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Political wars on the Web

A curious bit of breaking news: the excellent political blog DemocraticSpace, a favourite of political junkies that also serves as a massive compendium of riding-by-riding information, exposed its own case of online political fraud yesterday. It appears that some Liberal Party hacks are logging on to the site and posting comments under multiple pseudonyms, in order to stack the site with Liberal-friendly spin. (It is with stunning conviction that such Liberals agree with themselves and their alter egos. “You are so right Ron!!!” writes Mark, even though both happen to be the same person.) Yet this is just one of many hot spots along the political battlefront of the World Wide Web, which is riddled with two-bit spies and vandals. And the best cat fights are often to be found amid Wikipedia’s political biographies.

As I write, Wikipedia’s bio for Dalton McGuinty warns, “Editing of this article by unregistered or newly registered users is currently disabled”—this to better discourage partisan revisionism. It has become relatively standard practice for Wikipedia to limit access to a living politician’s biography during a campaign, when they tend to generate lots of bogus edits. Not that the restrictions help much. McGuinty’s bio, which has been restricted for more than two months now, has been repeatedly changed to insert references to everything from faith-based-schooling “hypocrisy” to Warren Kinsella’s inappropriate blogging to Greg Sorbara’s resignation.

What’s fun about Wikipedia is that you can parse through the edit history and review the behind-the-scenes editing controversies and who’s involved. During last year’s federal Liberal leadership race, Arlene Perly Rae personally edited her husband’s biography (which, incidentally, remains mired in disputes). Meanwhile, Ignatieff’s bio became such a free-for-all (driven by competing interpretations of his academic writings) that WikiMediators had to be brought in to resolve the litany of disputes.

Since Wikipedia biographies are constantly changing, most major politicians now have someone in their office—a communications staffer, an intern, a spouse—whose job is to monitor Wikipedia for negative or unflattering edits and change them accordingly.

As for individuals writing comments under multiple pseudonyms—well, it has happened on this very blog, and is among the most annoying experiences I’ve ever had. I watched in dismay as two people entertained themselves by chatting amongst their dozen alter egos while shooing away any real-life outsider who wanted to join the discussion. Author Don Tapscott calls it “Wikinomics,” or “How mass collaboration changes everything.” Alas, it’s neither mass nor collaborative. And it changes nothing.

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