Grant Shapps is in the headlines after being accused of self-serving edits made to his own entry on Wikipedia, as well as unflattering changes made to rivals’ pages. But he may not be the only politician giving himself a virtual facelift. Analysis of the Twitter account @parliamentedits, which tracks edits to Wikipedia made from inside the Houses of Parliament, shows other attempts to edit the online encyclopedia, many of them controversial.
Important disclaimer: because @parliamentedits tracks editing activity for an IP address which covers the whole parliamentary estate, it’s impossible to tie single changes to specific MPs or their staff. But the edits are, to say the least, politically convenient for the MPs in question. So here are the ten MPs whose Wikipedia pages have been edited by someone inside Parliament this year:
- Craig Whittaker. On January 6th a user in Parliament removed references to two incidents relating to Conservative MP Craig Whittaker: his arrest for an alleged assault at a petrol station in 2012 (for which no charges were ultimately filed) and 2014 claims that he had misled constituents over local hospital services.
- Outcome: mixed. The page no longer contains reference to the claims over hospital services, while the legal outcome of the alleged assault has been clarified. In a meta twist, after the edit was picked up in a Spectator blog, the Wikipedia page itself now refers to the attempted change.
- Gordon Birtwhistle. Edits were made from the parliamentary estate to Liberal Democrat MP Gordon Birtwhistle’s page, erasing references to his opposition to gay marriage legislation passed by his own party in this Parliament and to his past as a Labour councillor in the 1970s. A list of his achievements as MP was added, and – for some reason – the fact that he supported Blackburn Rovers was removed.
- Outcome: mostly reverted. Wikipedia editors were quick to restore most of the edits. One Wikipedia user pondered whether “Gordon [was] preparing Wikipedia for the next general election campaign?” So the page now includes Birtwhistle’s opinion of gay marriage (“Civil partnerships are fine. Gay marriage is just not on”) and refers to his past incarnation as Labour councillor. His support for Blackburn Rovers, however, is lost to the confines of (Wikipedia) history.
- Mark Hendrick. A Wikipedia user inside Parliament edited Labour MP Mark Hendrick’s page to make small changes to the description of his heritage and to his membership of parliamentary groups.
- Outcome: reverted. Hendrick’s heritage is now worded differently (he is now described as “of Anglo-Somali descent”) but the original description of his parliamentary group activities has been reverted to.
- Robert Walker. Conservative MP Robert Walker’s page was edited from inside Parliament in January to remove a sentence describing his defence of democratic progress in Azerbaijan in the face of questions over the Azeri government’s human rights record.
- Outcome: reverted. The parliamentary user tried twice to remove the sentence, but other users resisted the attempts. (A new Wikipedia account then attempted the same thing but was again rebuffed.)
- Philip Davies. Some relatively innocuous stylistic changes were attempted to Conservative MP Philip Davies’ page from inside Parliament, including an attempt to add ‘MP’ to his name.
- Outcome: reverted. The attempt to add the MP suffix was rebuffed. Notably, the parliamentary editor left intact some unflattering sentences about Davies in the article’s introduction, which have since been removed due to bias.
- Michael Connarty. Changes made to Labour MP Connarty’s page in February include some more information about his family life and pre-parliamentary career. A paragraph about Connarty’s support for an Early Day Motion condemning a Celtic player was shortened.
- Outcome: preserved. The additions to Connarty’s CV remain, and the already-shortened paragraph about the Early Day Motion has since been removed entirely by an established Wikipedia editor due to its lack of clear significance.
- Gavin Barwell. In February, someone inside the Houses of Parliament tried to remove reference to an article from a local newspaper late last year which called on Conservative MP Barwell to stop launching headline-grabbing campaigns.
- Outcome: reverted. The reference was reinstated, with the Wikipedia editor citing “unexplained content removal.”
- George Freeman. Credit this user with some persistence (and petulance) – someone in Parliament tried four times to change the wording of Tory MP George Freeman’s 2005 election defeat to a Labour candidate. The user described Freeman as “narrowly missing overturning the majority” of his opponent.
- Outcome: reverted. The attempt was seen as “an anonymous edit attempting spin” by Wikipedia editors who persistently reversed the changes, winning the edit war. Freeman’s entry now describes him as “being defeated” in 2005.
- Robert Jenrick. The Wikipedia page of 2013 Newark by-election winner, Tory MP Robert Jenrick, was edited in March to add several biographical information such as details about his legal training.
- Outcome: preserved. In a rare example of successful parliamentary editing, all of the changes to Jenrick’s page remain. This may be because the changes were basically neutral, adding hard facts about Jenrick’s background – rather than removing information or altering the perspective of the piece.
In only two of these examples were attempts from inside parliament to change Wikipedia entries about MPs ultimately very successful. In most cases – particularly where the edits looked political or controversial in nature – Wikipedians had it covered, blocking these (sometimes multiple) attempts. This should offer some optimism around Wikipedia’s political neutrality – or, at least, the ability of its users to weed out the most egregious attempts to alter its impartiality. There’s no doubt though that online sources like Wikipedia remain important battlegrounds for how voters get information online, which only emphasises the importance of these resources maintaining political balance and ensuring the availability of all relevant information.