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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Wikipedia and Self-Interest

Aside from relative merits of Wikipedia as a source of information, the recent development of Wikipedia Scanner—a program that tracks the IP of addresses of computers where edits to the site originate—raises new questions about information management for campaigns and elected officials in a cycle awash in information.
The ability to easily identify who is making changes to Wikipedia has made all kinds of news—with little interesting analysis. On Capitol Hill, Congressional Quarterly says the thousands of edits made on House computers mean staffers have “too much time on their hands.” For Tennessee Congressman David Davis’ press secretary, editing his boss’ profile on Wikipedia led to a House Ethics Committee inquiry, punishment in the form of classes in “appropriate conduct”, and one really embarrassing AP story.
So, does this mean staffers should leave Wikipedia alone? No. They can’t—if only because the site is too well-known and widely-used to let errors and unfair comments stand.

When campaigns or elected officials are dealing with press, and even with bloggers, there is an individual person to reach out to when inevitable mistakes happen. Most reporters and editors are responsive about taking affirmative steps make amends. Not every blog has the same sense of fairness, but at a minimum there is usually an e-mail address to start with.
Wikipedia, on the other hand, expressly prohibits editing in your self-interest in its policy on neutral point of view. When an elected official or campaign staffer finds mistakes, there isn’t an individual editor in control of the article to contact about the need for a change. The talk boards might be an option, but there’s no guarantee the person who put up the information in the first place will be back to hear you out or will take you seriously, particularly since you have already established yourself as an NPOV outlaw.
What does this lead to? Smart staffers will post at home. Smarter staffers will get a friend living in a different city to do their Wikipedia bidding. And in September, when these stories blow over, a fresh crop of newly-minted staff assistants on Capitol Hill and at all the presidential campaigns will probably learn about editing Wikipedia the hard way.
Wikipedia is probably weaker for it. The people toiling away in Congressional offices, on campaigns and in policy shops all over Washington do know a lot about their issues, candidates, and policies. That’s why reporters call them up when they are looking for information. Certainly there ought to be a way for people with some self-interest to provide information and disclose that conflict, the same way they do in the world of journalism.

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