'Turtle' McConnell, 'Sharknado' among Wikipedia edits from Congress

'Turtle' McConnell, 'Sharknado' among Wikipedia edits from Congress
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Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellProgressive group launches M pro-Biden ad buy targeting young voters Pelosi signals flexibility on size of renewed unemployment payments Lincoln Project reports raising .8 million for anti-Trump efforts MORE (R-Ky.) is not a turtle. Ian Ziering of “90210” was in the movie “Sharknado.” And Sapphire from the movie “Almost Famous” is a “Band Aid.”

Those are among the anonymous edits to Wikipedia that have originated from IP addresses in Congress during the August recess, when lawmakers take their annual hiatus from Washington and life around the Capitol quiets down.


Changes to Wikipedia from congressional IP addresses became a mini-controversy around this time last year, when more than 100 edits were made. Wikipedia administrators imposed a temporary ban on one House-linked IP address for consistently poor edits, ranging from tongue-in-cheek changes about conspiracy theories to controversial ones about a transgender actress. 

Fewer edits have been made this August, with only seven traced to IP addresses linked to Congress as of Friday afternoon — far below the usual pace, according to a Twitter account that was set up to automatically tweet updates. 

The topics of the edits have mostly been non-political, with changes made to entries on college basketball, greek life and fantasy novels.

The Cato Institute’s Jim Harper, who sat on a panel last year that encouraged staffers to use Wikipedia properly, said he hasn’t been following the issue closely this year. Still, “the fact that I haven’t heard anything about it suggests the controversy has subsided,” he said.

“Wikipedia is a peculiar place with a peculiar culture, and the ban was a bad response to some misbehavior coming from the Hill,” Harper said, adding that some conflict of interest rules have also discouraged broader use of Wikipedia within Congress. 

The alterations to Wikipedia have been publicized by CongressEdits, a bot account on Twitter that was created by the programmer Ed Summers.  

CongressEdits has tweeted 816 times since July of 2014, automatically publicizing anywhere from 35 to 75 anonymous Wikipedia edits per month.

The Twitter account has more than 32,000 followers, including dozens of journalists in Washington. Some suspect the controversial edits last year were made so that they would attract attention on Twitter.

Even so, Wikimedia DC applauded the bot last year, saying it added a level of transparency to the service. It noted that many of the edits that spawned the temporary ban last year are “the kind of juvenile or disruptive edits that Wikipedia deals with every minute of every day without incident."

There is a history of controversial congressional edits to Wikipedia, which is one of the most trafficked sites on the Internet. In 2006, the encyclopedia highlighted instances of staffers embellishing their members’ profile and removing some negative content. 

The foundation has tried to publicize best practices for congressional staff given their expertise in certain subjects. Those practices include registering individual accounts rather than posting anonymously, acknowledging conflicts of interest, and making suggested edits in the talk page rather than making the edits themselves. 

Changes to Wikipedia are usually tracked by a person’s user name, but if none is given, the edits are cited to a specific address. Similar twitter bots have been set up for some other publicly known IP addresses from the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, NATO, and companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and the Wikimedia Foundation itself. 

The McConnell edit that came from Senate this month actually removed a prank edit that compared the Republican leader to a turtle — a comparison made popular by Jon Stewart and one that Wikipedia editors have had to strike before. 

“McConnell is the first openly Otherkin member of Congress. His species identity is turtle,” someone in the House wrote in an edit last September before it was removed.

The most recent anonymous edit from Congress was made to the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament page, which corrected the win-loss record of one team. Another last week added more description to the plot of the 2000 Cameron Crowe hit movie “Almost Famous” but was later removed because it added “unneeded detail.”

Someone in the House was also spotted editing the page about Robert Jordan’s fantasy book “The Eye of the World.”

Some edits coming from Congress this month did relate to politics, including one about Mississippi government and another about Maine’s 2nd congressional district.

Michelle Newby, who worked on Wikipedia projects for the Cato Institute before moving to the Charles Koch Institute, said no one could pinpoint who exactly in the congressional office buildings is making the edits, especially given the availability of Wi-Fi.

“[CongressEdits] can’t distinguish between edits made by representatives, senators, Hill staff, interns, constituents, middle school kids, or the janitors,” she said. "All of those people are interested in a huge number of things, so their edits could be on many subjects."