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.
Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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