June 21, 2006

Chuck Morse vs. Wikipedia?

If you’re like me, you’re probably asking yourself right now “Who is Chuck Morse?” And “What does he have to do with Wikipedia?” Well, maybe you don’t care. But the story behind the question made for an interesting late afternoon on Wednesday with the sleuths of theSC jumping to action. And it may just be an interesting example of how politicians who are unfamiliar with new forms of media/communications are going to come into conflict with them.

Chuck Morse is a man running as a candidate for US congress. He’s running for Barney Frank’s seat. Why should you care? You probably shouldn’t care too much. Last time he ran against Rep. Frank he lost by a worse margin than any other Republican running against a Democrat in that election.

However, his campaign issued a press release Wed morning. Keri had it on her blog and reported it on her show.

Brad Patrick.. Wikipedia technical director 727-231-0101
Chuck Morse 617-271-5044
Ben Kilgore 978-257-6282

6/20..Massachusetts Republican congressional candidate Chuck Morse accused his opponent, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, of arranging for the tampering of his wikipedia biography. “Wikipedia is supposed to be an online encyclopedia, not to be used as a campaign screed” said Morse. Brad Patrick, technical director of Wikipedia, agreed and moved the offending information to the discussion section with Morse’s response.

Wow, that’s quite an accusation. When Keri tried to get details on the story, she ran into some drama with Morse, which she has detailed in her blog post. It makes for entertaining reading.

Since anyone can edit Wikipedia, I was wondering how Morse could know that Frank or his campaign had been responsible for the edit. So, I checked Morse’s Wikipedia entry. As you probably know, Wikipedia (like all wikis) stores the history of all its edits. Here is Morse’s page as it currently appears. And here is what the page looked like before a wiki janitor cleaned up the unfriendly details.

It actually doesn’t sound to me like it is written by an opposing candidate. It’s not nearly negative enough. It’s less like a screed and more like “unflattering.” Perhaps the worst of it are comments like these:

His first campaign against Congressman Fran was a dismal failure. […] He used the Republican label to raise funds from Republican donors which was, at best, unethical.
Congressman Fran?” If it were a staunch Frank supporter, I think you’d at least trust him to get the name right. But wiki also stores the identity of the editors, so I looked into that. This page highlights the offending change.

And that’s when I suddenly got interested. Because the person who added the comment didn’t leave behind an identity, but he/she did leave behind an IP address. is an address from the block which belongs to UMass Dartmouth (134.88), so it immediately jumped out at me. The third number in the address was also familiar. As I read the number to Ryan he remarked that all the machines from our office have this number.

So, someone really close to us made that edit. What a bizarre coincidence! Ryan ran off to get Jake, because we figured he’d be able to help us locate the exact machine.

And he did. Some tracerouting and a phone call yielded the relevant information. I won’t mention who the machine was registered to, because we can’t be sure who made the edit; only which machine was used to make the change. I will say that it was a password-protected machine, it is in the building where I work, and it was not anyone from my project who made the edit.

And the chances are pretty good that it wasn’t Barney Frank, since we would have noticed him walking around in the office last Wednesday. We can be sure the edit didn’t happen from Washington D.C. I can’t say with complete certainty that someone who works for Frank doesn’t also have access to that machine.

I don’t see the threat online, but Keri mentioned that Morse was mulling a lawsuit. Who against, I can’t imagine. Wikipedia? They haven’t done anything to him. Frank? I haven’t seen any evidence that Frank’s campaign made the edit and I doubt they are working out of our building.

But perhaps the most obvious thing here is that Morse just doesn’t get wiki and rushed to judgment before finding out. He himself could have repaired the offending story. He didn’t and it remained until a janitor got to it. He could have put a more favorable bio up, but instead contacted the guy who runs the wiki and sent him some email comments, which didn’t on the page. They ended up instead on the discussion for that page.

From now on, candidates are really going to have to get familiar with these technologies. While flawed, Wikipedia is fast becoming the first place that connected citizens go to get definitive and organized information on subjects from apples to Zarathustra. And wikis are just one new way that people exchange information. Every day, people are trying to find new ways to share their knowledge with others. One way or another, people are going to have to deal with the explosion of access to information and opinion. Flattering or not.

Thanks for the help, Ryan and Jake, in our little bit of sleuthing today. It was fun! I called into Keri’s show and tried to explain wiki ot her audience, but I fear that I bored them to tears.

Posted by James at June 21, 2006 9:09 PM
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That's an amazing coincidence. Nice detective work.

I've become a fan of Wikipedia and I find myself turning to it more often to get a quick primer on a subject before investigating it further. I haven't been able to come up with good ways to improve the edit system to avoid the type of abuse you mentioned. The only solution may be more eyes reading each entry over time.

Posted by: Mike L. at June 22, 2006 1:18 AM

We love Wikipedia in our house, and the kids visit often. When I say it is flawed, I don't think it's fatally flawed. But many people are reconsidering the usefulness of "collective" knowledge. There is a built-in level of inaccuracy, conflict and abuse. But what reference is perfect?

I like the way Wikipedia has tried to mitigate problems of fast-changing news and over-editorialization. It's often that Wikipedia is the first place to go for some fact or other, especially ones you once knew but just can't remember.

Posted by: James at June 22, 2006 1:28 AM

Oh, and I swear you came to mind, Mike, when we were trying to get to the bottom of this. Old times!

Posted by: James at June 22, 2006 1:30 AM

It is an interesting problem. I like the democratization of knowledge, if that's the right term. Just take, for example, (if the wound isn't too fresh), the situation with the fire in Fall River. There was a lot of inaccurate reporting, possibly prejudiced reporting, and reporting to turn something into a sensationalist story to sell it. I think I'll even throw in the word "lazy," since rather than tell the story as it was, or find something meaningful in the story, the news reporters fell back on the same questions, the same ideas -- things people are familiar with. Again to sell. News for the proles. It's inexcusable.

The news media certainly isn't unbiased and they're most definitely not accurate. Every single time I've known a story personally, with absolutely no exceptions, the news media has gotten an actual fact wrong. That's not accounting for the personal prejudices of the reporter, or the way the story "came off," its spin, its focus, whatever you want to call it. I'm just talking about plain facts! "Professionals" can't get the plain facts straight.

News should be taken out of these people's hands, and history books should be democratized for posterity. Wikipedia should be frozen and preserved at stages, so we have a history of what people actually believed at the time things were happening, and then let the changes in society change the entries as we move into the future, but preserve the old for the history "books."

Posted by: Maggie at June 22, 2006 7:42 AM

It's true. Most times that I've been personally familiar with a story reported in the media, I've found inaccuracies. The people who write and collect the news are human and often overworked, like the rest of us.

I wouldn't say that blogs and so-called "new media" do better. Depending on the individual, you can't consider most blogs to be decent informaiton sources because bloggers in general don't have the research resources or time to hunt things down. Once in a while, though, a blogger might have a unique perspective, an interesting opinion, or sufficient motivation to get to the bottom of something. So, overall, they contribute something to the marketplace of information.

"Caveat Emptor" is in full effect. You're confidence level should still be a lot higher in AP stories, for example, (professional standards are, and should be, in effect) than something from a blog or from a quasi-news "new media" organizations like WorldNetDaily.

Posted by: James at June 22, 2006 7:54 AM

I wasn't making the point that blogs are better than newspapers. I guess my point was that more unique voices is better. I don't trust anybody who's trying to sell me something.

Posted by: Maggie at June 22, 2006 8:18 AM

Chuck Norris vs. Wikipedia would be cooler.

Posted by: Bill Marrs at June 22, 2006 8:26 AM

I agree. I just wanted to bring blogs into the discussion, since they're increasingly becoming a source of information. I don't really like the term "new media," but maybe that's a post for another day.

Posted by: James at June 22, 2006 8:26 AM

His campaign said they were going to sue Wikipedia and Congressman Frank.


Good times ...

Posted by: Keri at June 22, 2006 8:50 AM

I was hoping to find that mentioned online somewhere so I could link to it. But Morse doesn't even seem to mention this on his website or blog.

Posted by: James at June 22, 2006 8:52 AM

Wikipedia certainly beats Googling something and trying to find a website that doesn't use the Comic Sans font. Thankfully Wikipedia entries often appear at the top of search results and the Firefox extension Googlepedia also helps.

Has googling (lowercase version) entered the dictionary yet?

Like dmoz I'll probably contribute more to Wikipedia as I become comfortable with it. I signed up for a user account and so far I'm limited my edits to correcting typos, bad grammar and page formatting.

Posted by: Mike L. at June 22, 2006 10:01 AM

And even though I double checked that comment a typo slipped through. Argh, irony.

Posted by: Mike L. at June 22, 2006 10:03 AM

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