These days, when people don’t know anything about a subject, the first thing they might do is consult Wikipedia, the user-updated online encyclopedia. For people curious about Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Marshall Township), however, they might want to rethink that decision.
For the past few years, editors have been shaping Turzai’s page, consistently removing critical information about the speaker and replacing it with paragraphs about his legislative accomplishments, and peppering the entry with phrases like “a relentless champion.” Turzai is even credited for leading an “agenda that improved the state’s business climate,” but without citing any sources.
While many minor changes to Turzai’s page have been made by active, volunteer editors with usernames like “Psyden” or “Cwobeel,” it’s the praise-laden changes that raise questions, especially because one editor is linked to the offices of the Republican Caucus of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, of which Turzai is the highest-ranking member.
William Beutler runs Beutler Ink, a Washington, D.C.-based business that helps large clients craft fair and accurate Wikipedia pages. Beutler says people with biases for or against Turzai shouldn’t be editing his page. “There are a lot of good editors out there, but they care a whole lot less [about personal bias] than these anonymous editors trying to influence the page,” says Beutler. “It’s clear that there are still not enough editors to keep everything at a high level of quality.”
Modifying politicians’ Wikipedia pages is nothing new. Members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs have been editing their own Wikipedia pages since 2006, sometimes fluffing them with overt praise. The Twitter account “@congressedits” was created in 2014 to track those edits, giving the public more transparency about whether edits comply with Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View (NPOV) guidelines. But Beutler says there are no similar measures for state houses.
With Wikipedia attracting millions of viewers a day, and more Americans using the site as a reference tool, should Pennsylvanians be more skeptical of Wikipedia pages, particularly those of politicians looking to gain influence? Someday soon, Turzai’s influence could extend beyond Speaker of the House.
In May, the Associated Press obtained a letter sent by Turzai to Pennsylvania’s Republican Party committee informing them he’s considering a run for governor in 2018, and asking for their support. News reports since the fall of 2016 have also indicated Turzai’s interest in running for governor.
On Nov. 30, 2016, a nameless editor with an IP address of 22.214.171.124 removed from Turzai’s Wikipedia an unsourced section page that read: “In 2012 he came under fire for admitting that Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law was actually designed to cause voter suppression and win the state for Mitt Romney in a [speech] to the Republican State Committee. He also came under fire for insulting and screaming at parents who wanted medical marijuana legalized to treat their children which 88% of the [state’s] voters supported.” This editor, whose IP address is listed on multiple IP address locator websites as the House Republican caucus in Harrisburg, justified this removal by writing in the edit section of the site, “The statement is inaccurate. Turzai NEVER said Voter ID legislation was about suppressing votes.”
The editor is correct: Turzai never actually said those words. But many observers inferred that that’s what he meant when he said in a 2012 video, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” Also, the editor never explained why Turzai’s medical-marijuana opposition was removed, even though it’s been well documented and was properly sourced on the Wikipedia page.
This isn’t unusual behavior for the editor linked to the Pennsylvania House GOP. This editor has injected paragraphs into Turzai’s page since 2013, detailing legislative accomplishments with descriptions like “historic” and “conservative.” In fact, on July 7, just hours after Pittsburgh City Paper contacted Turzai’s office to request comment for this story, edits were made to Turzai’s page from the same IP address, including the removal of the page’s only critical sentence, which said, “In 2012 he came under fire [for] remarks he made about Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law and Mitt Romney winning the state in a speech to the Republican State Committee.” This sentence was sourced from a 2012 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
CP’s requests for comment from Turzai’s office and the state’s House GOP caucus went unanswered.
Since 2005, the IP address linked to the House GOP caucus has made some edits to pages on topics including college football and Pennsylvania high schools, but the majority of edits have focused on Republican state politics.
In 2015, large sections were removed from state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s (R-Cranberry) page. The page originally listed legislation proposed by Metcalfe that many consider anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant, and replaced it with paragraphs about Metcalfe’s pro-life stances. The computer linked to the IP address also completed similar edits to the pages of state Rep. Seth Grove (R-York County) and state Rep. Nicholas Miccarelli III (R-Delaware County).
Beutler says altering Wikipedia information like this can have a powerful influence.
“Clearly, Wikipedia has a massive effect on public reputations,” says Beutler. “It gives this sense of authority that may or may not be deserved by a certain page. Some pages are very good, some are very bad, most are somewhere in between. You don’t know what is missing and you don’t know what axes to grind certain editors may have.”
According to a 2010 Pew Research Center study (the most recent Wikipedia-related study available), 53 percent of American internet users read Wikipedia, up from 36 percent in 2007. Beutler says readers should be extra skeptical of politicians’ pages come campaign season.
“Especially for politicians that are challenging incumbents,” says Beutler. “They will spend lots of money to be on the television or the web. But Wikipedia has this reputation to have this neutral point of view. And with the Mike Turzai page, that is definitely not the case.”
CP asked Michael Herzing, communication director for Pennsylvania’s House Democrats, about the edits to Turzai’s page. Herzing said that as long as edits made to state politicians’ Wikipedia pages deal with policy and legislation, altering is allowed. (State law prohibits government employees from campaigning during work hours.)
“That is the job,” says Herzing. “If you are stating what you support and don’t support, that is not campaigning.”
G. Terry Madonna, the Pennsylvania-based political expert and professor at Lancaster’s Franklin & Marshall College, says the vast majority of voters learn about politicians from some form of media, and increasingly from the internet and social media. According to a September 2016 F&M poll, 32 percent of Pennsylvanians said the internet was their most-used source for news, the highest of any source.
Madonna says Wikipedia can be useful for finding basic information on politicians, but advises caution when candidates start campaigning.
“If politicians are just putting down basic facts, like when they were elected, then that is OK,” says Madonna. “But I would be very leery of candidates doing more. In general, I think for candidates, you have to be careful.”
One editor who spent time editing Turzai’s page in 2013 says edits made over the years have violated Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View guidelines. Speaking to CP by phone, editor “RJaguar3” said he made edits to make Turzai’s page comply with NPOV rules. When RJaguar3, who requested anonymity so he could remain anonymous on Wikipedia, was making edits on Turzai’s page, an editor named “PAHouse” repeatedly removed his edits and added only positive information about Turzai. RJaguar3 says it was discovered that PAHouse was a shared account that violated Wikipedia’s username policies. PAHouse was eventually blocked.
“If you are working for a politician, then you probably shouldn’t be making edits,” he says.
RJaguar3 lived in Illinois in 2013, and was drawn to Turzai’s page after the speaker’s comments on the Voter ID law went national. Rjaugar3 has made hundreds of edits to hundreds of articles over the years, which he says is traditional for active, unbiased editors to do. He believes Wikipedia pages should have critical, positive and neutral information.
“Neutral point of view doesn’t mean it has to be neutral,” he says. “If something is mostly disparaging but is from reliable sources, then our goal is to cover that.”
Beutler says problems with Turzai’s page may not last forever. Samantha Lien of the Wikimedia Foundation says Turzai’s page is only getting about 30 page views a day, and Beutler says that if Turzai were to announce a run for governor, the page would most likely get more attention and more editors to keep it in check.
Beutler notes that it’s noticeable that Governor Tom Wolf’s page is better kept, probably due to the governor’s increased profile.
Lien agrees and says problems on Wikipedia pages can tend to work themselves out as more attention is paid. “People in the spotlight tend to attract more eyes,” says Lien, “and then they tend to attract more edits.”