As Johann Hari found out to his cost, you can game Wikipedia for a long time, but in the end, if you violate their editorial process, they are remorselessly thorough in tracking you down.
Wikipedia allows almost anyone to edit pages about almost anything. But, to avoid conflicts of interest, you may not amend your own information, with the exception of very basic biographical detail (for example, if Wikipedia has your date of birth wrong).
In 2012, Wikipedia discovered that four usernames – 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199, Historyset and one that’s surfaced again recently, Hackneymarsh – had been linked to “computers in the constituency office of the Tory chairman”.
These four usernames had edited Wikipedia to amend certain references to Grant Shapps and his online alter egos Michael Green MP and Sebastian Fox:
references were deleted about his role in a 2007 byelection in west London where he impersonated Liberal Democrats online in an attempt to discredit his rivals – but forgot that he had logged on as himself.
The campaign was notable as Shapps was then a vice-chair of the Tory party responsible for campaigning. The Tory candidate came third when many felt he was favourite to win. However, the episode was airbrushed away on the online encyclopaedia.
In another series of changes after the 2010 election, Shapps’s entry removed references to the company HowToCorp, which the Guardian has exposed for breaching Google’s code of conduct, and to his online pseudonym Michael Green – with a comment posted that this mention of his “alter ego” was linked to a diary item that was an “unreliable source”.
Gone too were links to sites which revealed the Welwyn Hatfield MP paid back £3.79 during the expenses scandal, replaced by glowing references to a Daily Telegraph piece describing him as an “expenses saint”.
The revelations come after it emerged that Shapps had changed his entry in the online encyclopedia to correct the number of O-levels he obtained. He had also inserted testimony to his “influential” work on homelessness.
By the time the Guardian had linked these four usernames to Grant Shapps’ constituency office, the most recent edits by these four accounts were two years old: as a Wikipedia editor Widefox noted
the [conflict of interest] problem is not (currently) active, and as we don’t take action punitively, is it not an issue that needs dealing with by [Wikipedia], so is moot. Despite that, for the record, although I agree with Jayen466 that some of Grants edits removed poorly sourced material, but the fair characterisation is that Grant edited his own article with a COI [Conflict Of Interest] (e.g. in 2010 during the lead-up to the general election), failed to disclose his COI, used multiple accounts and IPs, his edits were biased (WP:NPOV issue) bordering on censorship as well as incorrectly (he should have got others to remove it) removing some poorly sourced content. The poorly sourced content was removed by me and others anyway, but now is well sourced as it has all been covered by the Guardian.
Grant Shapps has a lengthy and thorough Wikipedia entry, and he has been detected editing it before. In 2013, Willard Foxton, writing in the Telegraph, noted dryly
Shapps’s Wikipedia entry clocks in at 1,182 words, detailing his life in minute detail; for comparison, that of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, an American Civil war hero, who has had a number of books written about him, statues cast in his image, and is the subject of an Oscar-winning film starring Matthew Broderick, is only a hundred words longer.
Can you imagine Hollywood making the Grant Shapps story? Would you go to visit the Shapps monument? My question is less did Shapps edit his own Wikipedia profile and more whether such a comparatively minor figure deserves such an extensive listing in an encyclopaedia.
On 21st April, a Wikipedia administrator (contacted by the Guardian to let him know that they had linked Hackneymarsh to a new Wikipedia editor, Contribsx) ran his own investigation. He describes it in some technical detail on the Wikipedia sockpuppet investigation page.
In summary: between 2010 and 2013 several IP addresses had anonymously edited the Grant Shapps page, removing material to do with Shapps’ How To Corp and past allegations about editing Wikipedia: they had also added political credentials and other minute details of Shapps’ biography. (These were Areti IP addresses linked to online marketing.) On 25 August 2013, the Grant Shapps page became semi-protected, meaning that anonymous edits were no longer allowed: an editor must create a Wikipedia login and use it at least ten times on non-contentious pages before being allowed to edit semi-protected pages.
ContribsX is created on 25th August 2013.
ContribsX has a strikingly similar behaviour pattern to the Areti IP addresses, including arguments with the same users on Talk pages: and a Wikipedia tool Checkuser found it “very likely” that ContribsX and Hackneymarsh were linked accounts. As the administrator painstakingly notes “To clarify, I can’t say either way that is Shapps’ account, or run by him. All I can say is that I believe that it’s a sockpuppet of the Hackneymarsh account.”
Grant Shapps’ defence on Newsnight is that first of all, his diary shows he was somewhere else at the time. (Somewhere with no Internet access whatsoever, presumably, and he’s spent quite a lot of time there, as the Guardian impressively documents.)
His second defence is that this is a solitary and anonymous Wikipedia editor (the administrator has the username Chase me ladies, I’m the Cavalry) and that this is a Labour Party smear and not an important issue.
“Chase me ladies, I’m the Cavalry” became a Wikipedia administrator in 2007, and a member of the Arbitration Committee in 2011. He is now listed as functionary, meaning he is trusted with significant technical powers on the Wikipedia website. In short, despite the name, he is a serious, committed Wikipedian. Grant Shapps’ charge that he is part of a Labour Party smear seems likely to be false and may be defamatory.
Grant Shapps may regard this as an unimportant issue: he may even be entirely unaware that someone in his constituency office in Welwyn Hatfield is still editing Wikipedia and defending him and Michael Green MP from charges of using false names. After all, it’s not so long since Shapps threatened to sue a constituent, Dean Archer, for posting on Facebook that Grant Shapps had been appearing as online marketer Michael Green.
Why then would Grant Shapps regard it as important if Wikipedia were to relentlessly document his career as an online marketer under several different pseudonyms? An ordinary constituent in a terraced house can be bullied into silence with the threat of a libel case: Wikipedia can’t be silenced by libel lawyers, or not for long.
The Guardian quotes “Wikipedia’s administrators” (according to the discussion on the Sockpuppet investigation page, just one, Chase Me) to say that Grant Shapps
has used alternative accounts that were not fully and openly disclosed in order to “split his editing history, so that other editors were not able to easily detect patterns in his contributions. While this is permitted in certain circumstances, it was not in this case: it is clear that the account was created in order to confuse or deceive editors.
A spokesperson from Wikimedia UK, the UK charity that supports Wikipedia, is also quoted:
“We would welcome any MPs who choose to become editors, and are happy to provide training sessions to anyone who wants to learn.
“However, the Wikipedia project is founded on trust, and anyone who tries to deceive our volunteers and readers in order to further their own ends should think very carefully about the morality of what they’re doing. Eventually, the public will find out.”
Grant Shapps says he has written to Wikipedia: I don’t know if he has, but I do wonder if he realises the extent to which he is charging Wikipedia of being politically corrupted by the Labour Party: if Labour had managed to set up this level of political corruption in Wikipedia, creating anonymous editors and then a named editor years before the General Election in order to insert edits which would be tracked back to Grant Shapps’ old sockpuppet account Hackneymarsh, why are they using this kind of informational power to attack Grant Shapps’ spivvery? As Willard Foxton noted years ago: Shapps is a minor figure, a footnote to history, clad in dirty sockpuppets.
Is it wise, then, to defame Wikipedia? Won’t Wikipedia then investigate itself in its manyheaded way and discover that the defamatory charges of political corruption by Grant Shapps can be proven to be false?
Not that Wikipedia will sue Grant Shapps. They’ll just publish the information, on the most-read website in the world.