Online Ethics
9:39 am
Fri September 7, 2012

Idaho Employee Catches Flack For Wikiediting

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia may be frowned upon in most classrooms because it’s not seen as authoritative in the classic sense. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a go-to source of information for millions of people around the world. So what do you do if you see a Wiki page that you think is inaccurate?

On August 27 Melissa McGrath edited the Wikipedia page on Tom Luna. McGrath is Communications Director for Idaho’s Department of Education and Tom Luna, Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, is her boss. Luna inspires strong feelings in Idaho, both positive and negative. Most recently for his Students Come First education laws which voters will consider repealing on the November ballot.

McGrath says someone told her Luna’s wiki page was inaccurate. She checked it out, thought that it was misinformation and she felt it was her job to change it. “My job,” she says, “is to make sure that correct information is out there. I do it all day, I do it every day.”

The page McGrath altered contained factually incorrect information such as, "Mr. Luna is the only state superintendent in the United States that does not have a degree in education." And opinion statements such as, "...he introduced an education reform package known as "Students Come First" which severely limited education resources in Idaho."

But an anonymous blogger on the liberal website The Daily Kos criticized her saying McGrath was whitewashing Luna’s image.

The blogger saw an online exchange between McGrath and a Wiki regular. That regular, who goes by the handle Scientizzle, was the first to notice a big change to the Luna page. Scientizzle, who wants to stay anonymous, says he’d never heard of Luna but thought McGrath’s changes were politically slanted. He began to rewrite the page.

McGrath's changes included praise for Luna and opinion statements about his law package such as, "Through these laws, every child – no matter where they live – will now have access to the best educational opportunities."

Here’s the problem

The Daily Kos blogger says McGrath’s actions amount to campaigning because Luna is an elected official. Idaho law prohibits using state money to pay for campaign activities. That makes state employees cautious about doing things on the job. McGrath says she hasn’t come close to crossing any lines.

“When you campaign you’re telling people how to vote one way or the other,’ McGrath says. “The Wikipedia page in no way tells people how to vote on an issue or a person. It’s not campaigning; it’s really getting the facts out there.”

But Becky Tallent says it’s not that simple. Tallent teaches public relations at the University of Idaho and worked in state government PR for 15 years. She says campaigning is not just telling people how to vote. She says when she worked for the state of Oklahoma there was a line she couldn’t cross:

“We had bosses who were elected officials and if it came to the individual not the department then we would turn it over to someone else, because the image of an individual who’s an elected official talks to the politics,” Tallent says. “If you even thought that it would smack of campaigning, i.e. image enhancement, we were absolutely not allowed to do it.”  

But Tallent says these rules vary by state. In Idaho state employees who do public relations often speak on behalf of their department, its policies, and its leader. Still, Tallent thinks McGrath’s foray into Wikipedia was unwise.

“Don’t get me wrong, I know she was doing her job,” Tallent says. “The question is if you are going in and making changes for someone who is a political person, and you’re a state employee, that might look as though you’ve crossed that line. Whether or not you have done it becomes immaterial, it’s the appearance.”

However, Tallent says Wikipedia is different than most information sources.

“Anyone can go in, anyone can make changes, whether these changes make the information right or wrong,” she says. “Which makes it a kind of unique and sometimes dangerous animal.”

The Public Relations Society of America agrees. The member organization for PR professionals has tried unsuccessfully for months to write guidelines on how to deal with Wikipedia. The organization's Stephanie Cegielski says so far they agree that sometimes it’s OK to edit a client’s Wiki page and sometimes it’s not. Cegielski says many PR people get frustrated with Wikipedia because there is no formal structure.

“There isn’t that help desk in place that you would like to have,” she says. “When you would like to request a change, you essentially kind of put in a trouble ticket and it creates this chat page that a Wikipedean is supposed to respond to. And many public relations professionals have found that they’re not being responded to.”

Melissa McGrath says she edited Tom Luna's Wiki page because it seemed like the only option to fix what she saw as incorrect information. Her edit set off a flurry of other edits from serious Wiki hobbyists like Scientizzle. The Wikipedeans have changed the Luna page 60 times in the past week. That’s nearly as many edits as the page had had in the last five years. It now looks nothing like the page McGrath wrote or the page that was there before. Scientizzle says, for the first time, it’s a good page. The information is verifiable and unbiased.

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