For supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama the candidates' Wikipedia pages have become a key election battleground. The up-to-the-second nature of user-generated, user-corrected content means that an editor’s work is never done. The New Republic's Eve Fairbanks explains the political stakes of wiki-work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The current fascination with the race for the Democratic nomination is by no means limited to journalism's elite. USA Today noted recently that battles over the candidates are popping up wherever people gather – Facebook, My Space, YouTube, even the hugely popular online fantasy game World of Warcraft. But the dragons’ lairs of World of Warcraft are pikers compared to the mischief makers of Wikipedia.
Eve Fairbanks has just written about the Wiki war in The New Republic. Welcome to the show. EVE FAIRBANKS: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eve, what really are the stakes here? I mean, does it really matter if the Wikipedia entries for Clinton and Obama are right or wrong? EVE FAIRBANKS: For each candidate, their Wikipedia page is the second Google hit after their official campaign page. So they're pretty much the second source of information that someone on the Internet would go to find out about the candidate.
The thing about Wikipedia is almost every page anyone can edit, no matter who you are – anonymous, whatever. So you can just vandalize it. You can replace the entire page with profanity. Basically this encyclopedia that huge numbers of people use is relying on these candidates' own fans, or people who monitor those pages, to fix that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who gets slammed harder, Obama or Clinton? EVE FAIRBANKS: They get slammed hard, both of them, but in different ways. Hillary seems to be the target of a sort of primal loathing. Her page is vandalized more than Obama's, by which I mean the entire thing is replaced with a picture of a middle finger or anti-female profanity.
Obama's is the target of, I would say, almost more intelligent attacks from indignant people who feel like he's gotten a free pass in the media and so they're trying to put in a lot of stuff about his pastor, Reverend Wright, or get in a lot of stuff about the Muslim ties in his family, his stepfather, who was a Muslim in Indonesia. So it's more substantive. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if these vandals are unseen, there are also unsung heroes. These are the people who wearily troll these sites, fixing and restoring the truth, only to see the lies and invectives come rolling back like a wave. Kevin Bailey, a.k.a. Bellwether, is the guy who patrols Obama's page. Tell me about him. EVE FAIRBANKS: He's just one of a kind of group of people who patrol Obama's page. He's a teacher from North Carolina, a very sweet guy, who is a fan of Obama and noticed, you know, the forces of darkness trying to put in these agendas about Obama.
He was telling me he used to get up early in the morning and go right to the page and check it to see what mischief had taken place overnight. So he was really active – just thousands of edits in a space of months – on that page for a while. And I think it started to overwhelm him. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's hard to imagine what set of criteria he applies to changes that he monitors as a volunteer. He is shaping the biography of Barack Obama on this page just as much as the vandals are, and why should we trust him any more? EVE FAIRBANKS: There's a kind of culture on Wikipedia which is called POV. You're not supposed to be POV. That means point of view. These entries are supposed to be neutral. And you can make a stronger argument that something, a phrase that seems critical about one of the candidates, is POV. That can be more easily wiped from their Wikipedia page than something like, Obama was the first black head of the Harvard Law Review.
And so you just get these Wikipedia pages over time that get packed with all this positive stuff. They almost do read a little bit like campaign documents.
And there's a guy who has shaped Hillary's page to a huge extent, and he's a Hillary voter, but he does express some frustration that it's hard for him to get stuff on there that speaks more to her role in the American culture, how polarizing she's been, just because somebody's going to come along and say, oh, that's not fair to Hillary. It shouldn't be in Wikipedia. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about that guy. I think you're referring to Jonathan Schilling, right - EVE FAIRBANKS: Uh-huh. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - a software developer from New Jersey. And part of the problem for him is that although he is a Hillary supporter, he's not the kind of passionate supporter that sits there every second watching the site change. EVE FAIRBANKS: It was interesting when I was looking at Hillary's page - you can look back at all the changes that were made, the history. And in January and February, the arguments were so intense, and even Schilling was getting some push back. People said, oh, I can tell you're an Obama fan. You're trying to include this stuff about her low fundraising numbers. You're just trying to doom Hillary.
And the funny thing was that he told me, you know, I voted for Hillary on Super Tuesday. I think she'd make a great commander-in-chief, but I don't think she's God.
But in recent days, I think you do notice that Hillary's page, it has kind of the air of a neighborhood that's degentrifying. People are losing interest. Schilling, the guy who watches the Hillary page, he noted that right when Rudy Giuliani's candidacy started to go into decline, so did his Wikipedia page. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, you tried a little experiment, didn't you? You introduced material into each of those pages. EVE FAIRBANKS: I said that Hillary, even with superdelegates, didn't have much of a chance any more, and I wrote that Obama was starting to lose some white support in recent primaries, like Mississippi.
And on Hillary's page it sat there for something like four hours, but somebody came onto the Obama page, I think, in under three minutes, protested my edit and just removed it – you know, not relevant. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eve, thank you so much. EVE FAIRBANKS: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eve Fairbanks is the associate editor of The New Republic.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.