Yukon politicians polished up in Wikipedia

The user of a Yukon government computer with the IP address had an obsession with Premier Dennis Fentie’s criminal past.

The user of a Yukon government computer with the IP address had an obsession with Premier Dennis Fentie’s criminal past.

Or, rather, a pigheaded determination with making sure no one reading Wikipedia knows about it.

Last year, several edits from one government computer were made to Fentie’s entry on the popular online encyclopedia, removing all mentions of his 1974 prison sentence for trafficking heroin.

The anonymous user replaced the personal history with information about his economic record as premier.

Instead of the first sentence — “Fentie was under attack when it was revealed that he had been convicted and spent time in prison for heroin trafficking in 1974 when he was 24 years old” — people reading the entry discovered: “In his duties as Premier he has passed two record-setting budgets and has brought Yukon population and economic factors to record levels.”

Each time someone else changed Fetnie’s entry to include the information about his legal troubles — four different registered and well-established users did so — an anonymous person using the same Yukon government computer deleted the information.

Among the 661 anonymous edits made from Yukon government computers from February 2002 to 2007 are changes to the biographies of Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell, NDP leader Toddy Hardy and Liberal MP Larry Bagnell.

Edits originating from the Yukon government computer network are listed on WikiScanner, a new website that documents anonymous edits made on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia with nearly 2,000,000 entries anyone can edit.

Created by an American university student, WikiScanner compiles information already made public by Wikipedia but makes it more accessible.

The website uses a searchable database to cross-reference the internet protocol (IP) addresses owned by corporations or governments with the anonymous edits to pinpoint where the edits originated.

Hardy’s entry was changed in February 2006 to include the name of his daughter and granddaughter.

In August 2006, someone using a YTG computer documented Mitchell’s work history, but deleted the history of his rise to the leadership of the Yukon Liberal Party.

An edit originating from the Yukon College computer network removed a reference to Bagnell’s position as executive director of the Yukon Liberal Party.

The anonymous editor polished up the entry so people know “Larry is very active in his community and is well liked throughout the Yukon (and) is a valuable assest (sp) as he represents the Yukon people in Ottawa as well as an important member of the Liberal team.”

Liberal and NDP communications staff both said their offices do not actively monitor the Wikipedia entries on party leaders or related topics.

“I’m not aware of it and I wouldn’t know how to do it,” said NDP spokesperson Ken Bolton. “I appreciate Wikipedia for its breadth, but I wouldn’t go to the bank on its accuracy.”

Few individual networks in the Yukon can be identified because of their small size. The government and the Yukon College have separate computer networks. Most edits are listed under the computer owner’s internet provider — PolarCom, WHTV or Northwestel.

The majority of edits from Yukon government computers have little to do with politics.

Most edits are innocuous and follow the ideals of Wikipedia — that anyone can edit entries using their own knowledge or resources to provide more accurate information on nearly any topic imaginable.

Popular topics edited by users on government computers include South Park, Anime, videogames and Yukon geography.

Some edits originating from the YTG network are considered simple, juvenile vandalism.

Replacing information on Protestant churches in the Culture of Haiti entry, someone wrote, “lets put it this way poop is poop aand (sp) crap is crap but when they mix they make a lovly (sp) salad dressing.”

Another anonymous editor wanted people to know that Jimi Hendrix thinks “Daniel is ugly,” and changed Hendrix’s entry to reflect that.

The Music of France entry was changed so that the opinion of one person using a government computer could be read by the world.

“Even though most French music is cheesey (sp) and it sucks, many French Singers have gained fame among stupid English speaking people,” the edit said.

 WikiScanner has shed light on how image-obsessed corporations, government departments and politicians are using Wikipedia — one of the most popular websites in the world — to spin or delete information that is needed for a more complete encyclopedia entry.

Edits originating from PepsiCo computers deleted large chunks of the Pepsi entry focused on the detrimental health affects of the cola.

Staff in the Australian department of Prime Minister And Cabinet made 126 anonymous edits and removed potentially damaging information on the government, some on controversial issues and government ministers.

Edits from computers owned by Wal-Mart changed information on employee compensation.

A user within the ExxonMobil network changed an entry on the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska, changing the focus from environmental damage to victim compensation.

Accuracy of articles — especially in comparison to the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica — has been debated since Wikipedia hit the mainstream (one university study concluded there is very little difference in accuracy between the two sources).

WikiScanner could be considered just another tool used to keep would-be editors accountable and Wikipedia accurate and unbiased.

“We think it’s a good tool because we really value transparency, but also because we welcome these types of endeavours that compliment Wikipedia,” said Sandra Ordonez, communication manager with the Wikimedia Foundation, parent company of Wikipedia.

“These types of projects empower the readers and give them other tools when using Wikipedia.”

While also discouraging whitewashing of entries, the public nature of the anonymous edits could have the potential to scare off people within the companies or government-related computer networks who might be making small changes to improve accuracy.

In one interview, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said a feature could be added that informs anonymous editors Wikipedia has publicly logged the edit along with the computer network from which it originated.

 “For the most part, even before WikiScanner, anything that is edited is recorded and there for people to access — it might make some people more aware of how they act online,” said Ordonez.