Let's say you're on a mission to better educate yourself on the candidates in the 2012 San Diego mayor's race. You might start by searching Google for information on City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, a Republican who recently filed papers to start his campaign.
The first page of Google results includes DeMaio's official City Council website, two of his campaign websites, his Facebook page and Twitter account. You'll also find DirtyDeMaio.com, an outdated attack site launched by organized-labor interests.
The discerning citizen that you are, you opt instead for the Wikipedia entry for DeMaio. The 10-year-old online resource has become the fifth most popular website in the world. As the encyclopedia anyone can edit, Wikipedia relies on public trust, responsibility and transparency to produce accurate and neutral information.
However, for the last four years, DeMaio has violated that public compact—and several Wikipedia rules—in an attempt to use his Wikipedia page to his advantage. Right now, veteran Wikipedia editors are battling against DeMaio's staff, anonymous supporters and “sock puppets” (fake accounts created to make it seem like a point of view has greater support) to maintain the page's neutrality.
On Jan. 31, CityBeat published a story online about a user going by the name “San Diego Watchdog” recently making significant edits to DeMaio's page—DeMaio's office confirmed it was responsible for the account. Many of the edits distorted the truth. For example:
• A claim that “the New York Times dubbed him ‘San Diego's Taxpayer Watchdog.'” The Times bestowed no such title.
• A claim that DeMaio “led the campaign against Prop. D,” last year's proposed half-cent sales-tax increase. Technically, T.J. Zane of the Lincoln Club was the chairman of the committee opposing the measure. Further, DeMaio worked side-by-side with fellow Republican City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer on the campaign.
• A claim that “DeMaio has arguably been the leading voice for fiscal responsibility and reform on the City Council.” This remark was not credited to any source and undercut Faulconer, who may also run for mayor.
“At least he included ‘arguably,'” Faulconer's spokesman Tony Manolatos told CityBeat. “My boss is the leading voice on fiscal reform— I would never give that ground.”
The term “arguably” is what Wikipedia users call a “weasel word,” cheap language that implies, but does not cite, support for a claim.
DeMaio's page “looked sort of OK, but you could see the weasel words,” says Jason Packman, a local Wikipedia editor, who uses the handle XinJeisan. “I didn't trust it.”
After reading CityBeat's story, another local user, Athene cunicularia, dug deep into the history of the page.
“The first thing I noticed was that SDWatchdog had punched up DeMaio's biography, added the tragic elements and the bit about being raised by benevolent Jesuits,” Athene, who asked to be referred to only by that handle, says via e-mail. “The user had also added information about ‘close ties to Newt Gingrich and Congressional Republicans.' SDWatchdog was working to turn DeMaio's page into a cover letter.”
Athene added neutrality warnings to the top of the page, then set to work adding citations and removing biased information.
Athene is now fending off attempts to further distort DeMaio's page.
“I have no problem with disagreement— that's why George W. Bush and John Kerry's pages work,” Athene says. “It's like a blacksmith pounding a hunk of metal until it's right. I welcome anyone who wants to add citations to the article—or any article. In the end, only facts matter—even unsightly ones—and disagreement helps to weed out the bullshit. Yes, Carl DeMaio's page is better now than it was before. It still needs a lot of work, though.”
Wikipedia allows for subjects of entries to make minor factual edits to pages, but they are warned against creating pages or adding text. In DeMaio's office's only communication with CityBeat on this issue, spokesperson Jeffery Powell apologized and said he was unaware of Wikipedia's policies.
Yet, DeMaio's office continued to edit the page after the apology. In fact, DeMaio has a history of violating Wikipedia rules in spite of warnings.
DeMaio pages popped up three times in 2007; on each occasion, Wikipedia editors deleted the pages for “blatant” copyright violations because the information was copied verbatim from his biography on his consulting firm, The Performance Institute's website. A Performance Institute intern did the same thing for the Institute's Wikipedia page.
After DeMaio was elected in 2008, his page was finally accepted by the system. But since May 2010, Wikipedia users have posted multiple messages on the page's discussion forum, complaining that the page lacked the required neutral voice. In August, the page's neutrality violations were described as “blatant” and “severe,” and a user pointed out that it was “clearly written by DeMaio, a staff member of DeMaio or a DeMaio partisan.”
Rather than avoid further edits, according to his publicly available calendar, DeMaio held a meeting days later with staff to discuss the Wikipedia page. At the time, a few citations were added, but when a highly ranked local user rewrote the entire page in January to fix the neutrality issues, DeMaio's office struck back and overhauled the page, using the San Diego Watchdog handle.
DeMaio's office ignored phone calls, voicemails, e-mails and Twitter messages from CityBeat seeking further explanation.
DeMaio isn't the only City Council member to have a close associate edit a Wikipedia page. When state Assemblymember Ben Hueso was on the City Council, his spokesperson created his page, though it remains barebones and fully sourced. Councilmember Sherri Lightner's husband, Bruce Lightner, is a hobbyist Wikipedia editor who's made more than a dozen edits to his wife's page.
“I'm trying to follow the rules of Wikipedia,” Lightner says. “There is a challenge, of course, if you have a built-in conflict of interest. It's not against the rules for those with a conflict of interest to edit the page. You just have to follow the rules, and the rules are very strict. The good news is there's always somebody looking over your shoulder.”
He adds, “My position moving forward is, I'm going to stay hands-off for the same reasons Carl's going to have to the learn the same thing.”