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Key Points:

The secret of Wikipedia's phenomenal success is that anyone can edit the millions of comments, facts and statistics published on the pages of the world's most popular online encyclopaedia.

But that of course is also its greatest weakness. The chance to rewrite history in flattering and uncritical terms has proved too much of a temptation for scores of multinational companies, political parties and well-known organisations across the world.

If a misdemeanour from a politician's colourful past becomes an inconvenient fact at election time then why not just strike it from the Wikipedia record?

Or if a public company is embarking on a sensitive takeover why should its investors know of the target business's human rights abuses?

Now a website designed to monitor editorial changes made on Wikipedia has found thousands of self-serving edits and traced them to their original source. This has turned out to be hugely embarrassing for armies of political spindoctors and corproate revisionists who believed their censorial interventions had gone unnoticed.

Some of the guilty parties identified by the website, like the Labour Party, the CIA, Republican Party and the Church of Scientology, are well-known for their obsession with PR. But others, such as the Anglican and Catholic churches or even the obscurely titled Perro de Presa Canario Dog Breeders Association of America, are new to the dark arts of spin.

The website, Wikiscanner, was designed by Virgil Griffith, a graduate student from the California Institute of Technology, who downloaded the entire encyclopaedia, isolating the internet-based records of anonymous changes and IP addresses.

He then matched those IP addresses with public net-address services and so helped to uncover the world's biggest ever spinning operation. Mr Griffith says: "I came up with the idea when I heard about Congressmen getting caught for white-washing their Wikipedia pages.

"Every time I hear about a new security vulnerability, I think about whether it could be done on a massive scale and indexed. I had the idea back then, I've been busy with scientific work so I sat on it until a few weeks ago when I started working on the WikiScanner."

Wikipedia says what Griffith has found is what they had long suspected. A Wikipedia spokesman said: "Wikipedia is only working draft of history, it is constantly changing and so relies on volunteers editing the pages. But deliberate attempts to remove facts or reasonable interpretation of facts is considered vandalism. We are dealing with this kind of thing all time, so that our volunteer workers are changing edits back when we think they should be changed. But it's not perfect, it is just more transparent than some people realise."

Wikiscanner has analysed a database of 34.4 million edits performed by 2.6 million organisations or individuals since 2002.

Although it is not known who made each edit, or how senior that person was in any organisation, Mr Griffith says it is fair to link the change to the owner of the computer's IP address.

"Technically, we don't know if it came from an agent of that company. However, we do know that edit came from someone with access to their network. If the edit occurred during working hours, then we can reasonably assume that the person is either an agent of that company or a guest that was allowed access to their network."

The Wikipedia Scanner results are not the first time that people have been uncovered editing their own Wikipedia entries.

Earlier this year, Microsoft was revealed to have offered money to trawl through entries about document standards it and other companies employ.

Staff at the US Congress have also previously been exposed for editing and removing sensitive information about politicians.

But Mr Griffith says: "Overall, especially for non-controversial topics, Wikipedia seems to work. For controversial topics, Wikipedia can be made more reliable through techniques like this one."

WIKIPEDIA SPINS
The Republican Party and the occupation of Iraq

The Republican Party edited Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party entry so that it was made clear that the US-led invasion was not a "US-led occupation" but a "US-led liberation."

The CIA and casualties of war

A computer with a CIA IP address was used to change a graphic on casualties of the Iraq war by adding the warning that many of the figures were only estimated and were not broken down by class.

Another entry on former CIA chief William Colby was edited by to expand his career history and discuss the merits of a Vietnam War rural pacification program that he headed.

News International and the hypocritical anti-paedophile campaign

Someone at News International saw fit to remove criticism of the News of the World's anti-paedophile campaign by deleting the suggestion that this amounted to editorial hypocrisy. The original entry reminded readers that the paper continued to "publish semi-nude photographs of Page 3 models as young as 16 and salacious stories about female celebrities younger than that."

Dow Chemical and the Bhopal disaster

A computer registered to the Dow Chemical Company is recorded as deleting a passage on the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984, which occurred at a plant operated by Union Carbide, now a wholly owned Dow subsidiary. The incident cost up to 20,000 lives.

ExonMobil and the giant oil slick

An IP address that belongs to ExxonMobil, the oil giant, is linked to sweeping changes to an entry on the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. An allegation that the company "has not yet paid the $US5 billion in spill damages it owes to the 32,000 Alaskan fishermen" was replaced with references to the funds the company has paid out.

Diebold and the dubious voting machines

Voting-machine company Diebold apparently excised long paragraphs detailing the US security industry's concerns over the integrity of their voting machines, and information about the company's chief executive's fund-raising for President Bush. The text, deleted in November 2005, was quickly restored by another Wikipedia contributor, who advised the anonymous editor, "Please stop removing content from Wikipedia. It is considered vandalism."

The Israeli government and the West Bank wall

A computer linked to the Israeli government twice tried to delete an entire article about the West Bank wall that was critical of the policy. An edit from the same address also modified the entry for Hizbollah describing all its operations as being "mostly military in nature."

Discovery Channel and guerilla marketing

A source traced to Discovery Communications, the company that owns the Discovery Channel, deleted reference to company's reputation for "guerrilla marketing."

MySpace and self-censorship

Someone working from an IP address linked to MySpace appears to have been so irritated by references to the social networking website's over-censorial policy that they removed a paragraph accusing MySpace of censorship.

Boeing and a threat to its supremacy

Boeing has made it clear that it is not just one of the world's leading aircraft manufacturers it is the leading company in this field.

The FBI and Guantanamo

FBI has removed aerial images of the Guantanamo Bay Naval base in Cuba.

The church and child abuse cover-up

Barbara Alton, executive assistant to Episcopal Bishop Charles Bennison, in America, deleted information concerning a cover-up of child sexual abuse, allegations that the Bishop misappropriated $11.6 million in diocesan trust funds, and evidence of other scandals involving the Bishop. When challenged about this Alton claims she was ordered to delete the information by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori.

Amnesty and anti-Americanism

A computer with an IP address at Amnesty International was used to delete editorial references and internet links accusing the UK-based charity of holding an anti-American agenda.

Dell computer and out-sourcing
Dell removed a section on customer service, including a passage about how the company out-sourced its support divisions overseas.

The dog breeders and fatal maulings

A dog breeders association of America removed references to two fatal maulings of humans by the Perro de Presa Canario dogs in the US. In 2001 a woman was attacked and killed by two Presa Canario/Mastiff hybrids in the hallway of her apartment building in San Fransico. Last year a pure-bred Presa Canario fatally mauled a woman in Coral Springs Florida.

Nestle and corporate criticism

Someone from Nestle removed criticisms of some of the company's controversial business practices which have been subsequently re-added.

Scientologists and sensitivity

Computers with IP addresses traced to the Church of Scientology were used to expunge reams of critical paragraphs about the cult's world-wide operations.

The gun lobby and fatal shootings

The National Rifle Association of America doctored concerns about its role in the increase in gun fatalities by replacing the passage with a reference to the association's conservation work in America.


- INDEPENDENT