Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-08-20/WikiScanner

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WikiScanner tool creates "minor public relations disasters" for scores of organizations

By Ragesoss, August 20, 2007

Early on August 14, Wired News broke the story of WikiScanner, an online tool created by hacker Virgil Griffith that facilitates connecting the IP addresses of anonymous Wikipedia edits to the associated organizations. Griffith's tool combines the English Wikipedia database (current through August 4) with information from ip2location, which associates IP addresses with the specific organizations that control them. The initial Wired story described a few instances of dubious editing: edits from Diebold include the removal of criticism from the Diebold article, and edits from Wal-Mart include attempts to "burnish the company's image".

A companion post to Wired's Threat Level blog by editor Kevin Poulsen, "Vote On the Most Shameful Wikipedia Spin Jobs", invited readers to use WikiScanner to find new examples, with a reddit-powered voting system for picking out the most egregious ones. Hundreds of examples have been submitted, many of which violate Wikipedia's conflict of interest guideline. Several of the top-rated examples, including edits attributed to Diebold, the Church of Scientology, and the National Rifle Association, have received over 1000 votes, and new submissions continue to accumulate.

The story spreads

Other news services soon picked up the story from Wired. An article in Information Week added mention of edits by Fox News, cleaning up embarrassing information about anchor Shepard Smith. TechNewsWorld carried a tech-savvy piece that included analysis from law professor Eben Moglen; Moglen described WikiScanner as "a sudden burst of bright light and a social navigation tool for understanding the Web," and warns that "There are orders of magnitude more clever things on the way" in terms of tracking and analyzing online activity. U.S. News & World Report ran a piece that opened with "This could be very bad news for Wikipedia" and closed with sniping remarks by Wikipedia critic Andrew Keen. It also pointed out several early results from the Wired poll, including attempts by the Republican Party of Minnesota to turn the Harry Potter entry into a spoiler for the (recently released at the time) sixth book in the series, and edits from the New York Times vandalizing the George W. Bush article with the word "jerk".

Not to be outdone by the upstart Yanks, The Times of London reported that an editor from the BBC had changed Bush's middle name from "Walker" to "Wanker". On August 15 and 16, The Times ran a series of three articles (1, 2, 3) on WikiScanner, detailing edits by a host of major corporations and other organizations, among them Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, AstraZeneca, Disney, Sony, the CIA, the Vatican, the U.S. Democratic Party, and Britain's Labour Party. One of the articles described the difficulty companies have managing their online reputations, with the potential for attempts at manipulation to backfire. The Times also ran an opinion column, "Wisdom? More like dumbness of the crowds", that praised WikiScanner as "an important development in bringing down a pernicious influence on our intellectual life."

BBC News also ran a WikiScanner story on August 15, covering vandalism from the CIA to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Democratic Party's unflattering edits about Rush Limbaugh and his listeners. The next day, the story also included a sidebar linking to an apologetic blog post by the BBC head of interactive news, explaining the BBC edits the story had neglected. The Guardian and The Telegraph also covered WikiScanner, focusing on established examples of edits by the CIA, political parties, and Fox News.

Selective blog coverage

High-profile blogs also picked up the story early on, many focusing on politically sensitive examples. The conservative NewsBusters blog network highlighted the New York Times vandalism, while the liberal Huffington Post reported on the "misinformation tactics" of Fox News. Gaming sites Shacknews and GameSpot reported on attempts by game publisher Electronic Arts to remove negative information from related articles.

A piece of satire, reporting that Rudy Giuliani is being awarded the "Virgil Griffith award" for self-serving edits, was reproduced on the blog Say Anything as real news, and reposted on a local television news station website as well.

The political satire blog Wonkette succinctly captured perhaps the most under-emphasized aspect of the WikiScanner story with a post entitled "CIA, Vatican, DCCC, Fox News, New York Times All Just Fucking Around On Wikipedia".

Television and radio

By August 16, many regional papers in the U.S. were carrying an Associated Press story on the scanner, a short piece focused more on the concept than specific editing examples. It ended with Jimbo's judgment on WikiScanner: "It is fabulous and I strongly support it." Television news also picked up that story that day. The liberal Crooks and Liars blog described a Fox News Channel story as an attempt "to undermine Wikipedia’s credibility"; the clip, hosted by Crooks and Liars, is actually a balanced piece that features an interview with Jimmy Wales, with fairly mild digs at Wikipedia's reliability and an upbeat take on the scanner's potential effect on Wikipedia.

MSNBC produced a substantial story for Countdown with Keith Olbermann featuring an interview with Wired editor Kevin Poulsen. Olbermann focused partly on edits by Fox News to Keith Olbermann. Poulsen put the magnitude of WikiScanner's impact in perspective, noting that Wired readers had submitted over 100 examples, "any one of which would have been worth a news item in itself a week ago." Another Wired editor, Nicholas Thompson, appeared on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

Canada's CBC News also ran a story and associated TV news report; according to the anchor, "a scandal is growing over the integrity of [Wikipedia's] content". The coverage focused mainly on Canada-related editing revealed by WikiScanner—including over 10,000 edits made from Canadian government networks, such as an edit from the Canadian House of Commons changing Paul Martin from "Canada's 21st Prime Minister" to "Canada's worst Prime Minister". The piece also featured a clip of Wikipedian Simon Pulsifer.

Creation of the WikiScanner

Virgil Griffith, a hacker known for his previous involvement in a lawsuit brought by Blackboard Inc., built WikiScanner to "create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike" and "see what 'interesting organizations' (which I am neutral toward), are up to." He claims that "Every time I hear about a new security vulnerability, I look to see if it can be done on a massive scale and indexed." According to the FAQ, the results—in terms of media attention and juicy edits turned up—are just what Griffith expected. Griffith is also attempting to leverage WikiScanner publicity to improve his homepage's Google search result ranking for the term "Virgil"; it is currently the sixth result, and would have to compete with Wikipedia's Virgil for the top spot.

WikiScanner was intermittently unavailable after the first waves of news coverage, but Griffith has reportedly worked out his hosting arrangement to handle the expected traffic load from this point. Griffith was contacted about the possibility of hosting the scanner on the Wikimedia Toolserver. He claims it is not necessary but may consider it if traffic increases substantially.

Griffith, now entering graduate school for theoretical neurobiology at Caltech, developed WikiScanner with support from his former employer the Sante Fe Institute. The funding and sponsorship of WikiScanner became the subject of the top "hot" item on the Wired Spin Job poll for several hours on August 17 when Kevin Poulsen of Wired blogged about this edit by Wikimedia Foundation employee Vishal-WMF. Vishal removed a claim from Griffith's article, sourced to citizen journalism site OhMyNews, that Griffith had been hired by the Foundation to create WikiScanner. The OhMyNews article has since been corrected.

WikiScanner on Wikipedia and continued media coverage

Wikipedia has developed a substantial article on WikiScanner over the past week, with over 150 edits. The article is tagged as a "current event", yet is also linked from the {{Wikipediahistory}} navigation template. The consensus among Wikipedians, however, is that the advent of WikiScanner is indeed an important event in Wikipedia's history.

Nearly a week after the first story broke, news coverage continues to pour in. The New York Times, which had been silent on the story to that point, ran a substantial article ("Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikipedia Edits") in the August 19 Sunday edition. In addition to a range of corporate edits, the Times reported embarrassing edits traced to its own IP addresses—as did many of the stories from major news organizations after the first round of coverage (including BBC, Fox News, and Associated Press). The New York Times piece, like the majority of WikiScanner stories, does not clearly convey the distinction between "anonymous" IP edits and logged-in pseudonymous edits. Many readers and viewers of WikiScanner stories are likely to come away with the impression that any edits to Wikipedia can be easily traced to the source.

More to come

Though investigations of malicious or self-interested editing were possible before, reporters have largely overlooked such investigative possibilities until now. Still, WikiScanner likely only scratches the surface of what lies buried in the Wikipedia database. Wikipedian essayist Durova put it thusly:

  • First, almost nobody who's using this tool knows how to analyze its data dumps. They're pointing to single edits and missing the big stories.
  • Second, a lot of the people who've been perpetrating this IP abuse will now switch to Plan B.

"Plan B", more sophisticated attempts at manipulating Wikipedia content, has correspondingly more severe consequences. Durova, who works extensively with sleuthing "the dark side" of Wikipedia, has implied that many more major stories await tech-savvy reporters who know how to comb Wikipedia's logs efficiently. The next generation of Wikipedia manipulation stories may be more than just "minor public relations disasters".

On the WikiScanner FAQ, Griffith hints that he has plans for other Wikipedia-related hacking projects in the near future. The FAQ mentions the possibility of porting the scanner to other language Wikipedias, such as German Wikipedia, but there is no word on if or when he plans to do so.


Also this week: BJAODN arbitration

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