WASHINGTON—While politicians campaign and vacation over the August congressional recess, battles over their biographies and reputations are raging on the Internet.
Along with blogs, meetups and other `Net innovations, 2006 is featuring full-scale "Wiki wars," as partisans from right and left edit candidate information on Wikipedia biographical entries to gain political advantage at the popular reference site.
Candidates across the country have been caught doctoring their own entries, erasing politically embarrassing facts and spinning their positions on issues. But their political opponents also change information online, straining Wikipedia's strength as a reliable resource.
"Our primary goal is neutrality," said Wayne Saewyc, a Wikipedia spokesman in Vancouver, British Columbia. "In election years especially, people don't want the articles to be neutral."
Wikipedia, found at www.wikipedia.org, is an online encyclopedia available to anyone who uses the Internet. Unlike a traditional reference book, it's written by the readers. The idea is that people who know about a topic will add their knowledge to an entry, building an extensive information source from the ground up.
Since it started in 2001, the system has proved incredibly popular: In July, Wikipedia sites had more than 28 million visitors, ranking 18th among all Web sites on Earth, according to comScore Media Metrix, an online popularity rater.
Wikipedia is more popular online than Disney, Wal-Mart and ESPN. And as more people view it, its offerings grow more extensive. But its open-source approach creates problems when it is applied to controversial topics, as contributors use sites to push their versions of "the truth."
Last week, Wikipedia briefly banned all editing of entries done from computers linked to congressional offices, after staffers for Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., were found deleting a promise Gutknecht once made that he would limit himself to 12 years in office. That promise was about 12 years ago. Gutknecht is campaigning for re-election this fall.
Staffers for Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and others have been found doctoring entries in the past year. But although congressional offices have come under fire for trying to make lawmakers look good, Wikipedia is also filled with examples of political opponents trying to make lawmakers look bad.
Last winter, for example, the entry for Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan., focused first on his career as a 1960s track and field star, then on his political career.
Now, his entry devotes more space to the 2000 purchase of a Washington, D.C., townhouse from a family values group connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff than to any other aspect of Ryun's life, which includes a silver medal in the 1968 Olympics and world records in the half-mile and mile.
The townhouse information includes footnote references to The Washington Post and to Talking Points Muckraker, the investigative offshoot of a blog that promotes Democratic candidates.
Some politicians shrug off the news of bio editing. Ryun spokeswoman Michelle Schroeder said Wikipedia monitoring isn't a high priority in the congressman's office.
But Brian Hart, spokesman for Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said he monitors his boss' site regularly and at times has tried to reason with "editors" whom he finds hostile to his boss.
Brownback, who opposes abortion, favors citizenship for some currently illegal immigrants and is contemplating a 2008 bid for the White House, attracts fire from some Wikipedia contributors that isn't always fair, he said.
"With Wikipedia everyone knows you need to take things with big grains of salt," he said.
Saewyc said debates on controversial topics can become incredibly time-consuming and sometimes maddening. In the entry covering Scientology, for example, contributors argued for nine months over whether the Scientologist method of childbirth should be called "silent birth" or "quiet birth."
Wikipedia monitors can take several steps to control political squabbles, Saewyc said. Along with blocking access from entire sectors, such as Congress, it can freeze sites, ban users who abuse the system or slow the rate at which people can post changes.
Open-source editing itself can fix many of the abuses, especially on entries that get a lot of attention, Saewyc said. But no solution is perfect, due to the site's nature.
"Sometimes you end up with the least offensive language that both sides can live with, but it's not the most accurate or in-depth information you could have," Saewyc said. And with thousands of political candidates now having bios online, close monitoring of all of them is highly difficult, he said.
In some ways, Saewyc said, the debates over Wikipedia entries are the same debates that writers and editors have always had over reference articles—the open process just makes them much more public and much less polite.
But that's true of many Internet innovations, from blogs to discussion groups to Wikipedia, he said. For its strengths and weaknesses, Wiki wars are here to stay.
"It's always a work in progress," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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