Shapps Case Raises Questions For Wikipedia And The Guardian


The Guardian reader’s editor is investigating complaints against the newspaper after it reported leaked information that former Cabinet Minister Grant Shapps edited his own Wikipedia page and that of other Conservative ministers via a “sockpuppet” account.

The claims were made by senior Wikipedia admin Richard Symonds, who told the Guardian that Wikipedia had banned the editor “Contribsx” after the account was used to make edits to Shapps’ page. The resulting controversy received considerable controversy after it was reported

However, Wikipedia’s Arbitration and audit Committeee (ArbCom), which judges disputes between editors on the site, now claims that there was no evidence linking Contribsx to Shapps or his office. Symonds’ ban on Contribsx has since been revoked by Wikipedia, and Symonds himself now faces disciplinary action.

The case has been widely reported across the British press, with the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman suggesting that the initial controversy was a crucial factor in Shapps’ demotion from his former position as Chairman of the Conservative Party.

It has also raised serious questions for the Guardian, and news emerged that the paper reported the results of the initial case against Contribsx seventeen minutes before it had even begun on Wikipedia. ArbCom judged this to be evidence of Symonds leaking information to the paper.

After a number of complaints, the Guardian reader’s editor, Matthew Elliott, has been instructed by Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner to investigate. The blogger Sam Smith has pointed out that the paper’s follow-up reports have not made note of the timing discrepancy in their initial report, and contain basic errors about the number of members on Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee.

David Auerbach, the technology columnist for Slate Magazine, also highlighted the fact that the Guardian‘s follow-up article was written by the same reporter who Symonds is believed to have colluded with:

This isn’t the first time the Guardian has reported on Wikipedia cases before they have concluded. As Auerbach wrote in February, the paper also made a number of inaccurate claims in its report about a different ArbCom case, most notably the claim that five editors had been banned by the committee. The Guardian eventually issued a correction —five days after Auerbach’s initial complaint.

The controversy speaks to a wider issue in the tech media, where reporters make claims about complex controversies on large online communities based on the claims of a limited number of biased sources. Reddit reporters, who frequently rely on members of the controversial Reddit community “/r/shitredditsays” for stories about the site, are particularly notorious amongst other Redditors for engaging in this practice. But as this case demonstrates, the problem can affect Wikipedia reporting too.

For its part, Wikipedia has suffered yet another blow to its reputation. The fact that a single senior admin was able to block a junior editor from a Wikipedia page on little more than his own say-so is another piece of evidence in the growing pile of claims that the online encyclopedia has become dominated by an entrenched, biased elite.

Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter. 


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