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Ill Defined

Ravenstahl-bashers plague Wikipedia

Blogs aren't the only front in the online wars. Since late December, multiple people have been changing Luke Ravenstahl's Wikipedia entry to disparage his political connections -- or even claim that he died.

"It looks like somebody is working through some personal issues," says Chris Griswold of Friendship, a 27-year-old administrator of the Internet encyclopedia. Wikipedia entries can be written and re-written by anyone, no matter what their motives. "There's this impotent rage, when somebody does something like this," says Griswold. "It's like when somebody goes out in the backyard and screams."

"His father is a Justice of the Peace and his grandfather was a city firefighter," reads one such change, "positions often associated with the blatant nepotism and cronyinsm [sic] so often attributed to government in Pittsburgh."

That same sentence was added by a single user on Dec. 22, Jan. 8 and Jan. 22 from a computer employing a Texas-based Internet Service Provider (ISP) -- something Griswold's peer-elected post as administrator allows him to find out.

Someone else using a Comcast-owned ISP has changed Ravenstahl's entry to read, "rather than speak up for the interests of the city, he cowed to the financial and political interests of Ed Rendell and Dan Onorato."

And yet a third individual -- or one well-traveled person -- has repeatedly changed Ravenstahl's birthday from Feb. 6, 1980 to Feb. 10, 1970, adding "He died on Nov. 10, 2006." Griswold traced this user's computer to, an Armstrong County-based ISP serving small towns surrounding Pittsburgh, as well as neighboring states.

All three users have also simply blanked Ravenstahl's page.

Another "editor" (as Wiki writers are called) registered under the name Henri Graves has also blanked the page, and began leaving a few local blog posts against the current mayor's administration in August. He also edited the Wiki entry on Ravenstahl's chief of staff, Yarone Zober, to read "He has been seen throughout the city, in, on and under state Sen. Jim Ferlo," reflecting rumors that Ferlo has inordinate influence with the Ravenstahl adminstration.

All such changes have been undone by other Wiki users, and lately by Griswold. The site also employs anti-vandal bots to catch the simplest mischief, such as erased pages.

"I don't know what any of these things are going to accomplish," says Griswold, who can't pinpoint the verbal hooligans involved, despite his privileged access to Wiki information. He now has a local group of Wiki editors policing the Ravenstahl site, and boasts of catching changes such as the "nepotism" entry in as little as one minute.

Ravenstahl is far from the only political target on Wikipedia. On Jan. 22, Philadelphia papers reported that Mayor John Street's entry read in part that day: "Street worked for television station WPSG-TV and, for a four-year period, he played the character Bozo the Clown on Philadelphia's Bozo the Clown children's television show." Stephen Colbert, fake talk-show host on Comedy Central, has enlisted his viewers to "save" the world's elephants merely by upping their population count on Wikipedia -- then displayed their success.

About every other day, says Griswold, "we have to remove [entries] that [say] Mr. Rogers was a sniper in Vietnam with 93 confirmed kills, or 73 confirmed kills or 52 ..." It's done by "a lot of people. They believe they know it. It's not true that he wore sweaters to cover all the tattoos on his arms." But the false additions have been so persistent that the Wiki page about Fred Rogers now lists the urban legends about him, as well as links that debunk them

"We're making people think about how true things are," Griswold says. "It makes you question how valid your source is. It strengthens people's ability to process information and process things themselves -- what is fact and what is reliable, what is gossip and what is myth."

Griswold has now added details of Ravenstahl's handcuffing incident to Wikipedia, including its origin in a blog. But the material quotes from traditional media.

"Blogs are not reliable sources," he says. But he believes blogs will "absolutely" have influence over people's opinions in the future. "For years, we had things like America's Funniest Home Videos. That's just the televised version of YouTube. People are starting to feel the need to be more interactive with the entertainment they're consuming -- and the information."

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