Don’t Like Palin’s Wikipedia Story? Change It
By NOAM COHEN
IN the 24 hours before the McCain campaign put the finishing touches on its surprise announcement Friday that Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska would be the Republican vice presidential candidate, one Wikipedia user was putting the finishing touches on her biography on the site.
Beginning at 2 a.m Eastern time on Thursday, a Wikipedia user with the name YoungTrigg began an overhaul of the article, adding compelling stories about her upbringing, including that “she earned the nickname ‘Sarah Barracuda’ because of her intense play” as point guard for her high school basketball team and that she and her father “would sometimes wake at 3 a.m. to hunt moose before school.”
Many details were culled from, and footnoted to, the book “Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment on Its Ear,” by Kaylene Johnson.
Soon enough, YoungTrigg pivoted from the biographical to the political, adding that Ms. Palin had high approval ratings as governor and that, as mayor, she had “kept her campaign promises, reducing her own salary, as well as reducing property taxes 60 percent.”
As governor, YoungTrigg wrote, her “tenure is noted for her willingness to take on oil companies” and that she has been called “a ‘politician of eye-popping integrity.’ ” Both of those statements were attributed to a profile in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
In total, YoungTrigg — whose user name is a reference to Ms. Palin’s infant son, Trig — made 30 “edits” to the article, all positive and largely unnoticed, since they came at a time when few were discussing her as a possible running mate of Senator John McCain’s.
The coincidence of the user’s name, and the sudden spurt of activity just before news broke of Mr. McCain’s choice, has raised suspicions that YoungTrigg was a campaign operative tasked to make sure that her Wikipedia article was ready for prime time, much as handlers have been assigned to do the same for the candidate.
While ethically suspect, the idea that a politician would try to shape her Wikipedia article shouldn’t come as a surprise. In modern politics, where the struggle is to “define” yourself before your opponent “defines” you, Wikipedia has become an important part of political strategy. When news breaks, and people plug a name into a search engine to find out more, invariably Wikipedia is the first result they click through to; it is where first impressions are made.
The daily page view totals for even well-known candidates are striking. For example, according to a site that tracks the traffic to Wikipedia, the John McCain article had 645,000 page views in June. That month, Barack Obama had 1.35 million page views. Henrik Abelsson, who tracks the traffic, said that on Friday there were 2.4 million page views for Gov. Palin’s Wikipedia article.
Last year, a graduate student, Virgil Griffith, created a clever Web site, Wiki- Scanner, that made it easy to detect where anonymous editors of Wikipedia were accessing the site. In the process, companies, government agencies and, yes, politicians were caught in the act of spiffing up their Wikipedia entries, even as many assumed that anonymity would make them safe. (Wikipedia, incredibly and mercilessly, keeps a record of every change made to every article.)
YoungTrigg made the last edit Friday morning, hours before the news of the Palin selection became official. But in the wee hours the day before, when no one was really paying attention, YoungTrigg did contact other Wikipedians, who were initially impressed by the rapid improvements to the article.
YoungTrigg was given a virtual unit of praise, the Barnstar, for the effort. When another Wikipedia contributor asked gently if YoungTrigg could include page numbers to his footnotes from “Sarah,” YoungTrigg wrote back excitedly: “Thank you! I’m afraid I didn’t use the page numbers when I did the edits, so I don’t have them now. The book has a pretty good index, though, and I can look something up if anything I added was controversial. I apologize if I misunderstood the format.”
Also, YoungTrigg reached out to an anonymous editor who had changed the Palin article on Thursday night, without any evidence, to say that she was Mr. McCain’s choice. In a public note to the anonymous editor, YoungTrigg wrote: “Where did you hear that Palin was the VP nominee? I can’t find anything online.”
Whether this pokes a hole in the idea that YoungTrigg had inside information, or rather confirms that the user had an unusually acute interest in whether the news had leaked out, is hard to tell.
Or maybe it was dumb luck. When news outlets like National Public Radio and Washingtonpost.com reported on the editing on Friday, they classified it as another example of Wikipedia’s mysterious ability to predict about-to-break news, if we only knew to look there. When the liberal Web site Daily Kos, enmeshed in the rough-and-tumble of the presidential election, picked up on the news in a highly read post, commenters were quick to raise the specter of dirty tricks.
Oddly enough, as YoungTrigg began to tackle editing the Palin article, another editor happened to be working there too. This user, Ferrylodge, a lawyer who has contributed to Wikipedia for years and describes himself as a independent-minded Republican, was interested in examining the accusations that Ms. Palin had used her position to get a trooper dismissed for personal reasons.
He ended up editing YoungTrigg’s edits, toning down entries that seemed biased, removing material that seemed extraneous, like the exact unit that Ms. Palin’s son is serving in that will be going to Iraq. “A lot of stuff was useful — like citing a biography of her,” he said in a telephone interview, speaking under condition of anonymity to avoid tipping off his clients that he spends time on Wikipedia. “Some was questionable stuff.” In general, he said, the editing “indicates a very close familiarity with Governor Palin.”
The lawyer said that when YoungTrigg linked to government documents on a government Web site related to the trooper case, it seemed like this editor was not exactly a political naïf.
But, he says, this person may be Wikipedically naïve. “They didn’t quite know what they were getting into — they got a lot of conflict-of-interest notes,” he said. And much of that original, flattering material has been overwritten.
By Sunday morning, YoungTrigg came forward, still anonymous, on his or her Wikipedia user page: “It’s not true that ‘all of my edits made Palin look better.’ ”
The user narrowed down YoungTrigg’s identity: “I am not Sarah Palin. I think it is obvious that I am not the five-month-old Trig Paxson Van Palin. I am not a member of Sarah Palin’s family, or even Michael Palin’s family.”
YoungTrigg was a user name picked for this task; for other editing, he or she chooses other names: “I will acknowledge that I volunteer for the McCain campaign, one of thousands of people nationwide who are working to elect the best candidate for the job. Palin was not the nominee when I made my edits, though I am certainly excited about the selection. I don’t believe I have a conflict of interest problem.”
That said, nobody will be hearing from YoungTrigg again anytime soon. On the bottom was a black-bordered box surrounding the word “retired.”