The battle over Sarah Palin moves from the campaign trail to Wikipedia

Like most folks, I had never heard of Sarah Palin until this morning when Sen. John McCain announced that she would be his running mate. So after seeing the headline on this morning, I decided I wanted more information on the relatively obscure governor of Alaska. So I wandered on over to Wikipedia. And it was there that I stumbled across a fierce, digital battle over her Wikipedia entry.

As of the writing of this post at 1:18 p.m. West Coast time, there had already been more than 500 edits made on her entry.

This is a particularly interesting test case for a couple of reasons. While Palin had a decent-sized entry before today, she was hardly a major public figure. So there was plenty left unsaid there, plenty of gaps to be filled in. The stakes over this fight are not huge, but still notable. Her entry won’t sway the outcome of the election. But it will be the place over the coming weeks where a sizable number of folks will come to learn who she is.

So this represents an opportunity to see the give and take over writing such an article as it unfolds in real time.

I won’t hold myself out as a Wikipedia expert. I’ve never posted or edited any articles. I do use it regularly for research. And despite the misgivings of some, I find it to be a reliable starting point on subjects that I want to know more about. So I think it’s fair to say that I trust Wikipedia, but always maintain a dose of skepticism that I’d bring to anything I’d read.

As I clicked through the various revisions of Palin’s entry, I found a wide mix of folks who seemed to be there for a lot of different reasons. Clearly, there were a lot of folks there with an agenda, some pro-McCain and some pro-Obama folks. One pro-McCain person anonymously commented:

“Look at all the hatemongers flooding this page to jack this article up full of “controversy”….we all knew this would happen. WIkipedians posing as “NPOV” (my note: No Point of View) when in reality they want to spice up the article full of a gigantic “controversy” section…you want this article to have a big “controversy section” don’t you?”

Of course, given the flood of information emerging, it’s a mammoth task trying to figure out what belongs and what doesn’t. What about this article that noted that she smoked pot? Or discussions that have occurred over Palin’s oil policies that led various folks in Alaska to compare her to Venezualen president Hugo Chavez?

There were many more who, based on the discussions around the edits, were simply striving to make the article accurate and non-ideological. Someone named “Realist 2,” a self-described liberal, removed the following passage because it was deemed too speculative:

“The choice of Palin may be been influenced by the “Draft Palin” movement, a grassroots effort led by a 21-year-old blogger.<ref>Timothy Noah. “[ Sarah Palin, Web Invention: How a college sophomore put Alaska’s governor on the map.]” ”Slate”, August 29, 2008. Retrieved August 29, 2008.”

And then, there were some pranskters, like Elliskev who inserted the line:

Before all this however, she was born a man.”

The line was quickly cited as “vandalism” and removed by another user.

And then there appeared to be some moderator, floating around, trying to keep things moving while gently enforcing Wikipedia’s rules. For instance, a user named “Young Trigg” received an “advisory note” for a possible conflict of interest for one of the user’s edits:

“Last night, you made a number of great improvements to the Sarah Palin article. However, some of your edits may have affected the article in such a way so as to reflect more favorably on the subject of the article. Given the timing and significance of your edits, I wanted to make sure you were familiar with Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guidelines.”

As the day wore on, Jredmond, a Wiki administrator, changed the “protection level” on the article noting that it had become high profile and that “vandalism from new and unregistered users is far outweighing their positive contribs at the moment.” That meant that anonymous users could no longer make edits.

It’s hard to evaluate the results as the article remained a work in progress. By late afternoon, it certainly was much longer, with much greater depth. It seemed the community overall had banded together to assert the Wikipedia ideals, trying to keep the article free from bias and controversy.

Looking under the hood, as that happened, certainly showed that it’s an incredibly messy process, but one that seems worth it.


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