Tory chairman Grant Shapps denies vandalising rivals' Wikipedia pages

Wikipedia has suspended a user account which it claims has been engaged in "sock puppetry", improving Grant Shapps' biography and editing those of Conservative cabinet ministers.

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An election scoop from the Guardian, which claims to have uncovered evidence that Grant Shapps, or someone close to the Conservative Party chairman, has been engaging in a little reputational vandalism on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia has blocked a user account on suspicions that it is being used by the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps "or someone acting on his behalf" to edit his own page as well as the entries of Tory rivals and political opponents.

The online encylopedia, where pages are edited and created by readers, has tracked the changes made by a user called “Contribsx” who has systematically removed embarrassing references on Shapps’ Wikipedia page about the Tory chairman’s business activities as Michael Green, the self-styled millionaire web marketeer.

The Contribsx account has a user profile that lists every edit it is responsible for, going back to its creation in August 2013, as well as a self-authored bio. Contribsx' "interests include politics, current affairs and historic biographies" with a particular focus on British and American politics. However, as the Guardian has noted, this person (or these persons) has an overwhelming interest in current Tory politicians - besides the dozens of edits to Shapps' Wikipedia page, the pages for Francis Maude, Dominic Grieve, Michael Fabricant, Eric Pickles and Michael Heseltine have all been edited by this user.

That was enough to trigger the suspicions of Wikipedia's admins, who believe Contribsx to be a so-called "sock puppet" - an account on a website setup by a user just to secretly push an agenda. It happens everywhere online, but Wikipedia's extensive open records of user activities make catching sock puppets somewhat easier than in other places.

This isn't the first time that Shapps has been accused of sock puppetry. In September 2012, four user accounts with IP addresses registered to Shapps' office were banned after it became clear that they were making a number of edits to delete embarrassing gaffes made over the preceding years, such as impersonating Lib Dem activists online to try to discredit a by-election rival; or to erase mentions of his online pseudonym Michael Green, and his "get rich quick" internet marketing company HowToCorp, which were the subject of a recent notorious Newsnight interview where the Tory chairman squirmed under direct questioning.

The investigations page on Wikipedia lists the evidence in favour of Contribsx being a sock puppet under the direction of the same person (or persons) behind the four accounts from 2012. Here are just some examples:

  • [1] Contribsx attacks an opposition MP who had referred Shapps' activities to the police, and who had provided a quote critical of Shapps to the Guardian here.
  • [2] Contribsx made a change to Michael Fabricant’s page to say he was sacked by Grant Shapps rather than on the order of Lynton Crosby.
  • Unlike many others in his party, Shapps is a big supporter of gay marriage and got into a spat with several other politicans (cf. here) and Contribsx made edits to draw attention to other Cabinet members for supporting gay marriage here and here.
  • This shows Contribsx making an edit critical of Justine Greening for missing a vote, and being against a third runway at Heathrow. Shapps, has criticised her for this in the past.
  • Shapps was the Conservative party Chairman who sat in judgement over Afzal Amin in 2015, after Amin resigned over claims he had links to far-right group the English Defence League. Contribsx links to his successor, and created the page for his previously unknown successor - which was deleted as failing notability guidelines. he also got into a bit of a spat about on on [the talk page.
  • Contribsx also edits huge swathes of the Grant Shapps page, almost always removing criticism. These can be viewed on Contribsx's contributions page and going into detail here would be superfluous...

There's also a lot of overlap between the IP addresses used by Contribsx and other edits that focus on things like deleting mentions of HowToCorp - and the account was created on the very same day that several other accounts with an unusual interest in Shapps' history were banned. The admin who took the decision, a user called "Chase me, I'm the cavalry", thanked the Guardian for bringing the issue to their attention.

Shapps has told the Guardian that the accusations are "false and defamatory". On Twitter, the account @ToryChairman added: 

I'm a mole, innit.

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