Ever since members of Congress got busted for rewriting Wikipedia articles in 2006, anonymous editors of the online encyclopedia on Capitol Hill have become more circumspect. But the days of under-the-radar editing are over, with a new bot that monitors each and every change in real time.
Created less than a week ago by software editor Ed Summers, @Congressedits is what he calls a "bot that tweets anonymous Wikipedia edits that are made from IP addresses in the U.S. Congress." According to Summers' blog, he was inspired by the online British watchdog, @Parliamentedits:
The simplicity of combining Wikipedia and Twitter in this way immediately struck me as a potentially useful transparency tool. So using my experience on a previous side project I quickly put together a short program that listens to all major language Wikipedias for anonymous edits from Congressional IP address ranges.… and tweets them.
In less than 48 hours the @congressedits Twitter account had more than 3,000 followers… Watching the followers rise, and the flood of tweets from them brought home something that I believed intellectually, but hadn't felt quite so viscerally before. There is an incredible yearning in this country and around the world for using technology to provide more transparency about our democracies.
Evan Lehmann, a reporter for the Massachusetts newspaper, the Lowell Sun, helped jumpstart media scrutiny of Congressional editing with his January 27, 2006 article, "Rewriting History Under The Dome":
The staff of U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan [D-MA] wiped out references to his broken term-limits pledge as well as information about his huge campaign war chest….The Meehan alterations on Wikipedia.com represent just two of more than 1,000 changes made by congressional staffers at the U.S. House of Representatives in the past six months.
Matt Vogel, Meehan's chief of staff, said he authorized an intern in July to replace existing Wikipedia content with a staff-written biography of the lawmaker.
The change deleted a reference to Meehan's campaign promise to surrender his seat after serving eight years, a pledge Meehan later eschewed. It also deleted a reference to the size of Meehan's campaign account, the largest of any House member at $4.8 million, according to the latest data available from the Federal Election Commission.
An internal investigation by Wikipedia concluded that out of the more than 1,000 edits traced back to Capitol Hill, most met the encyclopedia's criteria of "good faith."
But, others did not. As reported by the Washington Post:
This crime-scene-style investigation points to staff members of at least five offices: Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
An entry for Feinstein removed references to her net worth and a $190,000 fine she paid for not disclosing that her husband, Richard C. Blum, had guaranteed her gubernatorial campaign loans in 1990.
Edits allegedly made by Burns's staff removed references to his calling Arabs "ragheads," inserting a paragraph instead called "A Voice for the Farmer" that touted his advocacy for agriculture.
The edits to Biden's entry removed and altered references to incidents of alleged plagiarism. Biden spokesman Norm Kurz said changes that were "made to Biden's site by this office were designed to make it more fair and accurate."
Anonymous edits continue, even if they don't usually merit headlines. One exception was a report last August that someone in a Senate office had edited Edward Snowden's entry, changing his description from "dissident" to "traitor."
Thus far, most of the edits tweeted by @congressedits have been mundane changes, such as punctuation corrections. Others are oddly random—someone edited the page about It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia to add Bon Jovi and Ludwig van Beethoven to the list of music featured in the series. (So, yes, Congressional staffers are nitpickers bored at work, just like the rest of us.)
A couple edits are in the WTF? category. Someone updated the biography of the famed conspiracy theorist David Icke to note that, "He is also a disinformation agent funded by the Pleiadians." For those of you not up to speed on UFOlogy, the Pleiadians are supposedly Nordic looking alien beings from the star cluster in the constellation Taurus known as the Pleiades. I'm hoping this Wikipedia edit refers to societies of Pleiadian-believers, and not the Pleiadians themselves…in which case, someone working on Capitol Hill has misplaced their tinfoil hat.
The award for most self-serving edit thus far goes to Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), whose office pasted into his biography: "Congressman Huelskamp has become an independent, national conservative leader in Congress for his unwavering commitment to Constitutional government, reduced spending and over-regulation, fighting waste and corruption, defending traditional values and civil liberties, stopping ObamaCare, and ensuring accountability and transparency in Congress."
Second place goes to conservative lobbyist and GOP strategist Brian Darling, who wrote a controversial memo on how best to exploit the Terri Schiavo case. Perhaps reflecting an effort to make him seem more likeable, someone edited his page to randomly note: "While growing up, Brian was involved in breeding long haired cats."
Looking ahead, the most intriguing edits to keep track of will not be egregious self-promotion or even changes to Congressional biographies. Rather, I can envision Congressional staffers making subtle changes to language or inserting convenient facts about contemporary issues and controversies that will reflect well on their respective positions and legislation.
Such edits could even be harbingers of upcoming policy debates. Or alien infiltration. Either way, this could prove to get very interesting.