Is Wikipedia a reliable, community-sourced encyclopedia, or is it a public billboard available to anyone's edit — including political officeholders who just happen to be running for re-election?
From the offices of Tacoma Democrat U.S. Rep. Adam Smith — running to represent Mercer Island in the newly-drawn 9th Congressional District — and 32 other members of congress, the answer appears to be edit, edit, and edit again.
A July 9 politics story on news website BuzzFeed by Andrew Kaczynski highlights changes made to the online encyclopedia by a US House of Representatives-registered IP address, shared by congressional offices, that spins supposedly unbiased webpages in a favorable light for current members.
According to BuzzFeed, staffers "decided to do a bit of historical airbrushing" for Rep. Adam Smith by "add(ing) lengthy additions to Smith's biography". A search of edits made to his page by Mercer Island Patch reveal several edits were made as Rep. Smith was running for re-election in June 2010, when the US House-registered editor removed portions of the existing content and replaced it with a substantial re-writing of the "Biography" section with titles such as "Home Grown Leadership" and "Work in Congress" rather than the standard format adopted by other Wikipedia editors. The text was taken from the biography of the congressman's webpage. For a time after June 2010, the page remained largely unedited. Shortly after the 2010 election, another editor tried to reverse the changes, only for staffers to once again change it back in January 2011.
Reached by phone, Rep. Adam Smith said defending himself and his record against false attacks was the main reason for the edits, and that the edits were made on just three occasions and unrelated to any re-election effort.
"In 2010, people who are obviously involved in politics — political people — were going in and editing (the Wikipedia article about me) and putting things in the article that were just not true — things that were negative about me and my record," he said. "We wanted to make sure it was accurate."
Rep. Smith's Communications Director Ayofemi Kirby — who is not a part of Smith's re-election campaign — confirmed that she herself and a prior communications director had made several changes to the Wikipedia webpage and said she and other staffers were unaware until now of guidelines discouraging the edits (an April 3, 2012 edit under the name "Ayofemik" and can be seen by clicking here). Kirby said that her intention was never to remove any content and that Rep. Smith's Congressional office does not focus on "removing information that paints him in a bad light."
"If there is an inaccuracy online, or in stories by the press, we do our best to make sure that there are no inaccuracies and clear those up," she said. "We want to make sure that our office is as transparent as possible, and that's one of our office's goals, led by Rep. Smith."
While editing the entry can be done by anyone, Wikipedia guidelines discourage editors from writing about themselves or who have a conflict of interest in writing about someone they work for or have a personal relationship with.
Wikipedia, according to its own website, is is a "multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project based on an openly editable model" that strives to offer transparent, unbiased content by volunteer editors and writers. But the content is occasionally prone to supporters (and staff members) of people who are hyper-aware of their internet image.
While Rep. Smith's staffers were busy rewriting large sections of his Wikipedia "biography", other notable Congressmembers had far more embarrassing changes made, including:
- House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH): Changed information related to his knowledge of the 2006 Mark Foley page scandal;
- Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA): Removed references to pro-Palestinian statements;
- Rep. Allen West (R-FL): Removed an incident in which he called members of the Progressive Caucus "Communists";
- House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD): Made numerous edits including removing the "Congressional Reputation" section.
- Rep. Mike Coffman (R-NY): Removed edits to an incident saying President Obama was "in his heart, just not an American."
(Ed. Note: A quote from Rep. Smith was added after Mercer Island Patch contacted him shortly after the story was published and a minor edit on the timing of Rep. Smith's 2010 campaign was made to this story for accuracy)