The Denver Post has a fun article up today about attempts by various campaigns to game publicly-editable information sources about candidates–most importantly the ubiquitous Wikipedia:
Like county fairs and gossip fences of days gone by, the Wikipedia biography is an emerging battleground in the modern political campaign.
The online encyclopedia lets anyone and everyone edit the posted articles. And while that may be a boon for the First Amendment, it can be a nightmare for politicians who want to maintain control of their personal narrative – and want it to tilt in their favor.
In Colorado, Wiki wars have already been waged over U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s ethnicity, challenger Andrew Romanoff’s standing within the party, Hickenlooper’s reputation with small business and Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis’ relationship with former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay.
Snapshots of the pages for leading candidates for governor and U.S. Senate taken last Monday trace how the pages had changed during the prior months.
Tracking the changes shows a pattern of online political intrigue, some originating from government offices.
Let’s start with some simple ground rules for candidates and staff: don’t post to/edit Wikipedia from a government-owned computer, or for that matter any address that can be traced back to yourself or your organization. It may not be possible to precisely identify who is doing the editing, but the mere fact that it’s being edited from a city, state or federal government computer–or any computer that can be traced back to a known entity–is worth a Denver Post story pretty much all by itself. Remember, Wikipedia is one of the only forums where everything you do is logged to a publicly displayed internet address, unlike this blog where that information is never disclosed. And while you can trust us to keep those records secure, you can’t count on that on every blog, so be careful where you comment from work computers.
If you’re really worried about this, the safest place to post from anonymously, to Wikipedia or blogs, is a coffee shop or other public free WiFi internet connection. Failing that, generally residential internet connections from Qwest and Comcast are considered safe enough, as no user identifying information is obtainable beyond the ISP’s identity without a court order–and this kind of “monkey business” usually doesn’t rise to that level.
Second, don’t use the “passive voice” in Wikipedia entries. No competent Wikipedia editor is going to let a statement like “some businesses say so-and-so sucks” remain displayed without authoritative links backing it up. Everything one puts into a Wikipedia entry should be sourced and dispassionately written–even when that’s hard to do.
Following those first two rules–don’t post from a trackable location, and post only well-sourced, dispassionate copy–will help one avoid the next and arguably most important rule: don’t establish a reputation for “monkey business.” The Post continues:
On Oct. 18, an anonymous poster from a computer in Fort Collins inserted into Romanoff’s page a slanted version of Bennet’s appointment.
It read: “The appointment of Bennet angered many Colorado Democrats because they felt that Romanoff should have been offered the seat as he is a popular ‘rising star’ among state Democrats and has a proven record of being able to win election.”
…A shorter version first appeared on Bennet’s page in March 2009, but was removed after three hours.
A review of other revisions to both the Bennet and Romanoff pages shows that a former Romanoff campaign volunteer made changes to both pages in March, October and December of last year.
The revisions were minor, but they did include a recommendation to put a “lock” on Bennet’s page to limit who could edit it.
The volunteer, Andrew Barrow, declined to discuss the editing.
“I’m not allowed to talk about any of this,” Barrow said before hanging up.
Dean Toda, spokesman for the Romanoff campaign, said Barrow briefly was a volunteer who was “told to take a hike” in November after he was involved in “monkey business” with another political website.
The “monkey business” on “another political website” was, um, actually in December. And while it’s nice to see a public acknowledgement of that incident and how the Andrew Romanoff campaign ultimately resolved it, unfortunately they let what happened there fester for almost two months without an apology, or even a private email to us putting daylight between the actions of this volunteer and the campaign. Meanwhile, and with no help from your hosts, this incident has contributed–only in part, but notably–to a persistent negative impression of that campaign among our readers. In the end, far more damage was done than the success of their little vote-rigging operation could possibly have been worth.
One thing we have heard is that recent staffing changes at the Romanoff campaign have included the replacement of the online campaign director, and Romanoff has advisors now who have made every mistake online that can be made–presumably that experience will help them avoid an embarrassing recurrence of “monkey business.”
The rest of you? The desperate minor candidate looking for that astroturf edge? The junior staffer or volunteer with a “really great idea?” We are posting all of this for your benefit.