Reposted from The Guardian on line
Wikipedia has blocked a user account on suspicions that it is being used by the Conservative party chairman, Grant Shapps, “or someone acting on his behalf” to edit his own page along with the entries of Tory rivals and political opponents.
The online encyclopedia, where pages are edited and created by readers, has tracked the changes made by a user called “Contribsx” who has systematically removed embarrassing references on Shapps’ Wikipedia page about the Tory chairman’s business activities as Michael Green, the self-styled millionaire web marketer.
A Guardian investigation found about a third of the contributions made by this user were to Shapps’ own Wikipedia entry while the rest are made up largely of unflattering changes to the online pages to senior political figures – including prominent figures in the Tory party such as Philip Hammond, Justine Greening and Lynton Crosby.
Wikipedia says that “sock-puppetry” – creating a fake online identity “for an improper purpose, such as to mislead other editors, disrupt discussions, distort consensus or avoid sanctions” – is not permitted.
It added that it had banned Contribsx and said any evidence of future attempts to cover the user’s tracks would be investigated immediately.
The site’s administrators, selected Wikipedia volunteers who patrol the site, told the Guardian that they “believe that the account Contribsx is a sockpuppet of Grant Shapps’ previous accounts on Wikipedia … and based on the evidence the account is either run by Shapps directly or being run by someone else – an assistant or a PR agency – but under his clear direction.”
When the Guardian first approached Shapps that Wikipedia would be closing down this user account because it said it was linked to him, a spokesman for the Conservative party said: “This story is completely false and defamatory. It is nonsense from start to finish.”
When Shapps was sent a detailed exposition of the changes made by Contribsx – including posts critical of cabinet colleagues such as George Osborne – the Tory chairman did not respond.
Wikipedia relies on about 70,000 people each month who edit the articles for a worldwide readership. With 18bn page views and nearly 500m unique visitors a month, only Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and Google, are more popular websites than Wikipedia.
Some of the posts made by Contribsx, which was created in the summer of 2013, illuminate Conservative divisions, focusing notably on one of the biggest rebellions in the last parliament over the issue of gay marriage – a policy that remains controversial, with traditionalists targeting liberal Tories in this election.
The rancour began after May 2013 when 134 Tory MPs voted against the government, arguing the idea would weaken the institution of marriage. Shapps was one of the MPs that had supported the leadership line that the country was ready for the change.
In the months to come, Contribsx highlighted those in the cabinet who had rebelled. In September 2013 Contribsx edited Hammond’s Wikipedia page so that it noted the then defence secretary had“been openly critical of the prime minister’s approach to the (same-sex marriage) bill saying that he was ‘shocked’ at the speed at which it was pushed through and that it ‘damaging’ for the Conservative party”.
Another edit made a few minutes later drew attention to an interview given by the then attorney general, Dominic Grieve, to his local newspaper in his Buckinghamshire constituency noting that he “was one of four members of the cabinet who abstained in the May 2013 same-sex marriage vote. He said that he believed that the bill had been ‘badly conceived’”.
Earlier that month Contribsx added extensive information about cabinet minister Greening. Just before his promotion to the cabinet Shapps signalled support for a third runway in Heathrow – a significant move given that this went against party policy at the time.
A few days later Greening responded by saying the government remained opposed to a third runway at Heathrow. The next week she was reshuffled out of her job to become overseas aid secretary and the party began talking up the chances of new “aviation capacity”.
On a Sunday evening in September 2013 as the west was weighing up whether to launch air strikes against Damascus, Contribsx decided to sum up Greening’s fall from grace – and noted that she went on as development secretary to miss a key vote on Syria – by adding these lines to Greening’s Wikipedia page:
“In the runup to the 2012 cabinet reshuffle Greening said it would be difficult to serve in a cabinet which was in favour of a third runway. In the event Greening was reshuffled on 4 September 2012. A move atacked by Boris Johnson … Greening failed to vote in a critical parliamentary division about military action in Syria. Although in the House of Commons at the time, she was reportedly chatting to another minister in a room behind the chamber and failed to notice that the division bell had sounded.”.
Contribsx made the edits about Crosby in March and August last year. At the time there were headlines talking of splits between the election strategist and Shapps. Relations between the men reached an all-time low in March 2014 when the Tory chairman tweeted a now infamous bingo and beer advert that managed to ruin what looked like perfect coverage of the coalition’s fifth budget. Widely derided as being patronising to the poor it was a PR disaster that reportedly almost cost Shapps his job.
Contribsx, however, edited Shapps’ Wikipedia page to paint a picture of a man unfairly taking the blame for a Labour-confected controversy that was in fact the fault of Crosby and the chancellor, George Osborne: “In March 2014 Shapps drew national headlines for a tweet in support of the 2014 budget. Labour argued it charactertured (sic) people who play bingo or drink beer. It was later revealed that the ad had been generated in the Treasury and signed off by George Osborne and Lynton Crosby.”
Contribsx also targeted Labour MPs who had raised concerns about the Tory chairman’s conduct by adding humiliating details about parliamentary expensesand Commons investigations to their Wikipedia pages.
In his last edit, on Easter Sunday this year, the user went online to change the Wikipedia page of Karl Turner, the shadow attorney general. Two weeks earlier Turner had called on the prime minister to investigate Shapps over his repeated denials, which turned out to be false, that he had acted as “web millionaire” Michael Green while an MP.
The user posted on Turner’s Wiki page that the Labour MP had “admitted breaking House of Commons rules by sending out invitations to a £45-a-head Labour party fundraising event from parliamentary email”. Contribsx did not add that the parliamentary commissioner for standards had dismissed the allegations, originally made by a local Tory councillor.
Suspicions among the community that Contribsx had “connections with Grant Shapps” had first been raised in November 2013.
Doubts resurfaced this year after a flurry of edits last month to the Wikipedia entry of Afzal Amin, the Tory prospective parliamentary candidate in Dudley North who resigned after being caught on camera negotiating with the far-right English Defence League.
Contribsx attempted to set up a page for Amin’s successor, a little-known local councillor who was selected by Shapps, but this was rebuffed by Wikipedia’s editors who questioned whether as a candidate he was politically important enough to have a page to himself.
Contribsx responded by saying: “I think that’s surprising given that his predecessor as a candidate for this constituency did have a Wiki page and unlike this candidate he was not previously elected to anything.”
Little is publicly known about Contribsx despite numerous edits. On the user pagethere are claims of being “a floater. Have voted for all three main parties at different times in my life. Not being flaky, but just prefer to think issues through and find the manifesto that best represents my views at any one time”.
Wikipedia tracked a range of IP addresses used by Contribsx to a web hosting service regularly employed by internet spammers. The same service had been used by an anonymous user in 2013 to remove material from Wikipedia to do with How To Corp, Michael Green and Shapps’ previous sockpuppetry.
These anonymous edits expend much energy on editing Shapps’ political credentials so he is listed on Wikipedia as chairman of the Conservative party. He is, in fact, co-chairman, Lord Feldman having been co-chairman since 2010, initially alongside Lady Warsi.
Senior editors at Wikipedia become exasperated by this anonymous amending with one responding on 20 July 2013 by saying: “Dear Grant Shapps, clearly your and your supporter’s dodgy behaviour knows no bounds”.
While denying that Contribsx’s posts have anything to do with Shapps, the anonymous user responded two days later and defended the use of the pen name Michael Green by Shapps by noting “JK Rowling (who) has written under the pen name Robert Galbraith”.
In defence of having an alter-ego in public Shapps has said: “Many authors have written under pen names, frequently without revealing as much up front as with JK Rowling.”
By summer 2013 three longstanding editors of Wikipedia had complained about the edits made toShapps’ Wikipedia page – and the site blocked it from being changed by “unregistered” users on 25 August 2013.
Later that day a username Contribsx was created and his first act was to contact these three Wikipedians to assure them he would be taking a “neutral point of view” over Shapps’ page.
Wikipedia’s administrators told the Guardian they believed that Shapps has used alternative accounts that were not fully and openly disclosed in order to “split his editing history, so that other editors were not able to easily detect patterns in his contributions. While this is permitted in certain circumstances, it was not in this case: it is clear that the account was created in order to confuse or deceive editors.
A spokesperson from Wikimedia UK, the UK charity that supports Wikipedia, said: “We would welcome any MPs who choose to become editors, and are happy to provide training sessions to anyone who wants to learn.
“However, the Wikipedia project is founded on trust, and anyone who tries to deceive our volunteers and readers in order to further their own ends should think very carefully about the morality of what they’re doing. Eventually, the public will find out.”