congressedits-twitter-bot

Few Internet properties have retained their original, open, collaborative spirit like Wikipedia. By remaining ad-free, donation-supported, and volunteer-driven, the encyclopedia has avoided the kinds of conflicts and ambitions that can turn corporations with even the best of intentions into evil empires.

But Wikipedia’s freewheeling collaborative nature is also its Achilles’ heel. While some pages are “protected” and can only be edited by an administrator, many others can be edited at any time, often without approval. And what may seem like a minor edit to an administrator may hold greater significance, especially if it’s done by a person closely involved in the topic of the page with something to lose or gain.

In the interest of greater transparency, developer Ed Summers invented Congress Edits, a bot that tweets anytime an anonymous Wikipedia edit is made from an IP address in the US Congress. While some have commented that the only edits exposed so far have been pretty banal, like correcting grammar and punctuation errors, Summers points out that his reasoning behind the account wasn’t necessarily to shame politicians:

I wrote this post to make it clear that my hope for @congressedits wasn’t to expose inanity, or belittle our elected officials. The truth is, @congressedits has only announced a handful of edits, and some of them are pretty banal. But can’t a staffer or politician make a grammatical change, or update an article about a movie? Is it really news that they are human, just like the rest of us?

I created @congressedits because I hoped it could engender more, better ideas and tools like it. More thought experiments. More care for our communities and peoples. More understanding, and willingness to talk to each other. More humor. More human.

Still, this should make congresspeople and their aides think twice before removing embarrassing passages or adding boastful updates. Where I think a tool like this could really shine is in the world of tech PR. Late last year, Wikimedia Foundation investigated 300 accounts suspected of removing damaging information from entries on behalf of a PR firm. This prompted eleven PR firms to sign a statement pledging to act ethically when making changes to pages belonging to companies they represent.

Of course, when a firm’s whole job is to make companies look as good as possible, it’s hard to take it at its word. And even if a PR firm believes it’s acting ethically, often the standards applied to that field are not the same as those applied to journalists or Wikipedia administrators. That’s why any tool to increase transparency around how PR firms operate, or if nothing else create dialogue around what qualifies as an “ethical” edit, would make the tech world, and those who represent it, a whole lot less full of shit.