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New scanner reveals editors on Wikipedia

22 August, 2007
By Allison Orr

A young computer scientist, Virgil Griffith, has invented a tool which tracks who is editing an entry in Wikipedia.  The scanner, which can be downloaded for free, locates the IP address used in otherwise anonymous Wikipedia edits in the past five years.  By combining it with public information about which IP addresses belong to whom, the scanner can locate the exact computer making the changes, for the first time showing where changes to Wikipedia are coming from.

As the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the reliability of the user-generated content on Wikipedia was brought into question last year when it was revealed via email addresses that computers in US congressional offices were used to add negative information to entries of political rivals.  It gained notoriety when popular TV comedian Stephen Colbert encouraged his viewers to change the article for "elephant" to say that the population of African elephants has tripled in the last six months.  This resulted in numerous changes to Wikipedia articles, forcing Wikipedia  to “protect” all entries related to "elephant" and "Stephen Colbert", so that only established registered users could edit them.  Colbert also coined the term “Wikiality”, which is when a "fact" becomes real simply because it is in Wikipedia and users agree on it.  It was the situation over the congressional edits that inspired Griffith to develop the scanner.

The majority of edits shown in the new scanner show minor changes such as spelling or grammar, however it reveals how much of the content on Wikipedia has been altered by interested parties.  Wired magazine has compiled a list of examples, and has encouraged people to use the scanner to submit entries to their "wikiwatch" blog.  Some of the examples cited include:

Government staff editing articles on Wikipedia is not only a US phenomenon, and Wikiscanner has shown up edits from government offices in Australia.  Staff in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have been editing Wikipedia content, showing that computers from that office were used to make as many as 126 edits.  According to the Sydney Morning Herald, employees of the Department of Defence are the most prolific Wikipedia contributors in Australia, with computers in that department being used to make as many as 5,000 edits. 

Many of the edits were basic changes adding information to non-government articles, but others are changes to government entries, for example the addition of the word “allegedly” to a sentence claiming immigration detainees were subject to inhumane conditions, and the removal of a reference to the nickname “Captain Smirk” in Peter Costello’s article.

Prime Minister Howard has stated that none of his staff were instructed to make any changes and that the changes could have come from a number of different organisations using the same Internet protocol.  An internal inquiry has been lauched.  Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd has also admitted that his staff may have made edits to Wikipedia articles.

Examples from all over the country are bound to emerge as more people use Wikiscanner.  In NSW, the Herald reports that a computer in the Premier's Department was used to remove all references to a profane outbust made by the Premier, Morris Iemma, last year when he called the then chief executive of Sydney's Cross City Tunnel a "f---wit",. unaware that his microphone was on.


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