Here is an update sent yesterday from the Twitter account @congressedits:
Choco Taco Wikipedia article edited anonymously by US House of Representatives http://t.co/QzECJYjf6v— congress-edits (@congressedits) July 14, 2014
Yes. This was to inform everyone that the Wikipedia page for the Choco Taco—a disappointingly brief entry, given the myriad cultural contributions made by Klondike's frozen dairy treat—had been updated. And updated from an anonymous IP address originating from, yes, the U.S. House of Representatives.
The change made? A reference to the availability of Choco Tacos in the vending machines of the Rayburn House Office Building.
The Choco Taco edit was silly, but it was also a win for @congressedits, a bot that promises to tweet "anonymous Wikipedia edits that are made from IP addresses in the U.S. Congress." The program's creator, Ed Summers, was inspired by @parliamentedits, a bot that tweets Wikipedia edits made from IPs in the British Parliament; he decided to design something similar for the United States. Something that would listen, Summers writes, "to all major language Wikipedias for anonymous edits from Congressional IP address ranges."
Call it ambient accountability. Wikipedia, after all, can serve as a kind of proxy battleground for political fights. (Remember when George W. Bush's Wiki page was updated to include the lines "Quite Simply, The Worse President In History! A Terrorist HimSelf, and a truly 'stupid' Mother F*cker who we all wish would leave this country for ever befor he starts another war and kills us all"?)
And while, given the structure of Wikipedia, pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can be a potential vandal ... political operatives have particular reason to add their own thoughts to Wiki's rough draft of history. They have vested interests in making their own candidates and team members look good. They have vested interests in making their opponents look bad. This is not new. There is, in fact, an entire page of the crowdsourced encyclopedia dedicated to "U.S. Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia."
But it makes a bot like @congressedits, in its iterative way, useful. So far, the account has alerted its more than 16,000 followers to updates that are both silly
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Wikipedia article edited anonymously by US House of Representatives http://t.co/hkLmIa63KW— congress-edits (@congressedits) July 14, 2014
...and more serious:
Assassination of John F. Kennedy Wikipedia article edited anonymously by US House of Representatives http://t.co/ptUUA0s87z— congress-edits (@congressedits) July 15, 2014
It has, in that, kept a running list of edits both major and minor, adding another layer of transparency and accountability to Wikipedia's already-open information aggregation process. Mostly, though, the bot has worked to remind people that, online, just as information can be manipulated ... the manipulation itself can become its own data point. As Summers explained in a blog post, "The simplicity of combining Wikipedia and Twitter in this way immediately struck me as a potentially useful transparency tool."
Consider this thought experiment. Imagine if our elected representatives and their staffers logged in to Wikipedia, identified much like Dominic McDevitt-Parks (a federal employee at the National Archives) and used their knowledge of the issues and local history to help make Wikipedia better? Perhaps in the process they enter into conversation in an article’s talk page, with a constituent, or political opponent and learn something from them, or perhaps compromise? The version history becomes a history of the debate and discussion around a topic. Certainly there are issues of conflict of interest to consider, but we always edit topics we are interested and knowledgeable about, don’t we?