Wikipedia Spin Doctors Revealed

A new Web service searches the change logs of 35 million Wikipedia edits and attempts to identify the organization associated with the IP addresses recorded with changes.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

August 14, 2007

2 Min Read

A Cal Tech grad student has developed search software that may help bring more accountability to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that's open to editing by just about anyone.

Virgil Griffith has created WikiScanner, a Web service that searches the change logs of 35 million Wikipedia edits and attempts to identify the organization associated with the IP addresses recorded with changes.

Wikipedia has long been the target of editing for the sake of image management, not to mention disparagement. Last year, for example, U.S. Senate staff members, using IP addresses associated with the U.S. Senate, altered Wikipedia articles to remove information that reflected poorly on various senators.

In addition to a generic submission form that accepts queries by organization, IP address, or Wikipedia page, WikiScanner provides a list of links that execute pre-set queries for high-profile companies that are or have been embroiled in political or social controversies. These companies include Amgen, Diebold, ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and Wal-Mart. The site also includes links to query about media organizations like Al-Jazeera, The New York Times, and Fox News.

The Fox News link reveals, for example, that Oct. 11, 2005, someone at an IP address associated with Fox News ( edited Fox News anchor Shepard Smith's Wikipedia entry to remove a paragraph about Smith's 2000 arrest "for aggravated battery with a motor vehicle." At some later point, that information was restored.

Wired News maintains an ongoing list of "the Most Shameful Wikipedia Spin Jobs," which includes efforts by numerous companies to improve their public image by removing unflattering information.

While WikiScanner falls short of identifying those altering Wikipedia articles, Griffith believes identifying the network of origin for Wikipedia edits is still useful. "Technically, we don't know whether it came from an agent of that company, however, we do know that edit came from someone with access to their network," he explains on his Web site. "If the edit occurred during working hours, then we can reasonably assume that the person was an agent of that company or was a guest that was allowed access to their network."

Earlier this year, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales suggested adopting a scheme to verify credentials claimed by Wikipedia contributors following revelations about a prominent contributor with a fabricated background.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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