7 Aug 2015

A year in the life of Whitehall’s Wikipedia warriors

Channel 4 News has uncovered edits made to Wikipedia from inside government offices on topics including Rolf Harris, Jean Charles de Menezes and Fireman Sam.

An investigation last year revealed users of government computers had added a slur to the page of Jean Charles de Menezes and made edits that downplay the murders of Damilola Taylor and Lee Rigby.

Following those revelations, Channel 4 News created an automated Twitter account on 7 Aug 2014 called @WhitehallEdits, to monitor the edits in real-time. A year on, and changes continue to be made on government computers to Wikipedia, which remains the go-to source of information on the internet.

All revisions to Wikipedia articles are preserved on the site, and anonymous edits are attributed to the internet protocol address that made the change, which can reveal the computer network that a person is using.

So what have government computers been used to write on Wikipedia?

Controversial edits

One editor who appears to have made an edit from a computer on the government network removed the words “convicted pervert and sex offender” from an entry on the Rolf Harris discography.

An edit added David Cameron’s majority Conservative government to a list of right-wing dictatorships, ranking him alongside figures including Spanish ultranationalist General Franco.

The entry for the controversial 2022 FIFA World Cup, to be held in Qatar, was modified to read “FIFA Corruption Cup” and “It will be a farce, everyone knows it”, as well as adding a slur about the organisation’s president Sepp Blatter.

An edit was made just last month to the Jean Charles de Menezes article, adding the four suicide bombers to the death toll of the London 7/7 bombings. This was later changed by a separate Wikipedia editor, to clarify “52 people were murdered”.

Odd changes

In May of this year, a user on the government network wrote a detailed 800-word analysis of the characters in the children’s TV series Fireman Sam. The contributor speculates on potential relationships between the fictional townspeople.

Other mischievous tweaks include reclassifying Birmingham heavy metal band Judas Priest as a “boyband”, and adding the line that “under no circumstances are netballs to be referred to as “netball balls”, punishable by a lifetime netball ban.”

An editor of Wikipedia’s article on the subject of basements and ‘basement culture’ remarks “you are so sad for reading this”.

The article for Wetherby motorway services, near Yorkshire, was also updated, adding simply “a Greggs recently opened”.

A range of useful edits were also made to government subjects, but against Wikipedia policy, which frowns on editors making changes where there may be a conflict of interest. Changes were made to the page of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, HM Prison Long Lartin, and to the page for Nervous Shock in English law, with the edit using the word “our” regarding the Ministry of Justice.

Obesession with football

The entry for Twitter was edited to suggest that the social media platform “is used to keep tabs on civil servants and their obsession with footballers”. Many changes many over the past year relate to Scottish football.

The Cabinet Office told Channel 4 News that civil servants are required to follow a Civil Service Code when working online – as well as the social media guidelines.

WhitehallEdits come from previously confirmed government IP addresses, unique addresses that identify the network to which a computer is connected, it’s not possible to guarantee that the edits were made by government workers or on government networks, or that the list of addresses used to power the bot is exhaustive.

Tweets by the @WhitehallEdits account in the past year have led to articles in the New Statesman, the Daily Mirror, BBC Scotland and Metro.

Conservative MP Grant Shapps was accused of editing his Wikipedia page during the 2015 general election, but an internal investigation into the administrator who had initially indicated that it was very likely that Shapps made the changes found that there was “no significant evidence” that this had in fact occurred. The block placed on the editing privileges of the user that made the Shapps-related edits was lifted, and the adminstator censured.

Top 10 most edited page in the past year: 
  1. Simon Bucher-Jones [28 edits]
  2. Brierfield, Lancashire [9 edits]
  3. Dunermline Athletic F.C. [8 edits]
  4. Vidiprinter [8 edits]
  5. Glenrothes [8 edits]
  6. Fireman Sam [7 edits]
  7. Khatun Sapnara [7 edits]
  8. Middlesbrough F.C. [7 edits]
  9. Luke Williams (English footballer) [6 edits]
  10. Paul Sykes (boxer) [5 edits]