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Did leading UK politician edit his Wikipedia page? Possibly, but the problem goes deeper. (+video)

The rules and culture of Wikipedia make editing with a political agenda easy.

Grant Shapps, chairman of the UK's Conservative Party, faces allegations that he edited his own Wikipedia article to remove criticism, and edited those of political rivals to add negative claims. 

There's no evidence that Mr. Shapps has in fact been editing his Wikipedia biography; he has denied that he is the anonymous user that made these particular edits. Still, with Britain bracing for an election on May 7, it has the makings of a scandal. But it should hardly be a surprise if Shapps, or his associates, have been making partisan changes to Wikipedia entries.  

Though many people treat Wikipedia as gospel, the website's rules appear tailor-made to foster conflicts of interest. Anonymity is prized above all. Accusations of bias are generally treated as "personal attacks," which are banned. And there are no professional editors or writers vetting the content.

In practice this means that activists constantly do battle over hot-button political issues like China-Taiwan, or politicized scientific topics like global warming. The problem cuts both ways: A political campaign, or supporters of a campaign, will add a promotional tone to the biography of their hero. Supporters of the other side will try to paint him or her as an unmitigated villain.

Sometimes one side wins through strength of numbers – or with the support of powerful Wikipedia insiders known as "administrators" – but often no one wins. The result is Wikipedia entries that stretch out into disjointed "he said, she said" streams of opinions, but not much actual biographical content. 

That's the real story here: Not that someone might be trying to skew Wikipedia content. But that lots of people are, every day, and from multiple angles. Since Wikipedia dominates search results and many Internet users unwisely trust it, controlling a Wikipedia article is politically powerful.

What's more, as Shapps' case shows, some editors are more equal than others. 

Sock puppets and 'checkusers'

The story broke yesterday after Wikipedia administrator Richard Symonds opened what's called a "sockpuppet investigation." The term "sock-puppetry" refers to the creation of fake online identities in order to mask activities. Mr. Symonds' investigation focused on a user called "Contribsx" and the edits that this user had made to Wikipedia pages, including that of Shapps. 

Mr. Symonds is employed by the Wikimedia UK charity that supports the website. He's also part of a small class of Wikipedia editors who have "checkuser" powers, which gives them access to private Internet protocol and other metadata about the website's contributors. 

He wrote: "A Guardian journalist contacted me with concerns that Contribsx is a sockpuppet of Hackneymarsh. Hackneymarsh was outed in the newspaper several years ago as allegedly being run by (Grant Shapps). I started investigating (independently of the Guardian) whether Contribsx could indeed be a sockpuppet of Hackneymarsh, and the evidence is pretty conclusive."

Symonds went on to conduct the "investigation" himself, concluding "I ran a Checkuser, and it yielded a "likely" result. On the basis of this, along with the wealth of behavioural evidence, the account is either run by Shapps/Hackneymarsh directly in violation or being run under his clear direction." 

The Guardian, a liberal newspaper that generally opposes the Conservative Party, then sprang into action with its scoop: "Wikipedia has blocked a user account on suspicions that it is being used by the Conservative party chairman, Grant Shapps, 'or someone acting on his behalf' to edit his own page along with the entries of Tory rivals and political opponents."

An open and shut case? Not exactly. 

Symonds initially said that technical means had led him to this conclusion. He later admitted that there was no technical way to tell if one anonymous account (Contribsx) was controlled by the same person as another anonymous account (Hackneymarsh) from five years ago. Wikipedia says it only stores metadata about contributors for 3 months. And that still leaves the challenge of ascertaining who was the real human running these accounts. 

In his pronouncement, Symonds cited behavioral evidence: "Contribsx" was editing as one would imagine Shapps to edit. Sure. But it was also editing in way that a fan or supporter of Shapps would edit. That's not the same as "someone acting on his behalf." 

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Now it has emerged that Symonds is an ardent activist for the Liberal Democrats, an election rival of Shapps' Conservatives, according to The Telegraph, a pro-Conservative newspaper. 

The Telegraph has established that “Chase me ladies, I’m the cavalry” (Symonds' Wikipedia alias) is in fact Mr Symonds, a leading activist in the Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats. In his Twitter profile, Mr Symonds describes himself as a “Liberal Democrat to the last.” He has written letters to newspapers, including The Telegraph, in his capacity as a Liberal Democrat activist.

In the 24 hours since the Guardian story ran, Shapps' Wikipedia article has been edited over 100 times. The contributors have included "Philafrenzy" and "Ganpati23" and "Epzcaw." And there's now a section on his alleged Wikipedia editing. What political motivations these people might have for adding negative content to this entry, which is the first result of online searches for Grant Shapps, is not considered by Wikipedia. 

To be sure, Shapps would be a likely candidate to use sockpuppets. A few years ago he was found to have posed as "Michael Green" to sell a book ("How to Get Stinking Rich") and to promote get-rich quick seminars, which triggered a "truth-in-advertising" investigation by British authorities. At the time, there were also suspicions he may have edited his Wikipedia article.

But if the Contribsx account was his, as Symonds argues, its interjections were fairly restrained. Since August 2013, this user has made 20 edits to the Shapps article, out of more than 400 edits over the same period.

That probably makes Shapps one of thousands of Wikipedia contributors with their own agenda. The only thing that makes him different is that he's been caught and exposed. 

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