Best known for its potatoes and Anne of Green Gables, Canada's smallest province is also home to the longest serving First Minister in the country, Premier Pat Binns of the Progressive Conservative party. Binns’ Wikipedia article was the subject of national print and online coverage, as well as regional radio and television stories, after a liberal versus conservative editing spat arose.
On 12 April, a reporter from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canada’s state-owned broadcaster, contacted admin and press contact Nick Moreau (known as Zanimum), inquiring whether political views are normal or encouraged on Wikipedia, pointing to the article on Premier Binns. Moreau quickly replied to the reporter from CBC Radio One Charlottetown (PEI’s capital city), and checked the page, to see what was the matter.
Until mid-March, Premier Binns’ article was of fairly good length and had a neutral point of view (NPOV), albeit with no references. The situation started when an anonymous user—who decided the article was perhaps too balanced, and not portraying the well-liked Premier in a good light—began editing Premier Binns’ originally NPOV article. Other than a complete lack of references, it was fairly clean, if, perhaps, unexciting prose. It included a photo of Binns, acquired through Moreau who convinced a Flickr user to “free” their creative work. Another anonymous user began cleaning up the less stellar points in his tenure, making the article sound as positive as one would expect from campaign literature.
This attracted the attention of Stephen Pate, a disability rights activist from the province. According to sources, Pate regularly pickets the PEI legislature regarding the issue, as well as running a blog on the topic. Not a fan of Binns' disability policies, Pate decided to revert the article, and add his own content focusing on disability rights. The paragraph included promotion for the Disability Alert blog, labeled as an advocacy organization representing 19,000 people. Pate has since refused to offer the media any membership list, to prove any such organization even exists beyond his PC.
The decision to not only revert, but add an extra helping of criticism angered the anonymous user, who again whitewashed the article. This process repeated itself a number of times, until it degenerated into pranks and name-calling. The Conservatives started to add paragraphs solely knocking Pate, while Pate chose to blank the entire article, with exception of the introduction and criticism sections. He also deleted Binns from an information box template of Canadian premiers. This despite later saying, “to just delete [parts of an article] is very unprofessional.”
During this process, established Wikipedians would occasionally step in with the revert button. None, however, realized that all-out intervention was needed, no one seeing how both sides displayed childish behaviour for weeks on end.
With an election impending in PEI, CBC found the article, and discussed the editing process with Moreau by email, and with Wikimedia Foundation Communications Manager Sandra Ordonez by telephone. Premier Binns was interviewed by the station, as was the activist, Pate.
Nelson Hagerman, the husband of PEI's Lieutenant Governor, Barbara Oliver Hagerman, was dragged into the story, after Pate stated that he might be the anon. Hagerman said that he’d never even heard of Wikipedia, let alone engaged in editing it. The interview didn’t make air on the CBC.
The 10-minute story, as told by Barb McKenna, was used both on 17 April on Island Morning, a PEI-only show, and Maritime Noon, heard also in the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. CBC PEI and CBC Manitoba’s news pages both posted an abbreviated story. Later that evening, a CBC-TV story by reporter Sophia Harris played on CBC Compass, the nightly news program in the province.
For his part, Binns commented, "I live in a public domain, I understand all that; the unfortunate part about it is, someone who's not familiar with Wikipedia ... they would think it's gospel, but it's not."
The initial radio coverage only added to the situation, as a new anon editing the article to suggest Binns was taking bribes to pass laws.
A writer for the Canwest News Service picked up on the story, publishing in it in the National Post, the Charlottetown Guardian, the Windsor Star (in Ontario), the Montreal Gazette (in Quebec), and on Canada.com. By this time, the Progressive Conservative party had placed the blame on “a pair of computer-literate, overzealous PC Youth members who took it upon themselves to write nice things about Binns.”
Semi-protection of the article, which was implemented on Thursday, was done indefinitely; it is expected to soon be removed. Pate has agreed to back off from the article. Moreau has created Disability rights in Prince Edward Island for Pate, but the advocate has yet to edit the separate article he is free to expand, without exposing a biography of a living person to undue weight. Binns is a current candidate for the Article Creation and Improvement Drive.
Activists could use Pate’s tactics to their advantage in the future; by commencing an edit war in an unfrequented corner of Wikipedia. Such activists would not seek any form of mediation from administrators, then pointing the media to the edit war, get a national audience of thousands for their cause. As commented on a message board, "if you are an attention seeking troublemaker who loves nothing more than to see his face on the t.v. and read about himself in the media - it helps your own cause."
Around 1:00 MST on 23 April, Pate sent out a press release to an undetermined number of media outlets, pointing at recent anonymous edits to the article "Disability rights in Prince Edward Island". Whether this stirs up any more hub-bub is to be seen.