Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How the Wikipedia Scanner Works

Exposed by the Wikipedia Scanner
Someone on ExxonMobil’s network altered sections of the article about the Exxon Valdez disaster, minimizing the effects of the oil spill.
Someone on ExxonMobil’s network altered sections of the article about the Exxon Valdez disaster, minimizing the effects of the oil spill.

With more than 34 million anonymous edits performed by 187,529 organizations, it will take quite a while before anyone sifts through the data and finds all of the potentially controversial edits exposed by the WikiScanner. And of course, anonymous editing will go on as long as it remains a feature of Wikipedia. But many organizations have already been outed by the WikiScanner. In this section, we'll look at what Griffith and other users have found.

Not all anonymous editing is malicious. Some of it comes from users who may not want to register for the site or who want to fix a simple grammatical error without bothering to log in. Many of the edits uncovered by the WikiScanner were harmless. Even so, some of the anonymous edits seem malicious or designed to serve an organization's particular interests. Others appear to make the articles into an advertisement or press release. (Wikipedia has a tag it uses to flag articles that appear to be advertisements for a company or product.)

Diebold Election Systems received a lot of attention for the anonymous edits performed by people with access to their network. The maker of electronic voting machines had already been subject to controversy about the quality of its machines and contributions made by the company CEO to George Bush's political campaigns. The WikiScanner revealed that in November 2005, 15 paragraphs that discussed these controversies were deleted by a user traced to a Diebold-owned IP address. Soon after, another user put the deleted articles back in the article and issued the anonymous editor a warning on his "talk page."

A user traced to a Democratic party IP address edited entries about conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, calling him "idiotic," "racist" and a "bigot" [source: Wikipedia]. The editor also wrote that most of Limbaugh's audience was "legally retarded," described his point of view as "ridiculous" and linked the word "ridiculous" to Wikipedia's article on Conservatism [source: Wikipedia]. Users of Democratic Party computers also performed simple copy edits on articles about presumably uncontroversial topics, such as British tennis player Tim Henman, burrito chain Baja Fresh and green roofs.

Someone at the National Rifle Association made changes to a page about rumors surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. The anonymous editor altered a paragraph to draw a connection between the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks [source: Griffith]. Someone at the same organization twice edited the Wikipedia entry about the history of the liger, a cross between a male lion and a female tiger [source: Griffith].

Besides various spats between political rivals, the WikiScanner revealed instances of companies editing pages about their competitors. Apple edited Microsoft pages, and someone at Microsoft did so for Apple. British newspaper "The Guardian" edited an entry for competing paper "The Times."

Many of the anonymous edits are quite humorous, especially when considering the source. A CIA web surfer contributed a long entry about lightsaber combat. Someone at DARPA, the Department of Defense's highly sophisticated research agency, edited entries about "The Real World: Denver," actor Shia LaBeouf and hockey player Bill Guerin. None of those edits appeared malicious or against Wikipedia policy.