Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Invisible Hand

He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future. George Orwell

In his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell envisioned a totalitarian world in which all facts were subject to revision and reversal. Photographs could be manipulated, documents could be amended and destroyed, and indeed, entire lives could be erased from the historical record. All information and evidence existed for the purpose of those in power.

The Open Encyclopedia

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia which allows volunteers from around the world to write and edit articles collaboratively. Its 16 million articles (over 3.4 million in English) can be edited by anyone with access to the site. The management of Wikipedia attempts, through policies of verifiability and a nuetral point of view, to eliminated bias.

However, Wikipedia, for all its benefits, is not without its critics. Some accuse Wikipedia of a bias that favors consensus opinion over creditable information. Others claim that its reliability and accuracy are, in many cases, questionable. Vandalism to articles has occurred but is usually quickly reported and rectified.

The question, of course, is how accurate the information found in Wikipedia is and how on earth we can know.

Virgil and the Wikiscanner

Meet Virgil Griffith. Born in Alabama in 1983, graduated from the Alabama School for Math and Science in 2002 and then attended the University of Alabama where he studied cognitive science in New College. Griffith transferred to Indiana University in 2004 but returned to graduate cum laude in Alabama in 2007. He is now a graduate student, studying computation and neural systems. All very impressive, I hear you say, but...

That's not what makes him really interesting. In August 2007, Griffith released a software utility called WikiScanner. This software allows the tracking of Wikipedia articles edits from unregistered accounts back to their originating IP addresses and identifies which corporations or organizations editing Wikipedia articles. Using this software, one can suddenly see behind the curtain.

In his "WikiScanner FAQ" Griffith stated his belief that WikiScanner could help make Wikipedia more reliable for controversial topics. Griffith also indicated that he had never been employed by the Wikimedia Foundation and said his work on WikiScanner was "100% noncommercial.

Most of the edits were, in fact, quite innocuous, corrections of spellings or revising an inaccurate date. Some, however, are less so.

For example, Wired magazine reports, "On November 17th, 2005, an anonymous Wikipedia user deleted 15 paragraphs from an article on e-voting machine-vendor Diebold, excising an entire section critical of the company's machines. While anonymous, such changes typically leave behind digital fingerprints offering hints about the contributor, such as the location of the computer used to make the edits. In this case, the changes came from an IP address reserved for the corporate offices of Diebold itself... with someone at the company's IP address apparently deleting long paragraphs detailing the security industry's concerns over the integrity of their voting machines, and information about the company's CEO's fund-raising for President Bush." Read More

The Independent adds a few more interesting names. "Some of the guilty parties identified by the website, such as the Labour Party, the CIA, Republican Party and the Church of Scientology, are well-known for their obsession with PR. But others, such as the Anglican and Catholic churches or even the obscurely titled Perro de Presa Canario Dog Breeders Association of America, are new to the dark arts of spin."

The Invisible Hand Made Visible

Here are some other highlights from the same Independent article.

Dow Chemical and the Bhopal disaster -A computer registered to the Dow Chemical Company is recorded as deleting a passage on the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984, which occurred at a plant operated by Union Carbide, now a wholly owned Dow subsidiary. The incident cost up to 20,000 lives.

The gun lobby and fatal shootings - The National Rifle Association of America doctored concerns about its role in the increase in gun fatalities by replacing the passage with a reference to the association's conservation work in America.

The Church's child abuse cover-up - Barbara Alton, assistant to Episcopal Bishop Charles Bennison, in America, deleted information concerning a cover-up of child sexual abuse, allegations that the Bishop misappropriated $11.6 million in trust funds, and evidence of other scandals. When challenged about this, Alton claims she was ordered to delete the information by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori.

Scientologists and sensitivity - Computers with IP addresses traced to the Church of Scientology were used to expunge critical paragraphs about the cult's world-wide operations.

MySpace and self-censorship - Someone working from an IP address linked to MySpace appears to have been so irritated by references to the social networking website's over-censorial policy that they removed a paragraph accusing MySpace of censorship.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales spoke enthusiastically about WikiScanner, noting in one source that "It brings an additional level of transparency to what's going on at Wikipedia" and stating in another that it was "fabulous and I strongly support it."

George Orwell once said in an interview, "When I sit down to write a book.. I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which i want to draw attention and my initial concern is to get a hearing.. My aim is to expose a lies, hidden agendas, recklessness and inattention to duty." It appears that people like Virgil Griffith are keeping Orwell's constant vigil.


  1. George Orwell was absolutely spot on. Who would have believed it way back then?

    Very interesting post Nomad!

  2. Thanks, Ayak. One point the co-founder of Wikipedia failed to mention is the fact that there are probably a lot more edits that have NOT been detected. Additionally, people who wish to delete information they find embarrassing or incriminating will take more covert steps to hide their identities.


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