Congress turns Wikipedia into forum for pranks, battle

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Even while Congress is in recess, it has found a new battleground for mud slinging: Wikipedia.

A string of controversial edits on the online encyclopedia caused one House Internet Protocol (IP) address to be banned three times this summer, most recently for a month.

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Transparency advocates say that’s a depressing signal of Capitol Hill’s inexperience with the world’s sixth most popular website. Without any clear guidance on how to interact with the site, some staffers have turned to flame wars and anonymous trolling.

“We need to figure out what our relationship is with Wikipedia and at this point we just don’t know,” said Yuri Beckelman, the deputy chief of staff for Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.).

Advocacy groups from both ends of the political spectrum have tried to fix that by meeting with staffers to discuss ways to use the online encyclopedia as a reliable tool to spread the word about legislative efforts, lawmakers’ priorities and goings-on in Congress

There’s a lot of work to do.

Currently, few congressional offices place any focus on Wikipedia.

Uses like noting minor changes when a bill is introduced or explaining nuances of Congress's archaic processes have been overshadowed by a recent series of ideological arguments and juvenile pranks from Capitol Hill.

Staffers’ edits to pages like the ones for the frozen treat Choco Taco and moon landing conspiracy theories seem to have been made in order to trigger a Twitter account that automatically updates whenever a Wikipedia edit is made from a congressional IP address.

Recently, the edits have been more political.

For days, someone in the House had been editing multiple pages related to transgender issues that critics called “transphobic.” The situation came to a head this week when the person changed the description of “Orange Is the New Black” actor Laverne Cox from “a real transgender woman” to “a real man pretending to be a woman.”

That move caused an administrator to ban anonymous edits from the IP address for a month.

Gay rights group Human Rights Campaign called for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to launch an investigation into which office was responsible.

The person behind the edits — presumably a congressional staffer — remains anonymous but said in one of the Wikipedia’s behind-the-scenes pages that they were promoting “official business that has been explicitly authourized [sic] by the Representative.”

“When you have other Representatives trying to push for laws such as [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], or when you have the [European Union] using neocolonialist methods to impose transgenderism on the nation of Georgia through a visa agreement, it's all the more important,” the editor added. 

It’s unknown if any lawmaker was aware of the editing, though it’s unlikely that a member of Congress would be involved in micromanaging the way a staffer edits Wikipedia. 

“Members aren’t going to be monitoring that behavior at that level of detail,” said Jim Harper, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who has encouraged Hill staffers to use Wikipedia.

Whether the edits were made by high-ranking staffers or temporary interns, Harper and others say they are emblematic of Congress’s ignorance.

“Do they want this to be a civic space where we start building a new public square where information is shared in a consultative way?” asked Lorelei Kelly, a research fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

“That’s the civic ideal of the open source, free software movement originally,” she added. “It wasn’t about just carrying on these endless talking point campaigns electronically.”

This summer, Kelly met with about a dozen House staffers including Beckelman, from Takano’s office, and the head of the volunteer Washington arm of the Wikimedia Foundation — which runs Wikipedia— to talk about engagement on Wikipedia.

More recently, Harper and colleagues from Cato and Wikimedia held a separate workshop in the Rayburn House Office Building encouraging them to get involved with the site, which has an active editing community.

One of their main messages was to warn Hill staffers against editing anonymously. People should create personal accounts, they said, to provide accountability and explain their edits, if need be.

Fran Rogers, the Wikipedia administrator who banned the House IP address, said that blocking some anonymous edits should push staffers in that direction.

“It seems to me like one bad seed is doing most, if not all, of the latest spurt of problematic edits,” she said in an email to The Hill.

The monthlong ban would help the relationship between Congress and Wikipedia administrators “because it encourages Congressional editors to follow good practice when contributing: establishing named accounts tied to their real-world identity and disclosing their official affiliation,” she said.

Congress seems to be “on the cusp of a big beta test” of becoming more open, added Kelly, but it needs to take the right steps.

“Member offices need to decide to play by the rules that Wikipedia has set up or develop a code of conduct that is special that Wikipedia might be open to,” she said. “Humiliation and shaming is not an emotionally intelligent strategy for influence.”

One problem for congressional offices is Wikipedia guidelines that prevent more than one person from using the same account. That’s a barrier for offices where multiple staffers monitor individual lawmakers’ accounts on Facebook or Twitter.

Another roadblock is a Wikipedia rule preventing people from editing pages about subjects in which they have a financial stake.

The recent string of bad actors is also not likely to inspire Hill offices to embrace Wikipedia any time soon.

“Part of the problem is that the best stories that come out of Wikipedia are staffers making fools of themselves,” Beckelman sad.

“Staffers never want to be the story, especially not for arguing with an editor in the back end of Wikipedia about what committees their boss sits on.”