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article imageNew Tracking Tool Shows Who Changes Wikipedia Entries

By Chris Hogg     Aug 16, 2007 in Internet
The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, so people sometimes question its credibility. A grad student has created a tool to monitor just who is making changes. Among the groups: the CIA, the Church of Scientology and the BBC.
Digital Journal — Ask a random sample of people what they think about Wikipedia as a source of information and you will get a mixed reaction: some will rave about it, while others will say it's too easy to manipulate information to be false.
The new online tool called WikiScanner hopes to clean up the site's credibility by monitoring exactly who is editing entries on Wikipedia. Created by a Virgil Griffith, a Cal Tech grad student, the search software hopes to make the online encyclopedia more accountable.
While Wikipedia encourages users to create usernames, it doesn't mandate it. Many casual readers (identified by their computers' unique Internet addresses) will hop into an entry and play with it just to see if they can get away with it. Take, for example, this entry that shows "George Walker Bush" was changed to "George Wanker Bush." Who owns the IP? Some users on Digg claim the whois belongs to the BBC.
There are countless examples like this on Wikipedia, including U.S. Senate staff members who tweaked info so it did not reflect poorly on senators; the CIA has been accused of editing the page outlining details of Iran's president; even the Vatican has been involved, changing entries about Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
WikiScanner has been tracking computer IP addresses that edit articles for the last five years. Using those unique identifiers combined with public information about what IP addresses are owned by whom WikiScanner can track the origin of someone making changes (anyone can check an IP address doing a process called a "Whois"). The scanner has been processing 35 million Wikipedia edits, and has found a myriad of large organizations whose employees log on to the site to play around (including news agencies like Associated Press).
WikiScanner also performs preset queries for well-known, high-profile companies who have controversy follow them around like a bad habit. The list includes companies like Amgen, Diebold, ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and Wal-Mart. It also monitors news outlets like Al-Jazeera, The New York Times, and Fox News.
WikiScanner is about to become one of the most useful, yet hated tools on the Internet by anyone who has something to cover up.
For example, the tool shows that on October 11, 2005, someone with an IP address belonging to Fox News edited a Wikipedia entry about Shepard Smith. The anonymous author removed a paragraph that talked about Smith's arrest in 2000 for "aggravated battery with a motor vehicle." The information was later restored, but the tracker caught it.
The tracker has also caught things like Scientologists logging on to remove criticism of the organization.
Revealing the identity of editors is an important step forward for Wikipedia, as fear of being caught might make pranksters who work for large organizations think twice. HR departments are soon going to have to add "fired for editing Wikipedia article and getting caught" to their list of reasons for employee termination.
Wired News maintains an ongoing list of offenders. There you will find such gems as an NRA member editing an entry to claim Iraq was involved with 9/11; the FBI editing an article on Guantanamo; and NYTimes writer Nick Bilton has been accused of changing an entry about Condoleeza Rice's desire to be a concert pianist into "Rice began classes with the goal of becoming a concert penis."
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