Thursday, August 30, 2007

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: STATE EMPLOYEES WACKY FOR WIKIPEDIA

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 30, 2007


A new Web site called Wikiscanner — which can trace the source of changes to that increasingly omnipresent online encyclopedia that anyone can edit known as Wikipedia — has been called a muckraker’s dream and an Internet spin-doctor’s nightmare.

This recent Internet sensation was invented by Virgil Griffith, a Cal-Tech graduate student and a visiting researcher at the Santa Fe Institute. Griffith created a system whereby you can look up a company or government agency and determine what if any changes have been made to Wikipedia articles by people using computers that have Internet IP numbers registered to those companies or government agencies.

Thus there have been news stories about corporations changing their own Wikipedia articles.

Someone with an IP address registered to Exxon edited the Wikipedia article about the Valdez oil spill. Meanwhile someone at an IP address registered to Philip Morris deleted a sentence from a history paragraph of the Marlboro Wiki article. Someone at Diebolt reportedly removed 15 uncomplimentary paragraphs from the article about Diebolt’s voting machines. Recently the prime minister of Australia was busted by Wikiscanner. His staff, or at least people with IP addresses belonging to his staff, made hundreds of changes in Wikipedia, many of them pertaining to Australian government controversies.

Surely people working for the state of New Mexico couldn’t resist the temptation of puffing up certain politicians on Wikipedia or at least editing out embarrassing information.

But I was disappointed. Doing a Wikiscanner search of the name “State of New Mexico,” with the location of Santa Fe, I found relatively little activity from state computers related to politicos.

Someone from the state added a small American flag image to the article about Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. Another added a line in the Harrison Schmitt article about an elementary school in Silver City being named for the former astronaut and U.S. senator.

On April 10 someone used a state computer to add Lt. Gov. Diane Denish to Wikipedia’s “List of Notable Democrats.” Two days later, someone removed her name from the list.

Wacky for the Wiki: But that doesn’t mean state employees have shied away from editing Wikipedia. I found 537 edits from state government IP numbers going back to 2004. Our state government computers have been used to offer their expertise on a wide variety of subjects, most of which has little if anything to do with New Mexico or state government.

Among the subjects weighed in on by people using state computers include the movie Highlander, astronaut Leroy Gordon Cooper, the Hog Farm commune, movie director Frank Oz, the Battle of Stalingrad, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the late heavy metal star Dimebag Darrell, artist M. C. Escher, the Soapbox Derby, the Treaty of Frankfort, Michael Moore, the “List of people from West Bengal,” serial killer Ed Gein, the barn owl, American Idol winner Carrie Underwood and Dante’s Inferno.

Someone on a state computer contributed a single line to the article on 9/11 Conspiracy Theories. In the section on President Bush’s remaining in a Florida classroom for 10 minutes reading to children after learning about the World Trade Center Attacks, the state worker added, “Run Georgie RUN!” The next day someone (one of the “true” conspirators?) removed the wisecrack.

Someone in state government apparently is an expert on video game culture. The same state computer was used to make 15 edits on Wikipedia articles concerning 8-Bit Theater, a web comic based on the video game Final Fantasy I. Wiki Scan shows that the same computer was used to make edits in articles including “Mythology of Final Fantasy X,” “Final Fantasy Magic,” Tetris, Mario (the video game character, not the Albuquerque blogger), Mega Man and “The Force (Star Wars).”

Another state computer was used to make 12 edits on the article about The Legion of Christ, (a Catholic religious order established in Mexico), and six edits in the article about Marcial Maciel, the founder of the order, who has been accused of sexual abuse.

There’s one state computer used to edit Wikipedia articles on several professional wrestlers including Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Richard Rood (better known as “Ravishing Rick Rude”) and golden-age grappler Bruno Samartino, as well as on entries for musicians like the late singer Jim Croce and the band Widespread Panic.

But this computer also was used for more serious topics on Wikipedia. It was used to edit the article on Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, adding a section about a controversy that occurred in 2003 when Barbour spoke at a rally to raise funds for the Blackhawk School, a private school established in reaction to the integration of public schools. The same state computer was used to edit the article on the Council of Conservative Citizens, adding, among other changes, the description of the group as “a contemporary incarnation of the racist U.S. movement of White Citizens' Councils.” Apparently this section has been changed several times since.

So what’s the problem?: If it was against the law to goof off on the Internet at work they couldn’t build enough cells to hold us all. But is it against state policy for employees to use state computers to update Wikipedia entries on Monty Python & The Holy Grail or college basketball?

Roy Soto, secretary of the newly created state Department of Information Technology, did not seem overly concerned. State policy, he said Wednesday, does allow “incidental personal use as long as it doesn’t interfere with their work.”

Said Soto, “We block some sites, but not Wikipedia. Our librarians use it a lot.”

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