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.
LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times