Wikiwash is Metro's winning entry for the inaugural TechRaking Toronto, Digging The News
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In March 2014, Metro's digital team headed to Toronto's inaugural edition of Techraking, a data journalism crash course sponsored by Google, The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Working Group. The prize at the end was a sizeable chunk of TWG's time to develop a data journalism tool pitched by an attending team. Metro's team won over the judges, and WikiWash is the result.
Since its inception in 2001, Wikipedia has become the Internet era's de facto archive. However, with that status comes great responsibility, for a single malicious or incorrect edit can ripple outwards, carried into the broader discourse by the 500 million people who visit the site each month.
One of the earliest hoaxes on Wikipedia occurred in 2005. An article on U.S. journalist John Seigenthaler falsely claimed he was a suspect in the Kennedy assassination. The entry remained online for six months before being discovered, and the ensuing outcry led the WikiMedia Foundation to ban unregistered users from creating pages.
Two years later, a 24-year-old Caltech student named Virgil Griffith created WikiScanner, an online tool that linked changes made by anonymous Wikipedia editors to the organizations from which the changes were made. Griffith's tool revealed edits made from IP addresses connected to numerous governments, businesses and agencies, including the CIA, the Vatican, and the Canadian government.
Griffiths said he developed WikiScanner "to create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike (and) to see what 'interesting organizations' (which I am neutral towards) are up to."
Most of the edits discovered by WikiScanner were harmless, but it was a wake-up call; the public learned governments and corporations had Wikipedia on their radar and weren't above meddling with the project to preserve their image.
As Wikipedia's audience continues to grow, so too does the capacity for political and corporate spin on the site. Earlier this year, a WikiMedia employee was fired after being caught editing entries on behalf of paying clients. In July, media outlets reported computers linked to the Kremlin were editing the Wikipedia article on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 to downplay Russia's role in the crash.
"It's not really surprising," said Wikimedia spokesperson Katherine Maher. "Wikipedia is one of the most-trusted sources of information in the world. A place that's relied on by so many is also a place where you'll find those with an interest, an agenda or a point of view that's not neutral."
Although now defunct, WikiScanner was one of the first third-party tools for keeping tabs on Wikipedia. While such tools have historically revealed Wikipedia's vulnerabilities, Maher believes they're contributing to the larger project.
"We're always excited when we see them," she said. "They're really an extension of the intent of Wikipedia. If you start giving people open tools to create and share knowledge and participate in democracy, then the sky's the limit on what they'll actually do with them."
Ed Summers, the creator of the @CongressEdits Twitter account, agrees. The automated account tweets edits made by IP addresses assigned to the U.S. Congress. The project -- inspired by a similar account in England -- has spawned clones across the world, including Canada.
"I created @congressedits because I hoped it could engender more, better ideas and tools like it. More thought experiments. More care for our communities and peoples. More understanding, and willingness to talk to each other. More humor. More human," Summers wrote in a recent blog post.
It's a lofty goal, and one that Metro hopes our new WikiWash tool can contribute to. Whether it's uncovering a political conspiracy, or just learning more about what makes Wikipedia tick, we're excited to see how our readers make use of WikiWash. Check it out for yourself, and let us know what you find at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How To Use WikiWash
Whether you're interested in politics, the environment, celebrity gossip or video games, everything you need to know about how to run your own WikiWash searches.
The Origins of WikiWash