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Your Revisions Are Showing

A new Web site helps the curious uncover just who has been toying with your favorite Wikipedia page

By Chet Hardin

Wikipedia was set up as a communal exercise in information collection. The theory goes that through community participation and the scrutiny of peer assessment, only the legit information would survive. The system, however, is to be gamed.

Virgil Griffith, operating on what everyone already knows—Wikipedia entries are only as good as their last editor—has provided a tool to explore the endless ways and methods that Wikipedia entries have regularly been punked, and by whom.

The CalTech grad student’s exceptionally fun piece of hacking, Wikipedia Scanner, is available online at wikiscanner .virgil.gr, and is relatively simple to use.

You can search the millions of edits Griffith has collected in his database by either specifying the organization you are curious about, the IP range (if you have one in mind), or the Wikipedia page you suspect has been sabotaged; or you can even surf through the data of user-suggested organizations, such as Monsanto, the Pentagon, or the government of Alberta, Canada.

Every edit made on Wikipedia between Feb. 7, 2002 and Aug. 4, 2007 is collected at Wikipedia Scanner, and has forever lost any veil of anonymity.

Griffith told Wired magazine, who first reported on his invention, that he was inspired to explore the edits made to Wikipedia entries after news broke last year of political operatives apparently altering entries to better serve their employers.

His database contains 34.4 million edits, according to Wired, “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.”

Many of these edits are bland, some are humorous, and quite a few are downright irresponsible. Wired blog Threat Level has a contest running currently for the most outrageous of all these changes. Some of the highlights dug up by faithful Wired readers:

The Cult Awareness Network, a onetime legitimate critic of cults but now widely reported to be a front for Scientologists, revamped its Wikipedia entry back in 2003, erasing the assertion that CAN was “forced into bankruptcy by legal action . . . then became effectively a subsidiary organization of Scientology,” and replacing it with the claim that CAN was “purchased by a consortium of different faiths, and donated to a non-profit interfaith organization, the Foundation for Religious Freedom. . . . The Foundation now operates the Cult Awareness Network with the originally incorporated purpose . . . to educate the public regarding religious rights, freedoms and responsibilities.”

See? Scientology doesn’t own CAN, a foundation does.

Over at Fox News, they apparently can’t help but take a cheap swipe at their critics. To the entry about Al Franken’s book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and the Fox-leveled lawsuit it inspired, someone at the news channel’s IP address edited the last line of the entry from, “Reflecting later on the lawsuit . . . Franken said that Fox’s case against him was ‘literally laughed out of court’ and that ‘wholly without merit’ is a good characterization of Fox News itself,” to “Reflecting later on the lawsuit . . . Franken said that Fox’s case against him was the best thing to happen to his book sales.”

Back in 2005, someone at the Democratic National Headquarters jumped into the act of information sabotage by flaming all over Rush Limbaugh’s entry.

Most of his listeners, the entry read, are legally retarded: “A commentator with a ridiculous point of view . . . Limbaugh is as much a political symbol as he is a broadcaster, racist, bigot, jerkoff [sic], comedian, and political satirist.”

Some of the changes aren’t as harmless as the Franken edit or as funny as the punking of CAN or Limbaugh. Some of these edits represent the typical manipulation of information that many major corporations cynically employ.

Like when someone in the offices of Diebold, the controversial maker of electronic-voting machines, removes swaths criticism of the company and its easily hacked, proprietary software. Or someone behind a Dow IP address “purges an entire section labeled ‘Environmental and human rights controversies’ that included information about the Bhopal disaster, Agent Orange, and silicone breast implants,” as reader Kenneth Rainey discovered.

On his Web site, Griffith lists the reasons why he created Wikipedia Scanner, pointing to the obvious snooping on “interesting organizations” to the more amusing creation of “minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike.”

This new level of transparency he has made available will provide Wikipedia and its community with an interesting windfall. Not only will it help loyal users root out spurious information and saboteurs, as he notes in the Wired article, but it will also help boost Wikipedia’s credibility.

Knowing the source of information is invaluable in understanding information. And although there’s a slim possibility of ever proving that an employee or representative of any organization made the changes generated from a certain IP address, and even less of a chance to prove that the information was altered at the official behest of any company or politician, Wikipedia Scanner has given you a good place to start in figuring out just how manufactured the information you are reading really is.


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