked to the Israeli government twice tried to delete an entire article about the West Bank wall that was critical of the policy. An edit from the same address also modified the entry for Hizbollah describing all its operations as being "mostly military in nature".
The dog breeders and fatal maulings
A dog breeders association in America removed references to two fatal maulings of humans by the Perro de Presa Canario dogs in the US. In 2001 a woman was attacked and killed by two Presa Canario/Mastiff hybrids in the hallway of her apartment building in San Fransisco. Last year a pure-bred Presa Canario fatally mauled a woman in Florida.
The gun lobby and fatal shootings
The National Rifle Association of America doctored concerns about its role in the increase in gun fatalities by replacing the passage with a reference to the association's conservation work in America.
Discovery Channel and guerrilla marketing
A source traced to Discovery Communications, the company that owns the Discovery Channel, deleted reference to company's reputation for " guerrilla marketing".
MySpace and self-censorship
Someone working from an IP address linked to MySpace appears to have been so irritated by references to the social networking website's over-censorial policy that they removed a paragraph accusing MySpace of censorship.
Boeing and a threat to its supremacy
Boeing has made it clear that it is not just one of the world's leading aircraft manufacturers, but is in fact the leading company in this field.
The church's child abuse cover-up
Barbara Alton, assistant to Episcopal Bishop Charles Bennison, in America, deleted information concerning a cover-up of child sexual abuse, allegations that the Bishop misappropriated $11.6 million in trust funds, and evidence of other scandals. When challenged about this, Alton claims she was ordered to delete the information by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori.
Amnesty and anti-Americanism
A computer with an Amnesty International IP address was used to delete references accusing the charity of holding an anti-American agenda.
Dell computer out-sourcing
Dell removed a passage about how the company out-sourced its support divisions overseas.
Nestle and corporate criticism
Someone from Nestle removed criticisms of some of the company's controversial business practices, which have all subsequently been re-added.
The FBI and Guantánamo
The FBI has removed aerial images of the Guantánamo Bay Naval base in Cuba.
Scientologists and sensitivity
Computers with IP addresses traced to the Church of Scientology were used to expunge critical paragraphs about the cult's world-wide operations.
News International and the hypocritical anti-paedophile campaign
Someone at News International saw fit to remove criticism of the News of the World's anti-paedophile campaign by deleting the suggestion that this amounted to editorial hypocrisy. The original entry reminded readers that the paper continued to "publish semi-nude photographs of page three models as young as 16 and salacious stories about female celebrities younger than that."
Oliver Letwin and his great disappearing act
An edit linked to the Conservative Party IP address expunged references to The MP Oliver Letwin's gaffe during the 2001 general election when he reportedly said he wanted to cut "future public spending by fully 20 billion pounds per annum relative to the plans of the Labour government" . The accompanying paragraph, explaining that when his own party failed to support the move he took a low profile on the election campaign, was also removed.