Magazine article The New Yorker

DIRTY WIKITRICKS; DEPT. OF PLUMBING Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

DIRTY WIKITRICKS; DEPT. OF PLUMBING Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

If you look up "negative campaigning" on Wikipedia, the interactive Internet encyclopedia, you will learn that "mudslinging has been called 'as American as Mississippi mud.' " Click on "mudslinging" and there it is: "The exchange of petty, vicious insults, especially between candidates in an election. This phrase can also refer to the slinging or hurling of mud."

Readers of Wikipedia write and edit the entries themselves; the negative-campaigning page has been amended twelve times this fall, both by Wikipedia administrators and by civilians. In spite of some recent deletions (gone, for now, is the disqualifyingly "absurd" statement "The use of negative campaigning is a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels"), the entry is a fairly ample one. Examples abound: L.B.J.'s Daisy Girl, G. Gordon Liddy, Willie Horton, the Swift Boat Veterans. But you will not find any reference--not yet, anyway--to the role Wikipedia itself has come to play in the mudslinging game.

This election season, in several races, campaign staffs have been accused of, and even caught, tweaking the Wikipedia entries of opposing candidates. In Georgia, the campaign manager for a gubernatorial candidate resigned after it emerged that he had altered an opponent's biography by adding a scandalous (but true) story about the opponent's son, who had crashed a car while drunk, killing a passenger. Liddy this ain't, to say nothing of Goeb-bels, but such dirty trickery may be a bit more insidious than, say, defacing a campaign poster with a mustache and devil's horns.

Among the closest and dirtiest contests this year is the U.S. Senate race in New Jersey, between the Democratic incumbent, Bob Menendez, and Tom Kean, Jr., the son of the former governor. In the midst of much ugliness, supporters of each candidate have been waging a Wikipedia war. The candidates' entries have been in constant flux. Many of the changes have been relatively trivial, such as whether a Times Op-Ed piece is a legitimate citation. Others have been more substantial, such as the addition, removal, restoration, and subsequent wrangling over a section in the Menendez entry that was called "charges of corruption." (The candidates have been quarrelling over whether a federal probe into a New Jersey nonprofit community organization constitutes a criminal investigation of Me-nendez. The fact that it does not has not stopped Kean from making the claim.) As usual, many of the expurgations have been of vulgarities and pranks--"vandalism," in the argot. If a curious voter had looked up Menendez last Wednesday, he would have come across the observation "He funny looking. …

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