FOX News fares poorly in investigation of media edits to Wikipedia

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

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Virgil Griffith, creator of the WikiScanner

Virgil Griffith recently made headlines when his new tool, the WikiScanner, was revealed. The tool allows users to search for some edits to several editions of the online free-content encyclopedia Wikipedia made from Internet addresses assigned to particular companies.

The media buzz made Virgil's tool near-inaccessible as it was swamped with queries. Initially broken by Wired, the articles highlighted edits from network addresses assigned to Diebold and the CIA, and encouraged readers to reveal and share their findings. Mainstream media such as the BBC revealed that edits made from CIA addresses had made changes to the article on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that edits were made from Vatican addresses to Gerry Adams's article.

Readers of the BBC news website were quick to point out that edits to Wikipedia also originated from the BBC network addresses. Peter Clifton, head of BBC Interactive, confessed to writing about himself and revealed that a prankster within the BBC had edited George W. Bush's entry to state that his middle name was "Wanker". The BBC's Internet address range had a total of nearly 8,000 edits to other various English Wikipedia articles such as Janet Jackson, Super Furry Animals and Freeview.

Without confirmation such as Peter Clifton gave, it is usually impossible to determine from the IP address alone if the edits made from it were even performed by an employee of the organization. While it is likely that the majority of edits are from an organisation's employees there is the possibility that visitors could be using a company address, or a public-wifi could be on offer. All of this would appear to be edits from the company according to Wikiscanner, and even when the edits do come from employees or representatives, there is no way to tell from the data alone whether the company endorses the edits, or even knows about them.

While Wikipedia advertises itself as the encyclopaedia "anyone can edit", there are guidelines on the site directing how users may edit the articles—and even, in some cases, who shouldn't be editing them. None of Wikipedia's "conflict of interest" policies attempt to limit what people can edit based on the Internet address that they are using.

Wikinews had already started an investigation into just what edits the tool revealed. Hampered by the difficulty getting results due to the traffic load on the web server, we began checking company names and names of media groups. In addition to verifying that the vast majority of edits from network addresses assigned to the BBC were beneficial to the Wikipedia project, the others, CNN, MSNBC, Reuters and AP received a fairly clean bill of health. People using Reuters' Internet connectivity appeared the first to discover Wikipedia, editing as early as February 2002. Users from AP had made a few edits to articles about the AP, none of which could be considered negative contributions, other contributions included additions to several The Simpsons episodes. However, edits originating at address space assigned to FOX News, and its parent company, News Corporation were more frequently unproductive, many which under Wikipedia and most other Wikimedia project policy, would be considered vandalism and would usually result in a block or ban of editing Wikimedia projects.

The edits from FOX's address space, now totalling almost 700, start with an edit to the article on FOX which deleted links to websites critical of FOX. Some of the edits could be characterized as an attempt conceal criticism voiced in the documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism which alleges bias by FOX News. This was replaced with a link to the company's official response and another to a story put out by FOX News questioning the validity of the film's sources. The same Internet address at FOX News then removed criticism from the article on Alan Colmes.

Other addresses within FOX also edited articles on FOX News employees such as Brit Hume, Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace inserting positive information, highlighting their ratings successes and slogan, "fair and balanced" before going on to describe the New York Times as "left wing" and blanking the quotes section on the article about their columnist Mike Straka. The current version of this article is disputed on neutrality grounds as the entire biography and criticism sections have been removed. Including comments about anti-war protesters - "whom he has denounced as "smelly", "stupid", "stinking", "jobless", "anti-American" and "traitors"."

More recent edits include downplaying Sean Hannity's importance to the show Hannity and Colmes by removing the fact that he is the shows executive producer and referring to him as simply "host" or "co-host". Details of Wendy Murdoch's previous marriage to the husband from the couple who sponsored her trip to study in the United States were excised by another Fox News address.

Investigation of a wider field of media organisations revealed that the News Corporation subsidiary British Sky Broadcasting has the same history of juvenile and prank edits with insults posted against staff on their payroll as well as UK celebrities. The main proxy server that allows their staff on the Internet currently has a large warning of who the IP address belongs to and a list of block messages and block/edit warnings. Some of the vandalism committed through their proxy has been described as "racist" and "potentially libelous".

WikiScanner cannot identify the origin of any edit made by a registered user. Users are not required to register an account to edit Wikipedia, and those who do not register have their edits associated with an IP address. Edits from unregistered users are, inaccurately, called "anonymous" edits.

Wikimedia's privacy policy does not allow revealing the IP address of registered users except as dictated by Wikimedia's privacy policy. Users of Wikiscanner cannot find out about editing by registered users, even if they are coming from the same IP address as the "anonymous" users who did not register.

Virgil's conditions for speaking to the media include the format of a link to his website. His goal, to get a Google search for "Virgil" to return his page as the top listing. As of publication he's succeeded.


This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.