Who scrubbed Palin clean?

How the Wikipedia entry of Republican vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin was mysteriously scrubbe

Perhaps it was to try and make up some ground following the Democrats announcing Obama’s running mate by SMS? Intentionally or not, this week it’s the Republican campaign that are finding themselves at the centre of the debate on new technology.

Following the announcement of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate, her Wikipedia page has undergone a frenzy of contradictory edits, the making of which has foregrounding the problems inherent in Web 2.0 democracy. Forming both an entertaining running-battle of various authors and a test-case for Wikipedian legislature, the affair is brewing into something fascinating. Less an argument about the facts of Palin’s life than about the nature and limits of the Wiki.

The problems hinge around a user called YoungTrigg, who began making positive edits to Palin’s profile the day before her nomination was announced. The volume of edits taking place prompted other editors on Wikipedia to call foul, alleging that Palin’s profile was being ’scrubbed’ by a Republican aide in advance of the announcement.

The deliberate re-writing of Wikipedia entries for political gain is, of course, a direct breach of everything that Wikipedia stands for. The first mechanism for dealing with such grievances is the ‘talk’ page which each and every article has attached to it for developing, revising and discussing the content of the main article. It’s here that this spirited debate has been playing out.

YoungTrigg (who apparently named themselves after one of Palin’s children) has answered some of the criticisms, acknowledging that they have been a McCain campaign volunteer but denying that they acted in breach of the conflict of interest policies.

Problematically for YoungTrigg, these edits were the only ones they made on Wikipedia after starting their account on August 28th. It seemed that this was an SPA (Single Purpose Account) just to edit Palin’s page, a fact which led to the inevitable accusations of Sock puppetry. Wikipedians are essentially defined by the contributions and revisions that they have made, so even despite strong protestations it’s difficult to believe that YoungTrigg isn’t in some way connected to the McCain camp, as the only wiki-work they have performed is to scrub-up Palin.

This whole affair is a fascinating document of the difficulties in policing collaborative knowledge, and one which has been noticed by the wider media. Following coverage on NPR and a neat summary from the New York Times, the controversy began to amusingly fold-in on itself. One editor insisted that the coverage of the wiki-affair was such that it constituted a controversy, and as such should be added to Palin’s Wikipedia entry,”…listed under controversies, once the controversies section is restored..” Another editor retorted that they don’t do controversy sections, a claim that was undermined by the posting of a link to this list of 2880 Wikipedia articles which feature controversies.

Whilst clearly not all of the 2.4 million viewers of Palin’s entry since Friday have also studied the rolling discussion, YoungTrigg has highlighted some of the problems with Wikipedia - made especially pertinent during an election year. Quite who YoungTrigg is will perhaps now never be known, as they have retired their account following the furore. What’s obvious though, is that they are no thoughtless vandal. In the responses to the allegations made they come across as a literate, earnest, VERY wiki-literate editor - but who is strangely unable to concede that people might find a Single Purpose Account suspicious, particularly when making the edits about a vice-presidential nominee during the hours that their candidacy was announced.

Whether a well-meaning volunteer, campaign PR operative or (as has been alleged) Palin herself, the only thing that seems certain is that this isn’t the work of the nominee's five-month old son.

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit