A new Web site built by an American technology student has uncovered the lengths that companies apparently go to improve their public image by tweaking their entries on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that — famously — "anyone can edit."
The WikiScanner site, developed by Virgil Griffith, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology, reveals changes to the online encyclopedia by linking edits back to the computers from which they emanate using each computer's unique IP address.
Griffith, 24, says he created the site "to create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike" — a mission he may well have succeeded in.
Among those he alleges have been updating their entries are Wal-Mart, the world's largest grocer, AstraZeneca, the drugs giant, Britain's Labour Party, the CIA and the Vatican.
In one example he gives, a computer linked to an IP address registered to the Dow Chemical company is seen to have deleted a passage on the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984, which occurred at a plant operated by Union Carbide, now a wholly-owned Dow subsidiary.
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WikiScanner cannot identify the individuals altering Wikipedia articles. It can show only that an edit was made by a person with access to an organization's network.
"Technically, we don't know whether it came from an agent of that company — however, we do know that edit came from someone with access to their network," Griffith says on his site.
A slew of other companies' computers are also shown to have been used to polish Wikipedia entries.
ExxonMobil, the U.S. oil giant, made sweeping changes to an entry on the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
A claim that the company "has not yet paid the $5 billion in spill damages it owes to the 32,000 Alaskan fishermen" is deleted and replaced with references to the funds the company has paid out.
A Web surfer using a machine on Wal-Mart's network has amended a passage on the wages that the retailer pays its employees — to the benefit of the world's largest retailer.
A computer registered to Disney, the media giant, was used to delete a reference to criticism of the use of digital-rights-management software, used by the group to safeguard digital media from piracy.
According to other Wikipedia pages laid bare by the WikiScanner site, references to claims that Seroquel, a drug developed by AstraZeneca, which allegedly made teenagers "more likely to think about harming or killing themselves" were deleted by a user of a computer registered to the drug company.
In May the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed that makers of all antidepressant medications — including Seroquel — update labeling to include warnings over increased risks of suicidal thinking and behavior in young adults during early treatment.
The proposed warnings would emphasize that other serious psychiatric disorders are themselves the most important causes of suicide.
Griffin told Times Online in an interview Monday afternoon that he is likely to next turn his attention to the "treasure trove of information that people give away" on social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
"I think you could do some very interesting things there — you have huge amounts of information openly available; it's not like you have to do anything naughty," he said.
Meanwhile, his efforts so far have also uncovered amendments made from computers linked to the CIA, which were used to edit entries including the biographies of the former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
Individuals using computers registered to the Vatican have amended entries on Roman Catholic saints and Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein.
A computer linked to the Church of Scientology's network was used to delete references to links between it and a group dubbed the "Cult Awareness Network."
In the political arena, a computer based at Labour's offices in the Millbank neighborhood of central London was used to edit out an unflattering reference to "careerist MPs," while a computer linked to the Democrats' headquarters was used to brand listeners of Rush Limbaugh, the conservative American radio host, "legally retarded."
A user of a BBC computer, meanwhile, edited George W. Bush's middle name from "Walker" to "Wanker."
Massaging Wikipedia entries has become a well-established phenomenon as the reach of the world's most popular online reference work has become apparent.
Last year the site was transformed into a political battleground in the U.S., with politicians' aides accused of "vandalizing" entries on rival figures.
The site, launched in 2001, started an inquiry after staffers for Marty Meehan, a Democratic representative from Massachusetts, admitted having "polished" his biography.
The partisan editors were traced through their computers' unique IP addresses — which were tracked back to Senate machines.
On several occasions Wikipedia had been used as a platform for negative propaganda, the site admitted at the time.
According to a report on Wikipedia's own news service, staffers in the offices of Sen. Joe Biden of Maryland removed a paragraph concerning the plagiarism scandal that forced him out of the 1988 White House race. They also changed the section regarding Biden's then-speculative 2008 presidential campaign "to read very positively."
However, in a signal of how tempting it can be for interested parties to amend articles, Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia founder, himself ran into controversy in 2005 when he admitted editing his own Wikipedia entry.
He said that such behavior, though tempting, "was in bad taste."