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Beyond @Congressedits, Capitol Hill Looks for Entry to Wikipedia

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, July 31 2014

Over the past weeks, the Twitter account Congressedits has somewhat inadvertently made headlines for itself by highlighting questionable edits to Wikipedia pages that seemed to promote conspiracy theories. That attention prompted a Wikipedia editor to block one of the congressional I.P. addresses deemed responsible.

But the ultimate goal of the account's creator, Ed Summers, was another one. As he recently told techPresident, he did not aim to make Members of Congress look bad, but said he hoped that they would recognize the importance of Wikipedia as a public space and engage more with its community. "If staffers and politicians identified as Wikipedians, that would be super. You could imagine politicians' homepages with a list of their recent edits, that they would be proud of the things that they are doing."

On Capitol Hill, there is in fact interest in making that vision a reality, starting off with an initial conversation that could create a framework for more Wikipedians in Congress.

One of the initiators of that conversation is Yuri Beckelman, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif). Takano is one of the more tech-enthusiastic members of Congress. He was one of the first members to use Vine and has also attracted attention with his Tumblr page, called There Will Be Charts, including a post in which Takano, a former high school teacher, extensively used a red pen to "grade" a Republican immigration proposal with an F.

In an interview with techPresident, Beckelman said that the CongressEdits attention and earlier news stories "raised valid points about how Congress is using Wikipedia."

But he also described how for Congress and for Hill staffers in particular, participating in and navigating a community such as Wikipedia's is not straightforward. On the one hand, edits by staffers raise questions among Wikipedia editors as to whether an edit is done to add knowledge or to improve their boss's image, and on the other hand there can also be a "kneejerk reaction" that any edit from Congress is "probably bad," he said.

"The bigger issue is that staffers never want to be the story," he said, and are afraid of casting a bad light on their boss if they make a change with their name on it, and it gets negative attention and results in some kind of edit or flame war. Staffers would prefer to make edits through an official account for their congressional office, he noted, but that runs counter to the Wikipedia policy of having one account only tied to one person. On other social media accounts, congressional office staff almost never post under their own name but rather through an account in their boss's name, he pointed out.

Spurred by the recent CongressEdits headlines and in an effort to bridge the sometimes "confrontational atmosphere" between Wikipedia editors and Hill staffers, Beckelman reached out to James Hare, president of the Washington D.C. Wikimedia chapter, and Lorelei Kelly, a research fellow at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. Last Friday, they informally and in unofficial capacity met with Beckelman and about 12 Democratic congressional staffers to discuss congressional engagement on Wikipedia. While at the end of the session the participants had a better understanding of how editing and the backend of Wikipedia works, Beckelman noted, there still was no consensus about the best way for staffers to directly interact on the platform.

That prompted Hare to put up an official request for comments from other Wikipedia editors to gather suggestions from the wider Wikipedia community. So far, other users have highlighted precedents for how the public relations industry and the Library of Congress have come up with guidelines for engagement with Wikipedia. "I'd also want to know why congressional staffers would want to edit WP. Assuming good faith, it would be to correct misinformation," wrote Kosboot, an editor who identifies as a music librarian at the New York Public Library. "But I foresee a variety of controversial issues such as [guidelines regarding not using Wikipedia as a soapbox or means of promotion] and editing a page to artificially increase or decrease its validity, and [edit warring]."

At the meeting, Beckelman said of the staffers present "everyone had the same sort of experience, there wasn't an understanding of how to use it," and many recounted experiences of a boss telling them to make a change or confusion about about why adding factual information, such as a list of a Congressmember's awards, was problematic.

For his part, Beckelman said he was interested in adding a page about the bipartisan Congressional Maker Caucus and its history, but wasn't yet certain about what the best way to go about doing that was.

One challenge, he said, is that many congressional offices have a long social media approval process when it comes to allowing posts under a Congressmember's or staffer's name, which could discourage engagement and be a loss to Wikipedia and the public that would like to see more interaction.

"This is a constant conversation that's going on here, that we should be innovative, but avoid embarrassing yourselves, that's the tricky part," he said. He noted that a combination of the Speaker's Office, the House Franking Commission, and the House Chief Administrative Officer help govern House social media use, a process that is independent and different from the regulations on the Senate side. In 2008 both the House and the Senate approved the use of YouTube for congressional purposes.

Getting Creative With Social Media

Beckelman said that the Takano office's use of Tumblr was successful because staffers like him first spent time getting familiar with the community and what kind of posts are successful there, informing the staff's choices to be more creative than posting "press releases or photos of handshakes."

He said he had a similar hope for Wikipedia, and was thinking of soon setting up guidelines for himself about how he might make edits from his own account. But he said he was still uncertain about how to follow some guidelines, such as those that don't allow edits on pages for topics in which the editor has a financial stake, whether that would apply to edits about where his boss went to school and what the best way would be to define the differences between policy and political work in the context of Wikipedia.

One policy that was under discussion that was worth thinking about, he said, was staffers identifying as themselves and posting requests for edits on the Wikipedia entries' talk pages. But he added that staffers would likely feel "most comfortable" operating, for example, under a Rep. Mark Takano handle, similarly to verified Facebook and Twitter accounts, though that would run counter to Wikipedia guidelines. Beckelman said he hoped to continue to have conversations on the subject with those on Capitol Hill who share his boss's enthusiasm for "understanding the tools and seeing the value in transparency" while also continuing to reach out to Wikipedia editors and the broader Wikipedia community.

While Hare said that Friday's meeting was the first of its kind he had with Capitol Hill staffers, he said the concerns he heard "were not particularly surprising" and echoed stories from others unfamiliar with the inner workings of Wikipedia. A recent commitment by several public relations firms to follow Wikipedia rules would be a good standard for Hill staffers to follow, he said.

He said he did not think the conversation that has begun would result in an outcome that would "fundamentally" change how Wikipedia works, but most likely lead to a number of good recommendations to pass on to staffers. While Wikipedia has known about congressional edits for years, he said the Congressedits tweets and headlines "have made it very high profile -- with tens of thousands of people watching them make an edit, it's high-level scrutiny they've never had before."

Right now, he said, it can seem like a "shadowy figure" is making edits such as one referring to Donald Rumsfeld as "an alien lizard who eats Mexican babies," giving the impression that "these people are wasting their time."

"What I'd like to push for is for people to log in so that rather than a shadowy Congress figure they can be an actual person building up a reputation for doing good work," he said, to help differentiate from the anonymous edits.

The biggest challenge, he said, was that Wikipedia's rules are generally stable barring a "huge consensus to change them," and the hesitation to get involved personally among many Hill staffers. The intense media and opposition scrutiny also puts staffers in a more difficult position than the P.R. professionals, he added, though he also noted the possibility of edits on article talk pages. "I think we first need to have more of a conversation about what the relationship between the two bodies is, and based on that figure out what the best way to proceed is."

A Modern Knowledge Management System for Congress

For Lorelei Kelly from the New America Foundation (who also spoke at PDF13), the discussion could be the first part in a larger conversation and of a larger vision of building a modern knowledge management system for Congress that is based on shared and open-source platforms, including concepts such as version control and other editing capabilities. At OTI, Kelly has been working on a project called Smart Congress aimed at reimagining how Congress can draw on external expert knowledge using technology platforms.

While there has often been a lot of focus on making the executive branch more accessible, given that legislatures are in many ways closer to the people, she described that challenge as "the most interesting new frontier for technology and self-governance."

With only two vendors providing platforms for congressional websites, she said there is little room for new platforms that encourage new forms of engagement or ways of gathering expertise. "Congress is an incredibly complex mechanism, and [the two chambers] don't talk to each other, the House is ten years ahead of the Senate in certain ways," said Kelly, who used to work on Capitol Hill herself. "Certain groups of people that need to be talking to each other don't regularly meet each other, technologists and librarians need to be talking to the activists and politicians," she said. "There's a lot of advocacy technology and a lot of election technology, but not a lot of governing technology," she added, warning against governing become more like campaigning. "Hackers and makers and good government types...should go to their members' offices over August recess and ask: What can I do for you? I want to help you as a citizen, and give them tools."

During the meeting Friday, she said she was surprised at how just staffers' participation "demystified [Wikipedia] for them" and illustrated how "it was simple and not scary." That kind of conversation should happen in every congressional office, she said, to move beyond using Wikipedia as a reference tool, spread awareness of concepts such as open source and civic technology, and also help staffers access institutional knowledge better. "It's not shared in a way that's useful," she said, adding that the role of a wiki-like platform could be " helping Congress access its own support system more effectively," sharing knowledge between district offices, communications offices, policy offices and committees, which could draw on a Stack-Exchange like platform to get real-time input during hearings. In many ways, her vision echoes local efforts, such as open and participatory government pushes by New York City Council member Ben Kallos.

More first-hand familiarity with technical concepts would also lead to more informed congressional debate on issues such as cybersecurity and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, she said. But while Congress may not be "full of computer scientists and librarians", she said it was not productive to "humiliate an institution into compliance." While she suggested that "D.C. can help facilitate the conversation," she sees the district level as the key playing field. "There are endless possibilities for sharing and capacity building on open platforms, but it's not going to happen from the top down," she said.

Meanwhile, the idea inspiring Congressedits and similar accounts keeps making waves across the country and around the world. There are now around 60 accounts monitoring edits by Silicon Valley companies, Goldman Sachs, the Pentagon, the CIA, EU institutions and the Austrian and Israeli Governments among others, with a Russian account making headlines by apparently showing edits made in connection with the downed plane in Ukraine.