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2 September 2008updated 27 Sep 2015 6:03am

Who scrubbed Palin clean?

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

By Iain Simons

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.

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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.