RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Talking about surveillance, a new Web tool offers proof that interested parties have a secret hand in Wikipedia entries.
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
A graduate student at Caltech by the name of Virgil Griffith has come up with a Wikipedia scanner capable of tying millions of anonymous Wikipedia entries and edits to their sources.
MONTAGNE: Which means now we can see who wrote what or who changed what, like how someone at the Democratic Party tossed in a couple of extra adjectives to Rush Limbaugh's Wikipedia entry - the adjectives idiotic and racist.
YDSTIE: Or how someone at Wal-Mart doctored information making wages the company pays look better.
MONTAGNE: Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at Wired magazine, which broke the story online at wired.com, and he came into our New York studio. Good morning.
Mr. NICHOLAS THOMPSON (Senior Editor, Wired): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So let's begin with what happened. So, first of all, there's nothing illegal about changing Wikipedia entries. That's basically the point of this online encyclopedia, it calls itself a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. But what is going on here that maybe either people don't expect or they suspect?
Mr. THOMPSON: So what happens is, when you edit a Wikipedia page, you can either leave your name, or if you want to post anonymously, you post anonymously, but it leaves a trace and the number that identifies your computer.
So what this enterprising graduate student at Caltech has done is he's gone back and he's run - he sort of analyzed two databases, the database of all the IP addresses that belong to certain companies and all the changes that had been made in Wikipedia.
So what you can do is you can trace back and see, hey, there was a change made to the Exxon Mobil page by someone inside of Exxon Mobil. And then he's made it very easy to look and see exactly what those changes were. So you can see what companies have been doctoring their images.
MONTAGNE: So this graduate student, Virgil Griffith, what he's come up with is an arrow back. Now it doesn't say Nicholas Thompson changed the description of Wired magazine. It says someone at Wired magazine.
Mr. THOMPSON: Right. So I'm sitting here in your bureau in New York City. And if I walk across the hallway and I write something about NPR is the greatest organization in the world, it will look like somebody at NPR is trying to doctor their image. But, actually, it's some guy from Wired magazine who just happened to be using a computer inside of the NPR building.
MONTAGNE: Okay, so let's go through some of the edited entries. Pick an example for us.
Mr. THOMPSON: Sure. So there are lots of examples and in almost all circumstances you've got to believe that it was somebody at the company. For example, Dow Chemical. They purged an entire section that was labeled environmental and human rights controversies that had information of the Bhopal disaster, Agent Orange, lots of other stuff. That was all wiped clean.
Diebold, the company that makes electronic voting systems. There were 10 paragraphs of criticism about the company and some controversies, all of them wiped clean by somebody at Diebold. You've got to think that was actually an employee, not some guy from Wired magazine who just happened to be in there using Wikipedia.
There's also some great funny examples. There's a little one on Al Franken's page, which I think you'll like. There is a line about him saying something on FRESH AIR, and somebody at FOX News changed it to say the liberal show FRESH AIR. There are also political examples. The occupation of Iraq is changed to the liberation of Iraq by people inside of the Republican Party. So there are all sorts of nefarious things, there are political things, and there's some downright funny things.
MONTAGNE: Also when it gets to what matters, Wikipedia, theoretically, what, has some concern over both the accuracy and the source of some of the information?
Mr. THOMPSON: The line we sort of frequently use at Wired magazine is that Wikipedia is a hundred times the information as a regular encyclopedia at 90 percent the accuracy. And for most things that's pretty good. And maybe this makes us think that it's 85 percent the accuracy. So it does change the way you think of Wikipedia and the way you use Wikipedia.
MONTAGNE: What do you think - do you think just the knowledge that these entries and edits can be traced back to some degree to the originator, will that scare people or companies away from trying to tinker with this stuff?
Mr. THOMPSON: I think it will scare them away, somewhat. I think companies won't be as willing to spin their environmental problems, for example. Or they'll have only their really good computer people do it, and they'll do it from anonymous IPs or they'll do it from their home computers.
If someone from Exxon Mobil wants to doctor the Exxon Mobil site, just don't doctor it from the Exxon Mobil building. Go to the Internet cafe across the street and then you can go doctor it. But the other thing is there's a negative chilling effect.
Like the great thing about Wikipedia is that everybody can post all the time and they really don't have to worry about being tracked back. I think in the long run it will probably have a beneficial effect for Wikipedia. It will probably end up making Wikipedia better.
MONTAGNE: Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at Wired magazine. And you can check out some Wikipedia spin jobs at npr.org.