Wikipedia site attempts to make 'politics healthier'

The user-edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia made news on Capitol Hill early this year after staffers for several members of Congress were caught deleting objectionable material from their bosses’ entries on the site.

The user-edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia made news on Capitol Hill early this year after staffers for several members of Congress were caught deleting objectionable material from their bosses’ entries on the site.

Now Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is taking the concept behind the site and diving headlong into the world of politics, hoping the result will help overcome the type of political styling and image control marked by that flap.

Wales last week launched Campaigns Wikia, a Wikipedia-like tool aimed at facilitating participation in elections. Users can edit entries having to do with upcoming elections so that the process is “about substance and thought, rather than style and image,” Wales said in an open letter to the blogosphere last week.

The effort is still taking shape, with only a handful of entries so far. Meanwhile, hundreds of interested users are exchanging e-mails about what Campaigns Wikia should be and how it should function.

Which is just what Wales wants.

“I don’t know how to make politics healthier. But I believe that you do,” Wales wrote. “I believe that together we can work, this very election season, to force campaigns to use wikis and blogs to organize, discuss, manage, lead and be led by their volunteers.”

Wales described Campaigns Wikia as a means of bringing together people from many different political perspectives “who share the idea that they would rather see democratic politics be about engaging with the serious ideas of intelligent opponents” and motivating people to get involved in politics. He criticized the “era of television politics” for reducing campaigns to soundbites.

Combining politics and the concept of a wiki, or a collaborative website edited by users, is not altogether new. Congresspedia was created three months ago by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Sunlight Foundation as a wiki consisting of user-edited entries for members of Congress and is expanding into other Congress-focused areas.

Utah Democratic Senate candidate Pete Ashdown, who has carved out a niche for himself as a tech-savvy long shot to unseat Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), also has a wiki element of his website, and the liberal blog Daily Kos has its own wiki.

Campaigns Wikia and other wikis are part of a whole new series of Internet tools, including blogs, being geared toward the political arena, said Andrew Rasiej, founder and publisher of the Personal Democracy Forum and consultant to the Sunlight Foundation.

“Where, four years ago, it was a must for a political candidate to build a website — and most websites are like online brochures with a big ‘Donate Here’ button — the new wave that’s coming is Internet-as-platform tools to change the political dynamics,” Rasiej said.

On Campaigns Wikia, it’s up to the users to change the political dynamics without devolving into political tactics and partisanship.

Blogs have gained a tremendous amount of influence in politics in recent years, but they are often platforms for likeminded users arguing over small details while largely agreeing with each other, said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

Campaigns Wikia, on the other hand, can expose people to more diverse ideas, she said, and it is up to the users to determine whether that happens.

“If it’s more important to them to espouse and promote one party over the other, then, sure, it has the potential to do that,” Germany said. “But from what I can tell, the interests of the people involved in this seem to be more focused on balance.”

Indeed, much of the debate on the e-mail discussion about the project has to do with how to weed out the type of tactics used earlier this year, when staffers for Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) were revealed by a Wikipedia-affiliated news service to have spun their members’ entries.

Biden’s office deleted a reference to accusations that the senator had plagiarized speaches he made during the 1988 presidential elections, Burns staffers removed a racial slur he used in 1999, and Coleman’s aides took down references to President Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove. House members’ entries were also changed by staffers.

On Campaigns Wikia’s front page, it makes it clear that contributions from campaign workers are, in fact, welcome. Wikipedia restricted the editing of some pages in response to what happened earlier this year, but it still believes in the ability of users to monitor and correct such activity, which will in the end help determine how well Campaigns Wikia will work.

“Right now, if you want to get involved politically, the traditional ways are: You can vote, you can contribute some money, you can go to a rally, you volunteer at the office of the political candidate, or make phone calls and try to raise money,” Rasiej said.

“The real audience here is the political system itself, because the people in the country actually probably know more about the issues at hand than the politicians themselves.”