12 Jun 2015

Grant Shapps: no hard evidence he edited entries, Wikipedia decides

A Wikipedia tribunal this week disciplined and disowned one of the online encyclopedia’s voluntary administrators who in April blocked an anonymous contributor, Contribsx, whom he accused of editing Wikipedia biographies in favour of the Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps.

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The Wikipedia administrator, Richard Symonds, claimed that Contribsx was either Shapps himself, or somebody closely associated with the Tory chairman.  His decision caused huge controversy when it became public on 21 April, as it suggested Shapps had not just been trying to rewrite his own Wikipedia entry in a favourable manner, but also that he had tried to damage several Conservative colleagues by editing their entries in an unfavourable way.  It was described as an example of what geeks call “sock puppetry”, editing Wikipedia entries under a false online identity in order to hide who the real editor is.

Mr Shapps vehemently denied the accusations, calling them “false and defamatory”, but his reputation was nonetheless tarnished by the episode.  He was subsequently demoted in the post-election reshuffle, and lost his place in cabinet.

Richard Symonds is an employee of Wikimedia, the foundation which runs Wikipedia, though officially he carried out his administrative role for Wikipedia as a sideline, in a voluntary capacity.  Wikipedia’s audit sub-committee criticised his behaviour over Grant Shapps on several grounds:

1.  That in response to questions Symonds failed to provide enough information to justify his decision to suspend Contribsx, and he “struggled to provide an accurate timeline”;

2.  That Symonds failed to maintain adequate records to be able to explain his decision;

3.  In releasing information to the Guardian before it was made public, Symonds action created “an appearance of favouritism” and made it look as if he was trying to “exert political or social control”;

4.  He acted in a situation where he had a conflict of interest, by which Wikipedia are presumably referring to the self-proclaimed fact that Symonds was once an active Liberal Democrat;

The Wikipedia sub-committee decided that no evidence had been provided, either during Symonds’ own inquiry, or during the audit committee’s recent investigation “that definitively connects the Contribsx account with any specific individual”.  In other words they decided there was no conclusive evidence that Shapps or any of his associates were involved in  editing Wikipedia entries.

Although Wikipedia said there did “not appear to be a major breach of policy”, the online encyclopedia has now deprived Richard Symonds of his oversight role, though he can still apply to re-acquire the position.   After Wikipedia’s announcement, Grant Shapps said “the failure of various media outlets to check even basic facts meant that this false and damaging story ran for an entire day during the general election campaign.”

Although Richard Symonds’ decision caused Grant Shapps considerable embarrassment at a vital time for him and his party, the episode was viewed through the lens of the former Conservative Party chairman’s past behaviour.  He had already made himself something of a target in political and media circles by his past online business activities.  This made it a lot harder for him to rebut the accusations made by Mr Symonds.

Mr Shapps was known to have used the pseudonym Michael Green to conduct his past business career.  In the autumn of 2014 he used his lawyers to threaten to sue a constituent who had complained about his business activities whilst working as an MP.  Shapps claimed that he had “never had a second job whilst being an MP”, only for the Guardian to publish details of a radio interview from 2006 – the year after he was elected to the Commons – in which Shapps extolled the benefits of a self-help guide produced by one of his firms called Stinking Rich 3.  This promised customers a “ton of cash by Christmas”.

After the Guardian article, Shapps was forced to backtrack, admitted he had “screwed up” and made his denial “over-firmly”.  This was only five weeks before the Symonds decision and accusations.

The questionable nature of many of Grant Shapps’ past business products also played a contributing role.  Shapps’s firm HowToCorp sold software to help buyers make money by developing new websites by automatically harvesting material lifted from other people’s websites, a widely condemned practice known as “scraping”.  In other cases his websites advertised for considerable sums of money digital versions of old books which were either already freely available on the internet, or available in traditional paper book form at a fraction of the price Shapps was trying to charge.

In 2012 Channel 4 News also raised questions about testimonials on one of Shapps’s business sites from several people who appeared not to exist.  These included “Corinne Stockheath of Surrey”, “Dr JLM Richards of the Wallerson Trust, Dallas”, and “Richard Warton of Tektriox, New York”.   We could find no evidence of there being anyone called Stockheath anywhere on the planet; nor of a Wallerson Trust in Dallas; nor of anywhere in New York state called Tektriox.  Despite persistent questions from this programme (and public appeals for information), along with assurances from Shapps that the testimonials were genuine, neither he nor anyone else have ever publicly provided any evidence that Corinne Stockheath, JLM Richards or Richard Warton exist or ever existed.

Grant Shapps is now a middle-ranking member of David Cameron’s government, which might ostensibly seem to be a miserable reward when he was co-chairman of the party during its most successful campaign in more than 20 years.  Shapps once hoped to become prime minister himself one day.  Instead, he will have to work hard to win even a place back in Cabinet.

And to this day nobody has yet discovered who Contribsx is.

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2 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    Not too sure why this article is newsworthy. Few believe the integrity spin of a private entity like Wikipedia and who is Grant Shapps again?

  2. Philip says:

    Another example of these big internet companies inability to manage what occurs on their sites. Symonds may not have sufficiently good records for his allegations to stick, but someone was making these changes in an anonymous fashion. Surely Wikipedia should be making sure it knows who is doing this sort of thing & exercising a lot better control over it. Otherwise their reputation will be swiftly tarnished.

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