Progressives singing dirges in the dark as the GOP this week seized the power they won in the mid-terms can at least take solace in this bit of alternate-reality news: Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have become Democrats.
OK, not really. But since Dec. 21, the Wikipedia page listing the congressional delegation from the Bluegrass State have shown its senators – two of the most visible Republicans in the nation – with the letter “D” beneath their names. And despite the oft-touted claim by the Wikipedia community that its crowd-sourced, hive-mind approach self-corrects such mistakes, the error has persisted even after McConnell was sworn in as Majority Leader of the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate.
This particular mistake was never likely to confuse anybody other than, perhaps, a few lazy, Wiki-dependent journalists and students. Kentucky, after all, hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since last century. And it seems to be the isolated, unintentional error of an otherwise trustworthy veteran Wikipedia editor who uses the alias Count Awesome. Editing notes on the Wiki page, which are public, indicate Mr. Awesome probably cut-and-pasted some code from the Wiki for the senators from Maryland, both of whom are Democrats.
Nonetheless, it is peculiar that nobody has fixed it, especially since tweets to @Wikipedia, @Team_Mitch and @SenRandPaul in the past week have referenced and mocked the goof. “It’s obviously a failing on the digital teams of McConnell and Paul,” said Karl Frisch, a leading progressive digital campaign consultant and partner in the Washington-based firm Bullfight Strategies. “This particular error does not matter, I doubt there are many people misled into thinking they’re Democrats and were turned off by that. But you’d be surprised how often this happens.”
Wiki errors can linger, GOP digital campaign guru Vincent Harris said, because politicians and their staffers are “fix-shy.” Folks in and around D.C. are “cautious to a fault,” said Harris, whose Austin-based firm was poached in November by Paul’s operation after he came to prominence by helping Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, win his dark-horse Senate primary in 2012. Politicians tend to want staffers, when they spot Wikipedia errors, to “get it fixed now. The issue, of course, is that changes have to be made by someone with credentials in the community and who isn't simply a mouthpiece for the specific individual or brand. So it's very tricky, but very important. Wikipedia is commonly a top 10 referrer of traffic to my client sites.”
Past scandals about elected officials and candidates messing with either their Wikis or those of their opponents have blown up when the IP addresses of those who made those changes were traced back to campaign or government offices. As recently as last month, an IP address linked to the U.S. House of Representatives altered a Wiki page on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA to replace the word “torture” with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The Twitter handle @congress-edits is set to automatically tweet any anonymous Wikipedia edits made from IP addresses associated with Congress.
There are workarounds that can escape prying watchdog eyes. “I personally have accounts that we manage that are active in the [Wikipedia] community that we make changes with,” Harris said. Such stealth ways “are used a lot.”
Frisch said there are above-board ways, too. He often will approach Wikipedia section editors with source material to ask for errors to be changed, a tactic he said is usually successful – especially in cases of non-controversial and incontrovertible facts such as someone’s party affiliation.
“This is the kind of things that political teams and communications teams should be watching,” Frisch said. “If you don’t know how to get something corrected on Wikipedia for your boss and you’re a digital campaign consultant in 2015, you might as well quit.”
Harris confirmed that both Paul and McConnell, whose digital operation he managed in his 2014 re-election campaign, remain Republicans. Wikipedia’s media office did not reply to requests for comment.
Update (1/7/15): The mighty media wakes up Wikipedia.