THE BLOG

Wiki Wars

08/21/2007 08:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's been said history is written by the victors. However, in 2008's presidential contest, history is increasingly being written, rewritten and argued by the supporters, friends, relatives, and maybe even the staffs of presidential hopefuls.

Every day on Wikipedia, the battle for the 2008 election is fought across the candidates' pages through a steady flow of additions, deletions, edits, and reverts. A study of three days of changes on the candidates' pages may not be a predictor of popularity or electability, but it certainly is fascinating in its own right.

In terms of activity, on August 17 the winner in sheer volume of changes in a single day was Mitt Romney, whose main biographical page logged a wearying twenty-eight edits. Internet darling Ron Paul came in second with eighteen changes, while others registered few or no edits.

Many of the changes on any given day in Wikipedia are fairly mundane: typo fixing, formatting adjustments, shifts of information from one section of a page to another. Others are repairs of vandalism, the wildly outrageous statements that are the equivalent of scrawls across a campaign poster and are usually quickly deleted. (It's a safe bet that "Ron Paul is the new spokesman for Fierce Melon Gatorade" is going to be noticed and taken out pretty quickly.)

In the case of Romney's busy day, most of the activity involved these kinds of small changes. But two larger stories emerged. One was the appearance of a list of financial controversies related to Bain Capital, the investment firm Romney co-founded. During the day, the list was cut, put back, moved to another section, and cut again. It is currently not part of the page.

The other major story for Romney, that had apparently been percolating for a while, was the question of how much information to include about his wedding. Yes, that's right: his wedding. Romney had had both a civil ceremony for non-Mormons to attend and a ceremony in the Mormon church, which was only for members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Earlier this had been a whole paragraph, with specifics about guests at both ceremonies; as of now, it's down to one sentence and everyone seems to agree that's just right.

The amount of activity on any candidate's page is also dependent on the news cycle. John Edwards had no changes on August 17th. However, on August 18th, a story broke about his investment in a hedge fund that was involved in foreclosures in New Orleans. His page went through the process of adding this information and fine-tuning it. Initially, it appeared as the vague and negative, "Edwards has attacked sub-prime mortgage lenders. In August, 2007, it was revealed by several news organizations that Edwards profited from foreclosing on subprime lenders by repossessing homes of Katrina victims." Throughout the day, words and information were added until it became the much more specific and factual, "In August of 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported that a portion of the Edwards' family's assets were invested in Fortress Investment Group, that had, in turn, invested a portion of its assets in subprime mortgage lenders, some of which had foreclosed on the homes of Hurricane Katrina victims. Upon learning of Fortress' investments, Edwards divested his funds from the investment group and stated that he would try to help the affected families." Wikipedia editors are always striving for a "neutral point-of-view" and this type of evolution in breaking news is not uncommon.

With all the editors working on Wikipedia (on Wikipedia, anyone can make a change and thus become an editor), it's no surprise that there is a constant flow of additional information. The "more you know factor," though, can just as easily confuse rather than clarify. The big debate on the Fred Thompson page was his religious affiliation: was it the Churches of Christ or Disciples of Christ, and if he is elected president, would he be the second president after James Garfield to belong to this denomination? The statement, "If elected president, he would become the second president in U.S. history (after James Garfield) to belong to the Churches of Christ, a non-denominational Christian group that was formed on the day of Pentecost as found in the book of Acts," now stands as, "Thompson belongs to the Churches of Christ, a non-denomination group of churches descended from the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. If elected president, he would become the third Stone-Cambellite president in U.S. history, after James Garfield and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ belonged to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the split happened after Garfield's time.)" Very specific, indeed. File under "Things to Keep in Mind While Pondering James Garfield and Schisms of 19th Century American Protestant Sects."

Wikipedia Campaign '08 isn't all denominational hair-splitting and wedding parties, though. Barack Obama's page was the site for more familiar fights involving class warfare and American hegemony -- with a peculiarly Wikipedian twist, though.

The class warfare issue started when an admin (these are higher-level editors who have been given special superpowers, such as being able to protect, or lock down a page) noticed heavy activity on the Obama page. A flurry of edits -- often on mind-numbingly small details, such as whether to add a "Jr.," to Obama's name -- were constantly being made and then reverted by other editors, with no reason listed other than "sock puppet." A sock puppet is a false identity; essentially, people create sock puppets by registering as editors under a series of different names, usually for the purpose of hiding their identities or to build the appearance of consensus on an issue when there is really only one advocate.

The admin, suspecting some kind of trouble, put the Obama page into "semi-protection," that is locked it down temporarily in order to find out what was going on. This led to a serious of furious exchanges on the discussion page, with allegations of abuse of power by the admin, and anger that this had been done without bothering to understand that the "edit-warring" was not a real problem, but simply the result of (in what is so far the phrase of the year, and unlikely to be challenged for that title) "a rolling band of disruptive socks."

Things got even worse when another admin stopped by, studied the situation, and advised that the protection be taken off. The first admin agreed and lifted the lock. Now people began to call out the first admin for only listening to other admins. As one editor put it: "It is most definitely a good thing that us lowly plebeians don't have any pull with an elite admin like yourself. Imagine if you had to listen when uppity non-admins challenged your actions. That would be dreadfully unnerving, mixing with the baser classes and all." Heavens to Murgatroyd, what would Barack have to say about all this? (probably, "Uh, I don't use Jr. with my name. Thanks for asking.")

The other problem was a complaint involving what some described as typical American arrogance and others considered just an issue of user-friendliness. If users typed Obama into the search box, what page should come up? Should it go directly to Barack Obama's main biographical page? Or should it go to what is known as a "disambiguation page," that is a page that lists a number of possibilities for a word. For example, typing in "Clinton," leads to a disambiguation page that lists page links for Hillary, Bill, Chelsea, George Clinton, DeWitt Clinton, and any number of towns named Clinton. Obama, one group of editors argued, should go to a disambiguation page because of options such as the Japanese town of Obama and the president of Equatorial Guinea, Ricardo Mangue Obama Nfubea--both, they argued, much more important and of international significance than a junior senator from Illinois who may or may not make it to the Democratic primary. The others pointed out that the Barack Obama page was amongst the most viewed Wikipedia pages and therefore for ease of use, searches should automatically go there, with the page featuring a link to an Obama disambiguation page.

When several admins quietly moved the search result from the direct to Barack version to the Obama disambig, name-calling started, with accusations of "cabals" and "collaborations." In an attempt to calm things down, someone started a poll to see which result was preferred. Rather than vote, though, many editors wrote statements of protest, saying they wouldn't participate in a poll when they felt the result was already rigged by the cabal of Obama disambig-ers (latest update: currently the search automatically goes to Barack Obama, with the disambiguation link). Again, what would Barack think? (probably something like, "Is there a link to my entry? Okay.")

This is just a small slice of life on the Wikipedia campaign trail, where the little things can get big fast, and where the edit wars may sometimes say more about Wikipedia and the people who use it than the candidates themselves. Breaking news or living history, Wikipedia evolves with the candidates, the moment, and its enormous editorial cast. One day Dennis Kucinich is a socialist; one day he is not. Stay tuned.