A number of Wikipedia editors began scrutinizing edits made from IP addresses associated with the United States Congress last week after staffers for Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan admitted having replaced Meehan's article with one they had written themselves.
The actions of Meehan's staff were first reported on Friday in his hometown newspaper, the Lowell Sun. As reported by the Sun, Meehan's staff decided to rewrite the article about their boss, which was done in a series of edits on 18 July 2005. In particular, news reports picked up on the fact that this removed references to Meehan's now-broken pledge when he first ran for office in 1992 to serve only four terms.
Meehan chief of staff Matt Vogel acknowledged the office's involvement, but defended it as having significantly expanded and improved the article. He said, "Let the outside world edit it. It seemed right to start with greater depth than a paragraph with incorrect data from the '80s." Implicitly, Vogel seemed to take the position that they didn't object to the term-limits pledge being discussed but felt no obligation to incorporate unflattering information in their own submission. Still, subsequent edits from the same IP address last month, on 27 December, severely trimmed the since-restored discussion of the pledge.
The resulting publicity apparently caused Meehan to regret this involvement, as he wrote a letter to the editor commenting, "It was a waste of energy and an error in judgment on the part of my staff to have allowed any time to be spent on updating my Wikipedia entry." A spokeswoman said that the office did not plan to change its rules about Internet use; general House policy reportedly allows "incidental" use by staffers.
The Associated Press also reported on Monday that the chief of staff for Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota admitted his staff had edited the article about Coleman. Chief of staff Erich Mische argued that the fact that anybody can edit Wikipedia serves to allow people to correct inaccurate information this way. However, some information about Coleman's voting record (that he voted with President Bush 98% of the time in 2003) was also removed. Mische conceded, "That probably should have stayed in there".
The incident prompted an investigation on the administrators' noticeboard to look for possible additional instances of Wikipedia editing by congressional staff. Rick Block searched the most recent 500 edits for articles about current members of Congress and turned up contributions from 28 IP addresses believed to be assigned either to the Senate or the House of Representatives. An analysis by Aaron indicated that about half of these made legitimate contributions, while the other half edited in bad faith (meaning involvement in major edit wars, severely biased editing, or outright vandalism). Most had made very few contributions, and the IP address that edited the Meehan article had by far the most. Its contributions went back before the Meehan edits to the creation, on 2 June 2005, of an article about the McEntire Joint National Guard Station in South Carolina. Many but certainly not all of the edits were to articles on political subjects.
The edits were almost certainly not all by the same person, either, as another contribution from this IP address showed. Someone identifying herself as the Communications Director for South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson posted his official biography to the talk page for the article, asking that it be considered for use in updating the article. Jimbo Wales confirmed that he had corresponded with her and suggested this particular course of action, commenting that this staffer's conduct was entirely proper: "Her actions were 100% perfect in every respect, treating us appropriately." Some more discussion took place in the context of a request for comment about the situation.
Although the Meehan article is apparently the first case where legislative staffers have openly admitted editing an article in which they have a professional stake, it is not the first time such efforts have come to light. The German Wikipedia had a similar incident last May in which some edits about the candidates in a regional election were traced to IP addresses for the Bundestag.
Still, involvement by political professionals need not be detrimental, as SimonP pointed out: "We've long been aware of edits coming from the Canadian House of Commons. Overall their edits were not much worse than any random group of anons." And Adam Carr, a long-time user and one of Wikipedia's most prolific editors, works for Michael Danby of the Australian House of Representatives.