Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Justice Minister's 'wikispat': Who is Clarke43?

Judith Collins' office has told the Herald it does not know who Clarke43 is. File photo / APN
Judith Collins' office has told the Herald it does not know who Clarke43 is. File photo / APN

Come in Clarke43, whoever you are. Your time in the shadows is up.

Or is it? Clarke43 is the pseudonym of a volunteer Wikipedia editor who inadvertently came to attention in a "wikispat" between Justice Minister Judith Collins and a ministry critic.

Because the on-line encyclopedia relies on volunteers it doesn't want to discourage editors by requiring them to identify themselves. The compromise is lost transparency.

How can Wikipedia users be assured that the fingerprints of interested parties are not all over the online encyclopaedia? That's the question left begging after this week's row about one of Judith Collins' staff having edited related pages a new photo was uploaded to the minister's Wikipedia page and several paragraphs that her office says it considered defamatory were removed about her handling of David Bain's compensation case. One of passages cut mentioned an "embarrassing public spat" between Collins and Canadian judge Ian Binnie, who reviewed Bain's compensation case.

The website does not want people with a conflict of interest to edit articles and reminded Collins' staff member of its "conflict of interest guideline" and that "promotional editing" is not acceptable.

Collins' office didn't get into much bother because it declared its interest it chose the nom de plume "Jc press sec" and was upfront on discussion pages and this week stated that there had only ever been the two edits.

Putting lip-gloss on your Wiki imagine is far from unknown. The fingerprints of politicians, big corporations such as Apple, ChevronTexaco, Coca Cola Exxon Mobil, along with the CIA, FBI, a range of media companies and the Church of Scientology were among those found when a site (now not operating) allowed matching of anonymous Wikipedia editors with ISP addresses.

The Australian Prime Minister's department was reported in 2007 to have made 126 anonymous edits to articles on sometimes controversial issues and on government ministers. The Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, denied knowledge.

In New Zealand, former prime minister Helen Clark's page was "protected" after a series of unflattering references, the New Dairy Board computers were linked to editing about powdered milk. Former cabinet minister Richard Worth, and National colleague Peseta Sam Lotu-liga triggered Wikipedia "conflict of interest" warnings when they or their staff were linked to entries about themselves and former Auckland City councillor Aaron Bhatnagar was caught doctoring Wikipedia to paint rivals in a bad light prior to the 2007 local body elections. Bhatnagar used the alias Barzini a power-hungry psychopath from Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather to make his edits.

The ruckus about Collins' staff was triggered by Wellington alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking, a critic of Collins and the Justice Ministry and a prolific Wikipedia editor now banned under the username Offender9000. Brooking voiced concerns that Collins or her staff might be behind edits he has made being slashed from lengthy articles to brief stubs but admits he had no proof.

"It looks like someone is trying to shut me up," he wrote on his blog last week. "Then there is Clarke43. Whoever he (or she) is, Clarke43 has also done a lot of editing on the Judith Collins page and has systematically deleted much of the material I contributed to other articles."

Brooking pointed to the removal by Clarke43 from Judith Collins' page of a passage he inserted that quoted Sir Bob Jones that she had displayed on the Binnie-Bain compensation matter "breathtaking arrogance without precedence" and was unfit to be Minister of Justice.

"It's a perfectly usable quote and a source was provided, but its critical of her so he removed it," says Brooking.

Then, on June 15, Clarke43 added a direct link to Collins' Twitter account in the reputation section along with the following quote: "She is active on Twitter and tries to reply to people personally, believing that the interaction is a good way to reach young voters and inject some humour into politics." Brooking suspects hagiography. "Twittering is nothing to do with her reputation ... [Clarke43] is "always trying to paint her in a flattering light".

Shortly after Brooking's blog, Clarke43 posted on his Wikipedia user page some background. After using Wikipedia for years, Clarke43 had become an editor to "correct some serious non-Neutral Point of View editing". He named Brooking and Offender9000 (Brooking effectively outed himself by citing his own book as a source for some of his Wikipedia entries) as someone who had skewed balance and neutrality and continually failed to adhere to Wikipedia policies.

Clarke43 stated his motive was simply to "maintain the integrity of Wikipedia as a resource".

His first edit was on Judith Collins' page. Judging by a list he posted of people and topics he has edited, Clarke43 appears to be interested in Justice, Corrections, policing, ombudsmen, controversial criminal cases such as Bain and Lundy, and right-wing political figures. Or, the list might reflect the "clean-up" work he has done on material added by Brooking.

The Herald sent a message to Clarke43 via his user page, asking him to phone the reporter for this article. The message was deleted from his page within 30 minutes and Clarke43 had not made contact by press time.

We would have asked him to identify himself and declare any political affiliations. Collins' office told the Herald it does not know who Clarke43 is.

But Clarke43 is not alone in his concerns about Brooking's editing. Several other editors expressed concern on Wikipedia logs that he is pushing his point of view, his citations sometimes fail to justify statements, has inserted possibly defamatory material, indulged in Wikiwarring (reinserting material other editors have deleted) and tried to beat a ban by setting up two different user names.

For an encyclopaedia, point of view is a sin. Editors who have taken Brooking to task stress the objective is to achieve a neutral encyclopaedia and is no place for material better suited to a blog. Brooking sees it as sanitising important issues. Most of the drug and alcohol counsellor's clients are in the justice system and he has strong views about its performance as the title of his book indicates, Flying Blind How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.

Wikipedia works on the basis that robust editing by a lot of editors tends to knock out bias and pseudonyms are not therefore an issue. But as one editor observed, there are few working on some New Zealand pages.

Political science lecturer Dr Bryce Edwards says while political manipulation of Wikipedia is always possible he believes it works even with anonymous editors because their edits can be tracked. "That makes it quite democratic. Like all democracies some voices will be louder than others and more active than others but in the end because it is so well documented and because there is an [open discussion forum] I think it works in a more impressive way than any other encyclopaedia system."

Edwards says balance is found in the end and overly subjective material is eventually edited out. "Along the way there is going to be a chance for political actors to use Wikipedia to further their own ends but eventually it gets balanced up, eventually these authors with a political agenda get found out, not necessarily in the sense of who they are but their work gets monitored."

"I don't think there is a flaw in the system. It may not be perfect but it is still a fascinating and dynamic way of having political information available for the masses."

- APNZ

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