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‘History’ rewrites itself

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It’s Wiki-history!

An online encyclopedia listing for a Brooklyn councilman is being repeatedly edited by a city employee to emphasize (and hide) the councilman’s position on two controversial development projects.

In a twist reminiscent of the memory hole in “1984,” someone is tailoring Councilman Bill DeBlasio’s entry in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for political purposes. But who’s doing it? It’s almost impossible to say, although one culprit is known to be working from a city government Internet connection.

Like most other members of the Council, DeBlasio (D–Park Slope) has a page on Wikipedia, the popular encyclopedia that allows anyone — whether he or she has expertise or not — to create and edit articles.

The strength of the system is in its numbers. Unlike a standard encyclopedia, Wikipedia has hundreds of thousands of writers and editors. Its founder claims that those sheer numbers make it impossible for mistakes to last very long before someone finds the error and tosses it down the memory hole.

Since June, numerous revisions have been made to DeBlasio’s entry regarding his position on Atlantic Yards and the coming Trader Joe’s supermarket at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street.

In fact, DeBlasio’s Wikipedia page has been in a near constant state of flux, with several people taking aim at his stance on hot-button issues. But unlike the memory holes of Orwell’s dystopia, Wikipedia edits leave a “paper” trail, making it possible to view a record of all changes made to any listing.

The most-recent changes, first reported on the blog, Pardon Me For Asking, have involved the insertion and deletion of a paragraph about whether DeBlasio is in tune with his constituents.

One version began: “DeBlasio has recently been criticized by his constituents for his continued support of large scale real-estate projects being built in Brooklyn. Despite widespread opposition by neighborhood groups, DeBlasio continues to promote unpopular developments that are excessive in size and not in the context of the surrounding neighborho­ods.”

On several occasions, the paragraph — and others like it — have been edited out, and then restored. Currently, the paragraph is not part of DeBlasio’s entry.

A spokesman for the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication said the agency could not easily determine which city computer system — whose IP address is recorded whenever edits are made — is being used to alter DeBlasio’s Wikipedia page because so many individual computers have the same IP address.

But this much is clear: Seven times between June 28 and July 2, that same city computer system changed DeBlasio’s page — sometimes to burnish his image, other times to diminish it.

The most-recent edit from the city computer was a pro-DeBlasio change: The original paragraph — “DeBlasio is also a supporter of the generally unpopular Atlantic Yards development, which critics contend will be excessive in size, provide major tax subsidies to the developer and will have a detrimental impact upon the neighborhood” — was politically purged to become, “DeBlasio is a supporter of the generally popular Atlantic Yards development, which is a major mixed-income housing, retail, office and sports complex.”

Another time, the person at the city computer added this anti-DeBlasio sentence: “He is a highly controversial figure, known for his alliances with anti-development and NIMBY homeowners and has been accused of grandstanding on development issues.” The back-and-forth from the same city computer indicates that more than one person may be logging on to flog and praise DeBlasio.

Wiki-wars flare up frequently. Earlier this year, Capitol Hill staffers were found to be manipulating Wikipedia entries for members of Congress.

And two years ago, a Wikipedia hoaxer posted that journalist John Seigenthaler was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The error was quickly fixed (and now the whole affair has its own Wikipedia page!).

For now, at least, the DeBlasio camp says it is not concerned by what appears on Wikipedia.

“Anyone who is an intelligent persons knows that Wikipedia is not reliable because anyone can go on to say anything about anyone,” said Jean Weinberg, DeBlasio’s press secretary. “That’s OK. It’s a public page. But they’re not facts.”

Weinberg also denies that anyone working in DeBlasio’s office made the edits.

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Reader Feedback

Jeff Marker says:
I don't understand this because, when people are using Wikipedia entries for partisan purposes, the site often freezes the entry. I would be fair to have the entry say that DeBlasio supports the Ratner project without the editorializing about the project itself.
Oct. 24, 2007, 5:53 pm

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