Congressional approval ratings are near all-time lows. Policy issues have taken a back seat on the campaign trail, special interests exert disproportionate influence in Washington, and gridlock between parties appears insurmountable. Someone in the halls of power, however, is still doing the people’s work: anonymously editing the Wikipedia entry of the popular sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
As originally reported by On The Media, the new Twitter bot @congressedits catalogues such anonymous changes to the crowdsourced encyclopedia, the de facto starting point in the search for information online. Each time an entry is changed from a computer with an IP address on Capitol Hill—possible editors include interns, elected officials, and everyone in between—the bot points out the revision on Twitter.
Such edits potentially hold special importance during campaign season, with Wikipedia entries often candidates’ first search engine result. To be sure, @congressedits doesn’t track changes made from IP addresses that aren’t on the Hill, so editors elsewhere - connected to Congress or not - can still make changes that go unnoticed. It’s also likely that staffers or elected officials wishing to edit entries will quickly wisen up and do it outside of the office.
Developers such as Ed Summers, who designed @congressedits after a similar program sprung up in the United Kingdom to track Parliament, have been quick to share their handiwork. In the past week, programmers have unveiled bots to monitor legislatures around the world, including in Canada, France, and Chile. Others follow changes made at public universities in Berlin and member organizations of a big pharma trade group.
Summers wrote on his blog that he envisioned @congressedits not only as a useful transparency tool, but also as a way to civilize American political discourse. “Can’t a staffer or politician make a grammatical change, or update an article about a movie?” Summers wrote. “Is it really news that they are human, just like the rest of us?”
Indeed, the few dozen Wikipedia changes logged by @congressedits have run the gamut, from pointing out Russia’s annexation of Crimea to recording the availability of Choco Tacos in the Rayburn House Office Building. Here are six more Wikipedia entries edited from the Hill in the past week:
Politicians frequently moonlight as would-be media critics, hoping to draw attention to issues in his or her wheelhouse. This politically motivated edit from Tuesday morning has already been removed. And while CJR won’t change its coverage after this press critique, we’ll happily use it as clickbait.
The past occupation of Amash, a Michigan Republican and Tea Party darling, was previously characterized as “corporate lawyer.” The job description was amended Friday to read “attorney,” perhaps an effort to distance Amash from Big Business. The detail has since been changed back by an editor who’s not on the Hill.
A photo of President Barack Obama shaking hands with a man wearing such a mask went viral last week. Just a day after the impromptu meeting, Wikipedia users searching for equine headgear could read about it, proper sourcing and all.
The murder of JFK remains one of the enduring interests of American conspiracy theorists. An editor with a congressional IP address removed the explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, instead adding more fuel to their fire. The entry has since been returned to its initial form.
From 1956-71, the FBI’s so-called Counter Intelligence Program spied on domestic political groups, including the Black Panthers, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Socialist Workers Party, among others. On July 7, a Wikipedia editor on Capitol Hill cut a major detail—that these programs were “at times illegal”—from the entry’s opening paragraph.
Darling, an aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), had odd interests as a child. Or at least that’s what an editor on the Hill wanted readers to think. The addition was subsequently removed.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated news of @congressedits was first reported by National Public Radio. It was actually reported by On The Media, a program produced by WNYC and syndicated by National Public Radio.