Wikinews, the collaborative online journalism project from Wikipedia‘s parent organization, just published new details about Wikipedia edits made by Capitol Hill staffers. Using computers connected to the senate’s network, staffers have been editing entries — in some, whitewashing unflattering facts away; in others, inserting nasty blurbs about political foes.
What’s interesting here is that Wikinews seems to be doing a better job at connecting the data dots than some of the larger commercial news organizations covering the story. Not because Wikinews volunteers have access to facts that mainstream media reporters don’t, but because Wikinewsers might just be looking harder for those facts in the right places.
And although some dirty digital deeds were done, Wikinews reports that many edits (and there were lots of ‘em) attributed to Capitol Hill computers were benign. While one could argue Wikinews reporters are more likely to report favorable facts about Wikipedia, publicly accessible historic data supports that assertion. Snip:
Using the public history of edits on Wikipedia, Wikinews reporters collected every Senate IP which had ever edited on Wikipedia as of February 3 and examined where the IPs came from, what they edited, and of what those edits consisted. IP, or Internet Protocol, addresses are unique numbers electronic devices use to communicate with each other on an individual basis.
Okay, now bear with me through this important part, don’t let all the numbers put you to sleep. Snip, emphasis mine:
IP address mapping: The U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms owns the IP block 188.8.131.52 to 184.108.40.206. Requests to learn the mapping of these thousands of IPs were not responded to at press time.
However, the lower 100 blocks of addresses appear to be mapped to the 100 Senators based on their state’s alphabetical listing. This was partially confirmed using e-mail responses from the offices of Senators; where the originating computer was connected to the network directly and was not a part of block 222 (a section which seems to be reserved for servers), the IP addresses matched the prediction pattern.
Whoah, did you catch that? Wikinews is saying that someone (I’m presuming Wikinews contributors) sent emails to specific Senators’ offices, then read the email header data that came back on autoresponder emails to get the IP address for each office. Once IPs could be linked to specific offices, it became possible to look back at Wikipedia edit histories and figure out which office was responsible for which edit, whether good or sneaky-bad. That’s called investigative reporting, folks.
When examining the edit behavior of IPs it also tended to match the predicted pattern. IPs which were assigned to Florida had edits to Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez and other Florida-related pages primarily, while those assigned to California had edited Dianne Feinstein. Edits coming from the U.S. House of Representatives were less traceable because they came through a proxy server—meaning they all showed up under one IP address.
Open, collaborative information projects like Wikipedia and Wikinews tend to make a lot of people very nervous. There are so many ways those sites can go wrong, the logic goes. But what they get right might frighten media traditionalists even more. And in this case, it looks like Wikinews really got it right.
Link to full text of entry, which breaks down Wikipedia edit history linked to staffers for Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, Tom Harkin, Norm Coleman, and Conrad Burns (his fondness for the word “ragheads” was excised by a staffer, according to this report).