This summer has been filled with tales of odd, and at times shameful, Wikipedia edits coming from congressional IP addresses thanks to the recently created @congressedits Twitter bot that automatically tweets any anonymous edits generated from the congressional network. While the tool creates aversion for those on Capitol Hill in participating as editors, many Wikipedia and transparency advocates are stressing the importance of the staffers continuing to lend their knowledge.
Wikimedia DC — the nonprofit regional Wikimedia chapter for the Washington, D.C., area committed to promoting the upkeep of Wikipedia’s public services — published a blog post Monday challenging congressional staffers to continue editing away on Wikipedia.
“Most press coverage of CongressEdits has focused on acts of vandalism, and one would think we would want to chase Congressional staff away,” wrote Wikimedia DC President James Hare and Treasurer Peter Meyer. “In fact, Wikimedia DC welcomes edits by Congressional staff and the staffs of federal government agencies. Government staff are experts in areas of public interest, including very new hot topics. They play a promising role in our mission to make a better online reference work, with notable, neutrally phrased, verifiable content. We can overlook minor discretions and work with Capitol Hill and all federal employees to forge a path forward.”
Those “acts of vandalism” were more newsworthy not because they were disruptive or hate-induced — “they are mostly the kind of juvenile or disruptive edits that Wikipedia deals with every minute of every day without incident,” the blog post said — but rather because they came from within Congress. Some even led to the banning of congressional IP addresses from Wikipedia use.
Most recently — and perhaps the most controversial edit of the bunch — someone on U.S. House of Representatives IP address 126.96.36.199 edited the Wikipedia page for the HBO show “Orange is the New Black.” In their edits, they made transphobic comments about transgender actress Laverne Cox. The anonymous staffer changed the phrase “the first ever women-in-prison narrative to be played by a real transgender woman” to “the first ever women-in-prison narrative to be played by a real man pretending to be a woman.”
That edit led to the the IP address being banned for a third time this summer alone. The alleged editor responded to public outrage saying, “There’s nothing illegal about editing Wikipedia to promote official business that has been explicitly authourized [sic] by the Representative.”
But while Wikipedia can be used as a pot to stir controversy, as seen in the above example, it can also be used as a major educational tool to connect Congress to the American public on major issues on Capitol Hill. According to the Cato Insitute, which recently partnered with Wikimedia DC to host a panel on congressional edits to Wikipedia, in a 90-day period there were about 400,000 hits on Wikipedia pages about bills pending in Congress.
“What’s notable though is the people most knowledgeable about bills pending in Congress, the congressional staff, have an aversion to this,” said John Maniscalco, director of congressional affairs at the Cato Institute, during that panel. “So the people who work with members, who work with Ledge Counsel, who work with [Congressional Research Service] are largely not editing the website that a large segment of the American population use to get information about bills pending in Congress. So what we have here is a huge manner in which government can deliver transparency.”
Both Cato and Wikimedia DC assert that with care and understanding from both congressional staffers and the Wikipedia community, the website can grow to be an even bigger tool for open government. Specifically, Wikimedia DC offered the following best practices:
- Register individual accounts. By registering an account, it helps you develop goodwill with the Wikipedia community. Fellow editors get the sense that they are working with another person, not a shadowy figure hiding behind an IP address. However, Wikipedia’s policies do not permit the registration of group or company accounts; each account must be used by one person only.
- Acknowledge your potential conflicts of interest. The community of volunteers that maintains Wikipedia cares very strongly about potential conflict of interest. To this end, avoid editing articles on your boss or your employer. Additionally, being transparent about your affiliation can help build trust. NARA has a standard format for conflict-of-interest disclaimers, a format which can be freely copied and re-used by others in the federal government.
- Look into other agencies’ best practices. Some agencies have published best practices on Wikipedia participation, including NARA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institutes of Health. These are best practices you may wish to incorporate, should you have the opportunity to develop best practices for your own agency. We also recommend reading Why CongressEdits Matters for Your Agency on DigitalGov.
“There’s aversion on Capitol Hill to editing Wikipedia, and I think there’s some distrust among the Wikipedia community for edits coming from Congress,” said Jim Harper, senior fellow with the Cato Institute. “But with work and with care, I think we can improve that situation markedly and improve the information that’s available to the American people about what happens here.”