The German Wikipedia this week became embroiled in something of a political scandal in the run-up to regional elections in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The elections were widely seen as a barometer of nationwide public opinion in advance of federal elections later this year, and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) took the win from the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) after some 38 years in opposition in the region.
The scandal surrounded the Wikipedia entries for CDU Prime Ministerial candidate Jürgen Rüttgers and, to a lesser extent, SPD incumbent Peer Steinbrück. The entries saw a very large number of edits in the run-up to the election, many from anonymous IP addresses, and a number of passages critical of Rüttgers were removed by the anonymous users. In particular, sections of the article reporting a controversy in which the politician expressed his view that Catholicism and Christianity were superior to other religions were subject to removal and alteration.
Investigation of the IP address via reverse DNS look-up revealed that many originated within the Bundestag (German Parliament) in Berlin, with a substantial number also coming from Düsseldorf, capital of the region. All the edits looked to be attempting to insert a point of view into the article in an attempt, perhaps, to influence the election, breaking Wikipedia's policy on neutrality.
The edits from within the Bundestag led to the suspicion that party workers themselves were behind the attempts to manipulate Wikipedia content for political ends. However, tracing those responsible further than their location proved impossible, because of the way the parliament assigns its IP addresses. One IP may be used by any of the 600 members of parliament or their 6000 members of staff.
One attempt to pin down the suspect apparently didn't take this into account, and incorrectly pointed the finger at CDU parliamentarian Ole Schröder. Schröder was forced to issue a statement denying any involvement, and said those who had accused him of being responsible were 'uninformed'.
High-profile elections are always likely to trigger a flurry of edits to articles relating to them, and to prevent a similar kind of attempt at manipulation in the future, some Wikipedianer proposed that relevant political articles be protected during the week prior to the election. However, the idea did not gain favour, with others saying it was too severe a solution, and that instead, users should simply add the articles to their watchlists and monitor them carefully for signs of biased edits. Temporary protection of articles was not ruled out though.
Mathias Schindler asked on his blog that people back away from the gamesmanship and find better ways of occupying their time. Among his suggested alternatives was translating the respective articles into other languages instead of fighting over them; so far, no article exists in English for either candidate.
Wikipedia is unlikely to have played a crucial role in the outcome of the election, as Rüttgers defeated Steinbrück by a decisive margin of 44%-37%. The result was a blow to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has now said that he will call federal elections later this year, much earlier than originally expected.