A storm has broken out over edits made to Wikipedia pages about Grant Shapps and other politicians. Channel 4 News explains what is going on.
A Wikipedia administrator has blocked the account of one of the online encyclopedia’s contributors, accusing it of “sock puppetry” – the act of creating an online persona for improper use, such as misleading other Wikipedia editors, disrupting discussions and distorting consensus”.
An article published by the Guardian quoted Wikipedia administrators as saying it is believed the online identity, Contribsx, “is run by Shapps directly or being run by someone else – an assistant or a PR agency – but under his clear direction”.
A total of 65 edits have been made by Contribsx since August 2013, and a third of these are to the Grant Shapps Wikipedia page – often to remove unflattering references to controversies around Mr Shapps online businesses and his pseudonym “Michael Green”. Other edits often involve unflattering additions to other politicians, including those in the Conservative party.
It appears that whoever is editing the Grant Shapps – and it has not been proven that it is Mr Shapps himself – is keen to remove or play down references to Mr Shapps business pseudonym “Michael Green”.
In 2012 the Advertising Standards Authority began investigating HowToCorp website which featured advice from supposedly successful businessmen Sebastian Fox and Michael Green.
There were complaints that the two “businessmen” were fictitious as well as testimonials on the website. Mr Shapps told Channel 4 News he was contributing fully with the ASA’s questions.
Edits on the Grant Shapps page often focus on the Michael Green controversy, and on three occasions have involved deleting references to Channel 4 News articles.
For example, on the 22 February this year Contribsx deleted a passage from the Grant Shapps page which read: “According to Michael Crick of Channel 4 News, the website (HowToCorp) contained testimonials from people and businesses who do not appear to exist. In response, Shapps said the accusation was completely false and a ‘political smear’.”
Other changes Contribsx has made include adding passages describing Mr Shapps as an “expenses saint” and editing text about how he received donations from companies linked to housing when he was shadow housing minister.
Contribsx has also made edits to the Wikipedia pages about other politicians, including highlighting how Philip Hammond had opposed David Cameron’s “same-sex marriage bill”, and including that Justine Greening had missed a vote on potential military action in Syria because sher was “chatting to another minister in a room behind the chamber and failed to notice that the division bell had sounded.”
Contribsx has not only targeted Mr Shapps’ colleagues though. In the last edit, before Contribsx was blocked, the page on Shadow Attorney General Karl Turner was altered to include that the Labour MP had “admitted breaking House of Commons rules by sending out invitations to a £45-a-head Labour party fundraising event from parliamentary email”.
Two weeks earlier Mr Turner had called on the prime minister to investigate Mr Shapps over allegations he acted as Michael Green whilst an MP.
Crucial to understanding why the Guardian can be confident that Contribsx is linked to Mr Shapps is an IP address, the number that uniquely identifies your internet network or connection to the wider internet, like a phone number. On Wikipedia it’s used to identify and log changes made by users who haven’t created an account and used by administrator to work out if similar or the same person has made the changes.
A username by the name of HackneyMarsh was confirmed as being a Wikipedia editor operating out of Shapp’s constituency office following a similar story in 2012. At the time the Guardian found: “Sources close to Shapps emphasised that the four usernames – 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52, Historyset and Hackneymarsh – could only be linked to “computers in the constituency office of the Tory chairman”.
The allegation wasn’t that it was Mr Shapps but perhaps someone close to him in his offices who had made the changes.
On Wednesday Wikipedia published its internal investigation, by an independent administrator who banned Contribsx, called “Chase me ladies, I’m the Cavalry”. “Chaseme” is one of the UK’s most senior Wikipedia administrators, though Channel 4 News has also learnt that the administrator is also a “Liberal Democrat (to the last)”.
The internal investigation found, using an internal tool to compare the network/IP address of the accounts, that Contribsx and Hackneymarsh were “likely” the same IP addresses.
Therefore, the new Contribsx edits were made by what is “likely” to be the same computer or computer network as the previous edits that we found to have come from.
“Likely” may not sound very strong, but in Wikipedia-language “likely” means the IP addresses are sufficiently similar (ie in the same small range of addresses, on the same server, using the same operating system version, or being in the same building or small geographic office) to probably be the same computer network.
It should be pointed out that it is feasible that someone could mimic the Hackneymarsh IP addresses to pretend make it appear that Contribsx was operating from the same IP addresses.
Mr Shapps has suggested that he might be the victim of Labour dirty tricks and has strongly denied any involvement in making the changes.
He said: “It is untrue from start to finish, and was quite likely dreamt up by the Labour press office. Sadly, it is typical of the smears coming from those who would rather not debate policy and substance.”
He also called the Guardian story a “smear” and said it was “categorically false and defamatory”.
I just don’t believe this, I just simply don’t believe these allegations. Eric Pickles
His Tory colleagues, including the prime minister, have also leapt to Mr Shapps’ defence.
Asked if he still had full confidence in Mr Shapps, Mr Cameron did not answer “yes”, but said: “Grant does a great job. He has made a very clear statement about this and I have got nothing to add to that.”
Mayor of London Boris Johnson said: “Grant has knocked this thing on the head, he’s said it’s completely untrue and defamatory or whatever, and frankly, at this stage, I’m much more inclined to focus on the big issues of this election about the direction of the UK economy, whether we can use that economic success to help people with their childcare.”
Conservative Party Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: “Knowing Grant as I do, I find it completely unbelievable that he would do such a thing.”
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: “I just don’t believe this, I just simply don’t believe these allegations. Why anybody would want to change things on Wikipedia is beyond me.”
The Liberal Democrats have been quick to mock Mr Shapps over the claims – with Nick Clegg joking on Thursday morning that he believed Mr Shapps when he said he had not made the edits.
“It could have been someone else… Michael Green for instance,” the Liberal Democrat leader said.
The Liberal Democrats also put out a statement from Paddy Ashdown which lavishes praise on Mr Shapps – however at the end it says the statement has been “edited by Wikipedia user Contribsx”.
Congrats to Lib Dems, for best response to Grant Shapps/Wikipedia story. Maybe best response ever to anything ever… pic.twitter.com/pNJFoQ0w6I
— Michael Savage (@michaelsavage) April 21, 2015
And of course Labour got involved as well…
— Labour Press Team (@labourpress) April 21, 2015
This is what Jon Snow would suggest: