The coming Wikipedia election.

As 2005 and 2006 were the years that blogs were at their peak influence in elections, I expect that Wikipedia will be at its peak influence in Virginia’s 2009 election.

Virginia’s constant elections put us in an unusual position of innovation. We’re always in the midst of an election cycle, so we’re in a position to capitalize on new trends. Blogs became a major part of the public awareness in 2005, but Virginia and New Jersey were the only states with elections that November, so we were the pathbreakers.

Wikipedia is in the process of expanding to a new level of detail and relevance. As more people learn to contribute to Wikipedia, and as more entries of international and national importance are basically completed, we’re seeing editors turn towards establishing and enhancing entries for topics of state and local note. You’re getting guys like me creating entries for the Monticello Wine Company, Lane High School, Yancey Mills, and Paul Goodloe McIntire. Wikipedia is local now.

Several Wikipedia editors are now working to create entries for every senator and delegate in Virginia. Some have the briefest of entries at this point, while others are lengthier.

The reason that candidates will be concerned about their Wikipedia entry is the prominence with which they show up in Google. Because Wikipedia’s Google PageRank is at the highest possible level (ten out of ten), most entries are like to be within the top three results. Simply establishing a Wikipedia entry, no matter how brief, is enough to make it a major source of information about that candidate for voters.

But the standard rules of political blogging don’t apply here. Unlike blogs, Wikipedia entries can’t be partisan, no original research is permitted, and every stated claim must be supported by a citation—text in violation of any of those standards isn’t liable to remain in place for long. But the facts are not always kind to candidates, and we’ve already seen one delegate get upset about his Wikipedia entry. The truth can be enormously damaging. Even the standard rules of partisan behavior don’t apply: I’ve put significantly more time into removing inaccuracy, unkind information from Virgil Goode’s Wikipedia entry than adding factual, negative information about him there. Like many Wikipedia editors, I believe that accuracy trumps all else. Since information has a well-known liberal bias, I figure that works out for me as a Democrat, anyhow.

Trickier still, candidates and their campaigns can’t edit Wikipedia entries about them. Not only is it against the rules of Wikipedia, but they’ll almost certainly get nailed for it, and that has enormous potential to be embarrassing. My advice for campaigns is to be cognizant of their Wikipedia entry, to have a campaign employee documenting inaccuracies on the entry’s talk page, but to never change a word. (Unless you’re a Republican candidate, in which case I encourage you to white-wash your entry so that I can humiliate you.)

As for the rest of you—Democrats and Republicans alike—I suggest that you create an account, learn the mechanics of editing entries, and take some time to learn about the community standards. Then go forth and enhance some Wikipedia entries about Virginia politics.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

8 replies on “The coming Wikipedia election.”

  1. Never quite been a big fan of the idea of “epistemic epistemology” as promoted by the Wikipedia founders… in the end, what goes on Wikipedia is usually ceded to the most forceful user (or group of users) trying to get their point across — and their aims aren’t always altruistic.

    Now if there is a way to fix or ameliorize this, then folks are on to something. Until then, Wikipedia tends to be a good starting point for further research for me, but gospel for unfortunate others.

    Still, the idea of “Wikis getting local” is quite awesome.

  2. Regarding: “My advice for campaigns is to be cognizant of their Wikipedia entry, to have a campaign employee documenting inaccuracies on the entry’s talk page, but to never change a word.”

    I’m only a sporadic Wikipedia editor, and I have to look up rules piecemeal when I do so, but it strikes me that the better response, if Wikipedia does gain serious political import, is for campaigns to work hand-in-hand with third-party public relations firms, which firms would do the Wikipedia editing. The same edits that State Sen. X can’t do himself can be made (with increasing insulation from objection under Wikipedia’s standards) by his staff, by a PR firm retained by his staff, by his party, and by a PR firm retained by his party.

    I recognize there might yet remain troubling agency questions, I’d hazard those concerns would be hard to write specific rules to address.

    I could, of course, be wrong about this, and such concerns could already be well-addressed by existing Wikipedia rules and standards. That wouldn’t be the first time my willingness to comment despite being relatively ignorant as to what I’m talking about would’ve gotten me in trouble.

  3. Yup, existing standards cover that. Wikipedia’s Conflict of interest rules address this like such:

    If you fit either of these descriptions:

    1. you are receiving monetary or other benefits or considerations to edit Wikipedia as a representative of an organization (whether directly as an employee or contractor of that organization, or indirectly as an employee or contractor of a firm hired by that organization for public relations purposes); or,

    2. you expect to derive monetary or other benefits or considerations from editing Wikipedia; for example, by being the owner, officer or other stakeholder of a company or other organisation about which you are writing;

    3. Generally speaking, the Reward Board is an exception as you may derive monetary gain from editing Wikipedia, due to the fact these are usually rewards for featured or good article status; which should not introduce bias. However, be wary of editors asking you to make specific edits or to “clean up a hatchet job” as you may unwarily become their meatpuppet.

    then we very strongly encourage you to avoid editing Wikipedia in areas where there is a conflict of interest that would make your edits non-neutral (biased). Wikipedia’s neutral point of view policy states that all articles must represent views fairly and without bias, and conflicts of interest do significantly and negatively affect Wikipedia’s ability to fulfill this requirement. If your financially-motivated edits would be non-neutral, do not post them.

  4. Indeed – I should have known. Would those address cases where the edits to candidate pages are done by party volunteers, coordinated by the party?

  5. All edits on Wikipedia must adhere to the neutral point of view standards. So folks making edits who are not compensated to do so, but who happen to be Democrats and fans of the candidate? There’s nothing wrong with them editing those entries, provided that their edits comply with NPOV standards. Part of that, incidentally, is undue weight—half of a candidate’s entry cannot be about an accusation once leveled at him that came to nothing, nor can it be about the great bill that he once cosponsored that provided homes for orphaned puppies. Such edits would be removed and, if the editor persisted in adding it, that editor would be prohibited from making further edits to that entry.

  6. I got myself a Wikipedia account–I’m going to give it a go! (In those areas I know anything about, of course.)

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