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Government’s ‘Ninja Edits’ to Wikipedia Alarming, Critic Says

OpenMedia says government staff’s PR changes to online encyclopedia lack transparency.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 10 Jan 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

Government staffers’ edits to articles in the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia should alarm Canadians, says Meghan Sali of OpenMedia, an internet freedom advocacy organization.

Sali said “ninja editing” by the government is problematic because the government has an interest in influencing the political landscape.

“The public, I would assume, doesn’t want to see the government conducting information campaigns using public resources, or semi-public resources like Wikipedia,” she said. “Especially without having to go to the public and make their case and answer questions about it.”

Sali gave the example of a case where someone at Environment and Climate Change Canada changed “unarmed protesters” to “protesters armed with pieces of wood” in an entry on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests last November.

Sali said it’s a “real surprise” Canadians aren’t more upset about the edits and that the issue seems to go unnoticed by media.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia written collaboratively by users. Anyone with an internet connection can contribute or make changes to an entry on the site.

Some changes are inconsequential or comical, and much media reporting has focused on amusing stories.

But the serious aspects of the issue haven’t received serious attention from the public, media or elected officials.

Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson Samantha Lien told The Tyee the foundation guidelines exist within Wikipedia’s structure to keep information reliable and neutral.

“Edits by a government staff member or other official about something that pertains to their employer, organization, or department would generally be considered a conflict of interest by the Wikipedia community,” Lien said.  

The issue of changes to Wikipedia made from government internet addresses isn’t new or exclusive to Canada.

Software that can automatically track government changes to Wikipedia entries and tweet the information has been put in to use in a number of countries.

In Canada, it was set up in 2014 by Nick Ruest, a librarian at York University. Since then, the Twitter account Gov. of Canada edits (@gccaedits) has logged 7,200 changes to Wikipedia made by people using government IP addresses.

In an email response to questions from The Tyee, Ruest said he thinks the media has covered the issue well and makes effective use of the Twitter account he established.

“Specific edits are where I think an entry point is for investigative journalism,” he wrote. “A specific tweeted edit could be the tip or entry point for a story.”

But Ruest noted the software only logs anonymous edits, and there could be many more changes to articles by government staff with Wikipedia accounts.

Ruest said, while the potential for abuse does worry him, not all government edits are a concern. Some changes can be useful, like government scientists updating a page, he said.

Ruest’s Twitter account notified Blacklock’s Reporter editor Tom Korski that someone had changed the publication’s Wikipedia profile using a Federal Court IP address shortly after a court case involving his publication.

Blacklock’s had lost a lawsuit it launched against the Department of Finance for distributing the publication’s material internally without paying for it. Blacklock’s was also ordered to pay $65,000 in court costs, a decision it is appealing.

Korski doesn’t know what was changed on Blacklock’s Wikipedia page or who changed it, but said he finds it unsettling a government body would go on a PR offensive, especially over a case still before the courts.

“What was disturbing is that you would have a Federal Court officer or employee attempting to influence the opinion of Wikipedia users on a plaintiff before a Federal Court,” Korski said. “Everyone has an expectation of fairness and impartiality when you deal with a Federal Court.”

On Monday Blacklock’s published a story reporting the Federal Court is investigating the alterations made to its Wikipedia profile.

Blacklock’s situation is the kind of case that that Sali finds concerning.

She said the government needs to be more open when it wants to put its view on a subject across to the public.

“It’s important for Canadians to understand what their government is actually doing to conduct PR campaigns,” she said. “It has to be done in a much more transparent manner.”

The Tyee put questions about the issue to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which oversees the conduct of government employees, but did not receive a response by deadline Monday.  [Tyee]

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