Blog January 7, 2021

Inauthentic Editing: Changing Wikipedia to Win Elections and Influence People

Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. This is the first of two blog posts exploring the use, misuse, and ultimate resilience of this open, community-edited platform.
wikipedia graphic

The principle that “anyone can edit” Wikipedia has been foundational to the massive success of the nearly entirely volunteer-driven encyclopedia. With its first edit on January 15, 2001, the English Wikipedia website has averaged around 300 million pageviews per day over the past two years as people use the site to research everything from political candidates to animals with fraudulent diplomas. Content from Wikipedia is frequently prioritized by search engines, and Google’s knowledge panels use the first paragraph of Wikipedia articles to fuel instant results to user queries.

This combination of a low barrier to entry and a high impact makes Wikipedia a tempting target. Not every politician gets a profile in the New Yorker: for the rest, Wikipedia is often the only place with a complete profile of their biographical information and record in office.

Building on the work of Wikipedia editors catching politically motivated editing, we investigate one case of “inauthentic editing”—where individuals targeted the Wikipedia pages of two contending politicians during the 2020 British Columbia (BC) general provincial election. Through this deep-dive case study, we also show a process for investigating Wikipedia, and identify Wikipedia’s strengths and weaknesses in dealing with inauthentic edits.

Key Takeaways

  • Leading up to the 2020 British Columbia general election, editing activity spiked on the Wikipedia pages of two contending party leaders.

  • Partisan British Columbians sought to polish the Wikipedia page of their preferred candidate and tarnish that of his political rival.

  • Most partisan edits on both pages were by IP addresses or accounts with no prior contribution to Wikipedia. Some accounts were only created in the election month.

  • Techniques of partisan editing ranged from the addition of subtle language denigrating a candidate to the complete erasure of negative content, thus altering the public record. Controversy in the editing process also stalled further revisions.

  • Inconsistency was observed in the application of objectivity standards across contending politicians’ pages.

  • Wikipedia largely works: intentionally distorting Wikipedia is very difficult.

How Wikipedia Works

From its creation in 2003, Wikipedia has existed in a space of tension between three imperatives: it must be reliable, it must be stable, and it must survive with a skeletal operation of approximately 450 employees. To create new pages and maintain existing ones, the 130,385 active English-language volunteer Wikipedia editors must all abide by a certain set of standards: the “Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia.”

The idea of Wikipedia is that editors begin editing slowly, adhering to the ten rules, and become more aware of the proper editing style for Wikipedia the more they edit. In terms of editing living people’s biographies, five general rules are especially pertinent:

  • Cite everything: All statements must contain citations that link to reliable sources. As part of this, no original research is permitted.

  • No self-promotion: Editing a page in reference to oneself is strongly discouraged, and can be grounds for a ban.

  • Neutral point of view: the edits must focus on presenting “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.”

  • Notability: “the person who is the topic of a biographical article should be "worthy of notice" or "note"—that is, "remarkable" or "significant, interesting, or unusual enough to deserve attention or to be recorded" within Wikipedia as a written account of that person's life.”

  • Disclosure: the editor must disclose if they receive compensation of any kind for their work on a page.

The governance of Wikipedia rests on a hierarchy of users. The more time a user spends editing Wikipedia, the more privileges they accrue: most users can edit and create new articles. Privileges like locking articles or checking user IP addresses in case of contentious issues are reserved for experienced editors. Every user must be transparent and explain themselves via talk pages - a forum where editors discuss changes to Wikipedia pages. Discussions are verified through the “View History” tab, which shows the page’s evolution over time. Editors are identified either by an account username or, if they edit without logging into an account, their IP address.

The basic dilemma that leads to inauthentic editing on Wikipedia is the investment gap: overseen by a network of volunteer editors, careful vandals with interest in a specific page or group of pages can edit Wikipedia to manipulate how a story is presented. Tasked with maintaining all six million pages on English Wikipedia, good-faith editors are already spread thin—some targeted inauthentic activity will inevitably slip through the cracks.

Partisan Edit Wars in the 2020 British Columbia Election

On September 21, 2020, the incumbent premier of the province of British Columbia, Canada announced an early general election to be held on October 24, 2020 – a year earlier than the fixed date. Leading up to the election, editing activity spiked on the Wikipedia pages of the two contending party leaders: John Horgan (incumbent premier and leader of the New Democratic Party - NDP) and Andrew Wilkinson (British Columbia Liberal Party leader).

One Wikipedia user, VirtualVisionary, was at the center of edit wars on both pages. He—and we’ll later find that VirtualVisionary is a he—added controversies on John Horgan’s page while removing controversies from Andrew Wilkinson’s page. 

John Horgan’s Wikipedia Page

On August 14, VirtualVisionary added a “Controversies” section to Horgan’s page. It discussed the Horgan administration’s COVID-19 Back-to-School Plan, which, the user noted, lacked a mandatory mask policy or virtual learning option. This edit was quickly reverted by another Wikipedia user, Melcous, who stated that this was a politician’s biography, not his administration’s politics. VirtualVisionary undid the reversion, replying that controversy sections were common on politicians’ Wikipedia pages, citing Andrew Cuomo as an example. Another user, Maclean25, reverted VirtualVisionary’s reversion. It supported Melcous’ argument and suggested the content was better suited for the “COVID-19 pandemic in British Columbia” Wikipedia page. VirtualVisionary disagreed and undid the reversion. This triggered back-and-forth reversions between VirtualVisionary and three additional users: Joeyconnick, GoodDay, and TJRC

The above users posted warnings on VirtualVisionary’s talk page, urging him to stop his disruptive editing. User Joeyconnick told him to seek consensus on the talk page before re-adding his contentious material. Otherwise, he’d be blocked. VirtualVisionary responded by deleting the warnings from his talk page.

In late September, a second edit war emerged following Horgan’s announcement of an early election. User Noid19 added a paragraph criticizing Horgan’s early election call. It inserted lines including, “The people of BC felt disappointed that John Horgan would break his word and force them to go to the polls during a Global Pandemic.” Other editors quickly removed the subjective phrases, and Joeyconnick added a more succinct statement on the early election. As though seeking revenge, VirtualVisionary undid these and told Joeyconnick to go to the talk page and seek consensus for his edits, just as Joeyconnick had earlier told VirtualVisionary.

Back and forth reversions ensued between the different framings of the early election call. This time, however, the edit war was with an anonymous user identified only by their IP address. The IP address resembles VirtualVisionary in its anti-Horgan slant, writing style, pages edited, and timing of edits. In one talk page, VirtualVisionary admits to editing the Horgan page while not logged in, suggesting that this is his IP address. Geolocating the IP address reveals its location as White Rock, British Columbia, thus belonging to a British Columbia resident.

Several instances of vandalism followed on Horgan’s page: one user added “(homeless)” beside his name. Another changed his citizenship from Canadian to “American.”

Ultimately, all attempts to add contentious content to Horgan’s page were reverted. However, despite VirtualVisionary’s persistent efforts to polish Wilkinson’s page, Wilkinson did not fare as well. 

Andrew Wilkinson’s Page

On September 22, a day after the early election announcement, user Tmundle added that Wilkinson’s, “appointment [as deputy minister for Intergovernmental Relations] was reported as an “obscene patronage appointment” due to Wilkinson’s prior position as BC Liberal Party President.” The user referenced a 2001 physical newspaper with no URL or other online trace. An anonymous user then added this quote to Wilkinson’s introduction, giving it higher visibility. Both Tmundle and the IP address (though could be the same person) have no prior contributions to Wikipedia. Both are also likely residents of British Columbia; the anonymous user’s IP address registers to Vancouver. Meanwhile, Googling the Wikipedia username, Tmundle, reveals two British Columbia residents with an email address with that prefix. Hence, the partisan edits were likely made by individuals with a stake in the British Columbia election.

Wilkinson’s page saw not only anti-Wilkinson, but also pro-Wilkinson edits. User Noid19, who attempted to add negative content on Horgan’s page, also appeared on Wilkinson’s page. Noid19 replaced the “obscene patronage appointment” quote above with a potentially fabricated quote, stating, “The appointment [...] was reported as an "appropriate choice based off his merits and abilities as a Medical doctors [sic] and lawyer.” While altering the quote, Noid19 kept the original reference. As unsuspecting readers may not read the referenced sources themselves, such alteration of facts is dangerous. As there’s no online trace of the 2001 referenced newspaper, it’s also difficult to verify which of the quote’s polar opposite versions is true, if any. Noid19 also deleted several paragraphs on Wilkinson’s contentious role in mass government land sales. 

media quote alteration

 

At another instance, Noid19 made a subtle but high-impact edit in Wilkinson’s “Comments about renters” section. In 2019, Wilkinson commented on his fun, younger “wacky” days living in rentals. As the page originally read, “His speech failed to acknowledge that many people must now rent at skyrocketing rates.” Noid19 removed the words “failed to.” Though a minor change in terms of word count, this edit inverted the sentence’s meaning. Noid19 labeled the edits as “minor” (symbolized by m) and described, “(Added citation.),” in the edit summary, as though to evade other editors’ detection. 

Despite these high-impact edits, Noid19 has no warnings on its talk page – potentially a credit to the user’s subtlety.

misleading edit summary wikipedia

Nonetheless, Tmundle later restored the “obscene patronage appointment” quote. Another IP address from British Columbia and with no prior contribution to Wikipedia restored the deleted land sale paragraphs.

Vandalism

Besides partisan edits, Wilkinson’s page also saw its share of vandalism. User TianaFaaa changed Wilkinson’s name to “Bilkinson,”and changed his party from Liberal to NDP. A currently-blocked IP address, with a history of vandalism on Wikipedia, wrote by Wilkinson’s name, “aka dummy.” Another IP address added, “hes [sic] very very racist.” 

However, vigilant community editors reverted these within hours. ClueBot NG, an anti-vandal bot, reverted the latter instance of vandalism within seconds. ClueBot NG, which has made over 5 million edits, is unique among Wikipedia’s community-created bots. According to its user page, it “uses a completely different method for classifying vandalism than all previous anti-vandal bots.” Instead of simple heuristics and blacklisted words, it relies on machine-learning.

Partisan Edit Wars 

On October 1, VirtualVisionary jumped back in. Recently criticized for adding a “Controversies'' section to Horgan’s page, VirtualVisionary was alarmed to find negative partisan edits on Wilkinson’s page. He reverted Tmundle’s and others’ restorations, and admonished: “Please STOP editing this article and discuss changes in the TALK section. We need to reach a consensus before changes are made. There is an obvious bias and we need to address this in the TALK section.” While logged out, VirtualVisionary deleted any unfavorable paragraph, including Wilkinson’s land sale role and “Comments about renters” section. This instigated another edit war with VirtualVisionary on one side, and an IP address and user Jjsmitchell (another single-purpose account, created in October 2020) on the other. As though encouraged by VirtualVisionary’s outrage, Jjsmitchell further relabeled the “Comments on Renters” section to “‘Whacky Time’ Controversy,” among other negative edits. VirtualVisionary repeatedly reverted such additions. 

The intensifying edit-warring between VirtualVisionary and the above users led the administrator and page creator, Bearcat, to step in and lock the article – temporarily restricting editing access to Wikipedia administrators until November 1.  

However, the hasty administrative lock meant that partisan edits – including the “Whacky Times Controversy” heading, and “obscene patronage” quote in the introduction – stuck.

A Double Standard?

Locked from Wilkinson’s page and threatened of getting blocked on Horgan’s page, VirtualVisionary wrote complaints on other talk pages. He noted a double standard in maintaining the neutrality of Horgan’s versus Wilkinson’s page. It seemed unfair that his “Controversies'' section on Horgan’s page was constantly repealed, while controversies were allowed to run rampant on Wilkinson’s page, particularly leading up to an election. However, while the removed  controversies on Horgan’s page pertained to his administration’s actions, those on Wilkinson’s page related to Wilkinson’s personal actions – potentially explaining the differences in their treatment.

Nonetheless, there was a higher tolerance for anti-Wilkinson bias on Wilkinson’s page than there was for Horgan’s page. The case reveals a degree of double standards in preserving the neutrality of contending politicians’ pages on Wikipedia. This is likely due to Wikipedia’s functioning through volunteer editors. These editors lack the time, interest, or energy to evenly patrol every page. The main extended-confirmed users monitoring Horgan’s page, for instance, were not present on Wilkinson’s page. 

Who is VirtualVisionary? 

Who is VirtualVisionary? Why is he so persistent? Normally it’s not possible to identify a Wikipedia user in real life without access to internal Wikipedia data, and we were unable to personally identify most users in these edit wars. As VirtualVisionary edited pages without logging in, however, he revealed his IP address and general location. His history of edits also reveal his interests. VirtualVisionary’s account was only created  in August 2020, and his first edits concerned the Horgan government’s COVID-19 handling. He not only added a “Controversies” section to Horgan’s page, but also altered the Wikipedia introduction of Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer. His persistent edits around the Horgan government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the back-to-school plan with citations of parents’ concerns, suggest he’s potentially a parent of school-aged children. However, these were only conjectures.

Luckily, digging through VirtualVisionary’s archived conversations on other users’ talk pages reveals a page where he discloses his real-life identity. During his edit wars, VirtualVisionary pleaded his case on the talk pages of several administrators or extended-confirmed users. He sought their support to stop others from reverting his edits. One user, S0091, remarked on VirtualVisionary’s suspicious behavior. As though to compensate for this, VirtualVisionary divulged his identity in a show of transparency. He identified himself as one of two dads in an article, who launched a lawsuit against the British Columbia Government for their back-to-school plan. The article is similar to the one he cited on Horgan’s page.

He signed off his comment with his real name. Hence, a dad who launched a lawsuit against the Horgan government tried to add negative content to Horgan’s page while removing negative content from his political rival’s page.

Analysis

Leading up to the 2020 British Columbia general election, editing activity spiked on the Wikipedia pages of the contending party leaders. Some partisan British Columbians sought to polish the Wikipedia page of their preferred candidate and/or tarnish that of his political opponent. It’s insightful that much of the partisan editing activity on both pages were by IP addresses or accounts with no prior history of contribution to Wikipedia. Some of these accounts were only created in October 2020. 

How did Wikipedia fare against such partisan edits? Wikipedia was largely successful. Vigilant users and anti-vandal bots swiftly reverted blatant cases of vandalism. Non-neutrally phrased lines, like Noid19’s criticism of Horgan’s election call, were trimmed and moderated by experienced users. Administrative tools like user blocks and temporary page locks helped tackle edit wars. 

However, more sophisticated edits, like those on Wilkinson’s page, took longer to detect, if detected at all. As seen, editors could engage in deceptive practices such as misleading edit summaries or revisions of sourced statements. One obstacle to detecting alterations of facts is inaccessibility to their references. Though Wikipedia requires all information to be sourced, not all citations are equally accessible. Therefore, not all statements are equally verifiable. Besides dead links and paywalls, some references are physical copy sources with no online trace. 

There was also inconsistency in the application of objectivity standards across politicians’ pages. Wikipedia editors may value steady consensus-building over speed, but as seen, locked articles are not a panacea - they can preserve biased language or prevent politically sensitive content from being added. Even if the Wikipedia article regresses towards an accurate mean over time and community deliberation, those who read the article in the meantime might receive incomplete information.

This raises the question: how impactful are candidates’ Wikipedia pages in influencing public opinion? While it’s difficult to answer that question directly, an analysis of candidates’ page views during elections yields insights.

Before the early election announcement, Horgan’s and Wilkinson’s pages both saw less than a few hundred views per day. Each page’s average views rose to over 1,400 daily views between the election announcement (9/21) and election day (10/24). Though the number of viewers reached was still limited, it may be of significance if it is undecided voters who look up politicians’ pages during election time. 

On the night of October 24, it was announced that Horgan’s party won enough votes to form a majority government. Ultimately, Horgan won in both the online and offline realms.

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