Monday, August 20, 2007
Propaganda 101 #1
Flim Flamming Wikipedia
On Aug 15, 2007 there was an article called Wikipedia 'shows CIA page edits' in BBC News. An online tool that claims to reveal the identity of organizations that edit Wikipedia pages has revealed that the CIA was involved in editing entries. One page in particular that was altered was about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current President of Iran.
Wikipedia feels that there is an inherent incompatibility between the purpose of Wikipedia to produce a neutral, verifiable encyclopedia, and the purposes of an individual editor. Due to this, Wikipedia has a policy that disallows conflicts of interest in editing a Wikipedia page. For example, an editor cannot edit his own page, or that of the company he/she works for.
Anyone can edit Wikipedia. Wikipedia allows editing either using a registered nickname or anonymously. Registered users are confirmed by e-mail and enjoy a few more privileges. Anonymous edits are recorded against an IP address. That IP address can be looked-up using a freely available whois tool to identify the owner and the IP address of the domain.
To detect where anonymous edits using only an IP address are coming from, a guy named Virgil Griffith developed the Wikipedia scanner. The tool is available for anyone's use at http://wikiscanner.virgil.gr to detect anonymous edits of Wikipedia.
The Wikiscanner tool has been used to detect the following:
# White-washing articles to change the bias of and article to be more favorable. This is common for political figures.
# Wholesale removal of entire paragraphs from pages about corporations and political figures
# Adding negative information to a competitor's page.
It turns out that not only the CIA edits Wikipedia pages, but employees at companies. For example, Walmart, Exxon and a few Republican operatives have been doing a lot of editing of their own pages. Here is a sample of a few of their edits.
In this example, an edit from Walmart whitewashes where contracting firms acting in their behalf underpaid their janitors.
"...Many of the janitors worked seven days a week without overtime pay or injury compensation. To settle criminal charges relating to these incidents, Wal-Mart paid $11 million in March 2005 without admitting wrongdoing or liability. Several of the custodial services firms that employed the illegal immigrants pled guilty to criminal charges."
was changed to
"...Many of the janitors worked seven days a week without overtime pay or injury compensation. To settle criminal charges relating to these incidents, Wal-Mart paid $11 million in March 2005 without admitting wrongdoing or liability. There were no charges brought against Wal-Mart or any of its associates. Several of the custodial services firms that employed the illegal immigrants pled guilty to criminal charges."
by an anonymous wikipedia editor whose IP address is 220.127.116.11. The IP address resolves to one belonging to "Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. WAL-MART-3 (NET-161-165-0-0-1)"
Another example is this edit:
"As with many US retailers, Wal-Mart experiences a high rate of employee turnover (approximately 50% of employees leave every year, according to the company). Wages at Wal-Mart are about 20% less than at other retail stores. Founder [[Sam Walton]] once argued that his company should be exempt from the [[minimum wage]]. (Palast, 121)"
was changed to
"As with many US retailers, Wal-Mart experiences a high rate of employee turnover (approximately 50% of employees leave every year, according to the company). The average wage at Wal-Mart is almost double the federal minimum wage (Wal-Mart). However, founder [[Sam Walton]] once argued that his company should be exempt from the [[minimum wage]]. (Palast, 121)."
by again the same editor from Walmart using IP address 18.104.22.168. While both statements may be true, the second statement is more favorable because the average wages include corporate salararies as well. Note that the change is still referenced to Greg Palast's article.
Under the History section Walmart ads this little piece of propaganda:
"* 2005 Wal-Mart launches http://www.walmartfacts.com to set the record straight regarding inaccurate information being spread by critics."
Under the local impacts section, Walmart adds the following:
"The most definitive look at this issue, by Dr. Emek Basker at the University of Missouri, showed average increases of 50 retail jobs in communities five years after the entry of Wal-Mart."
"The typical Supercenter raises or gives $30,000 to $50,000 a year to local charitable needs ranging from youth programs to literacy councils. In fact, Wal-Mart is the largest corporate cash contributor in America. In fiscal year ending 2005, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and the Wal-Mart & SAM'S CLUB Foundation contributed more than $170 million to support communities and local non-profit organizations. More than 90 percent of cash donations from Wal-Mart Stores and the Wal-Mart & SAM'S CLUB Foundation target local communities. In 2004, Wal-Mart collected $11.3 billion in state and local sales taxes and paid millions in property taxes."
Exxon-Mobil also edits Wikipedia. For example an anonymous editor at IP address 22.214.171.124 (Exxon in Houston, Texas) wholesale removed the following text:
" In 1991, following the collapse of the local [[marine biology|marine]] population (particularly [[clam]]s, [[herring]], and [[Seal (mammal)|seal]]s) the [[Chugach]] Native American group went [[bankruptcy|bankrupt]]."
And, the wiki editor white-washed this:
"The long-term effects of the oil spill have been studied. Thousands of animals perished immediately, the best estimates are: 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea [[otter]]s, 300 [[harbor seal]]s, 250 [[bald eagle]]s, up to 22 [[orca]]s, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Though even as soon as a year later, one had to look carefully on most beaches to find any evidence of the spill. In the long term, declines have been observed in various marine populations, including stunted growth and indirect mortality increases in pink salmon populations. Sea otters and ducks also showed higher death rates years later, partly because they ate contaminated invertebrates. The animals also were exposed to oil when they dug up their prey in tainted soil."
"Researchers said some shoreline habitats, such as contaminated [[mussel beds]], could take up to 30 years to recover."
"Peer-reveiwed (sic) studies conducted by hundreds of scientists have confirmed that there has been no long-term severe impact to the [[Prince William Sound]] ecosystem. Thousands of species in Prince William Sound were never affected by the spill in the first place, or recovered quickly after the initial impact. As an example, six of the largest [[salmon]] harvests in history were recorded in the decade immediately following the spill."
Mark F. "Thor" Hearne, founder and general counsel for American Center for Voting Rights and a prominent attorney for Lathrop and Gage.
Hearne has managed to get a Wikipedia page about himself permanently deleted after making edits to his own page and the ACVR page using the IP address 126.96.36.199.
According to the League of Women Voters, the ACVR was a front organization set up by a group of Republicans to push for voter identification laws. Once their goal was accomplished, the group was disbanded.
All these changes may seem minor on the surface, but when taken as a trend and not individual occasions, the truth can be bent. The lesson here - if you want to spread propaganda and you don't like what Wikipedia says about your organization, just change the truth the way you want it. However, a naked IP address can give away who you are. Instead, create a fake persona and then edit Wikipedia using one of the thousands of anonymous proxies out there. It also helps to source your propaganda changes to a "reputable source" - one you preferably own or where you've fed a story you need to fill the gap. At least don't get caught by the Wikiscanner.
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