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The Wikipedia effect on presidential politics

Joseph Reagle

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Let the editing begin. The day pre­sump­tive Repub­lican pres­i­den­tial nom­inee Mitt Romney announced that Rep. Paul Ryan of Wis­consin would be his run­ning mate, Ryan’s Wikipedia page received a flurry of edits, some of which were biased or inac­cu­rate. We asked Joseph Reagle, an assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, to dis­cuss Wikipedia’s role in modern politics.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate sparked a flurry of edits to Ryan’s Wikipedia page. What tends to happen to the page of a public figure whose prominence has increased so rapidly, and how do editors work collectively to come to a consensus?

In the 2008 elec­tion, Wikipedia’s biogra­phies of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin received many edits just before each was named as a vice pres­i­den­tial nom­inee, leading some to wonder if Wikipedia could be used to pre­dict nom­i­na­tions this time around. This is now a known phe­nom­enon, how­ever, and smart teams that do not wish to reveal their hands likely spread out their edits in time and over pos­sible can­di­dates. What’s more, Wikipedia has become more estab­lished over the last four years, prompting politi­cians to be con­cerned about their arti­cles even before receiving such a nomination.

Nev­er­the­less, as soon as news of Ryan’s nom­i­na­tion leaked to the public, a state­ment from his year­book declaring him the “biggest brown-​​noser” was removed and then replaced from his Wikipedia biog­raphy. More than 5,000 words of dis­cus­sion fol­lowed on the article’s Talk page and on the Biog­raphy of Living Per­sons notice­board. In the end, much of the detail about his high-​​school years was com­pressed and the “brown-​​noser” state­ment was removed. His biog­raphy is now “semi­pro­tected,” meaning that it can only be edited by someone with an account (rather than anony­mously) that is four days old and has made at least 10 edits.

What role does a collaboratively edited resource like Wikipedia play in politics? How does it affect how politicians and campaigns are able to control their images and reputations?

There is now a whole industry ded­i­cated to man­aging one’s (or one’s clients) online rep­u­ta­tions, including on web sites such as Wikipedia. Some of the edits no doubt con­flict with Wikipedia’s bio­graph­ical and conflict-​​of-​​interest poli­cies, and high-​​profile people are more likely to be watched. Nev­er­the­less, it’s not uncommon for ques­tion­able edits to be made.

Is Wikipedia a reliable source for political information? How can users know whether information about policies and politicians is accurate and unbiased?

There are a few simple tips that many people are unaware of for ver­i­fying the veracity of state­ments made on Wikipedia. For one, the top of an article will often say if con­tent is con­tentious or con­sid­ered lacking. To read about such dis­putes and con­cerns one should look at the con­ver­sa­tions between the con­trib­u­tors on the article’s “Talk” page. Finally, con­tentious claims should be sourced; if they are not, don’t trust them — and if they are, double-​​check the sources on your own.