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.
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

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