Offensive Wikipedia Trolling Came from UK Government Computers

Very un-politically correct edits were made by machines on a government network.

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Apr 30 2014, 3:15pm
Image: Flickr/Razak Abu Bakar

Where there is online communication, there will be trolls. Wikipedia, with its writing and editing free-for-all, is no exception to manipulation by vindictive users who get their kicks offending others for the sake of it. But those users aren’t usually in government.

Last week, British regional newspaper the Liverpool Echo reported that some offensive edits had been made to the Wikipedia entry on the Hillsborough disaster, the tragic football stadium incident in 1989 that saw 96 people killed and hundreds injured. Insulting edits included the addition of the phrase “Blame Liverpool fans” (a report actually found lacking police control was at fault), and the changing of the memorial phrase “You’ll never walk alone” to “You’ll never walk again.” 

While pretty repulsive, someone trolling sensitive web pages wouldn’t usually make the news—if it weren’t for the fact that, according to the Echo, these changes were made from computers on a government network.

Today, the BBC reports that more insulting edits can be traced back to some of the same government IP addresses, including anti-Muslim sentiments (such as “all Muslims are terrorists”), homophobic comments, and insults directed to everyone from rock band the Libertines to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

The Echo revealed the Hillsborough comments’ origins by looking at the IP addresses of the users who posted them, some of which they discovered belonged to computers based in Whitehall government offices “including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Her Majesty's Treasury and the Office of the Solicitor General.” The BBC traced other Wikipedia edits made by two of the IPs highlighted in that instance to find the other examples.

Stevie Benton of Wikimedia UK explained to me that while registered users are tracked by their usernames, those who aren’t logged in have their IP address noted. Figuring out exactly which machine made the edits, however, isn’t that easy, as the computers in question are part of a governmental intranet system (Government Secure Intranet) that uses a handful of IPs for the whole network. The Cabinet Office told the BBC it therefore probably wouldn’t be able to find the individual or individuals responsible for what’s being regarded as a sort of digital “vandalism.”

While IPs can be spoofed these days, Benton told me that was unlikely to have occurred in this case. “The edits that we’ve been looking at in these articles go back quite a long way and it’s unlikely that it would have been able to be done then,” he said.

But though the crowd-editing process allowed the trolls to post their comments in the first place, it also worked to correct them. “In the case of one or two of the edits mentioned in the BBC article today, some of them were reverted as quickly as six minutes after they were made, so this is kind of working as evidence that our system does work,” he said.

Having said that, the Hillsborough page has now been given “semi-protected” status, so only registered users who have had an account for a certain length of time can alter it. Benton said the Cabinet Office had also been in touch, but that the Wikimedia Foundation wouldn’t have the kind of information they’re likely to need in order to identify the perpetrators.

While everyone knows that anyone can edit Wikipedia—something that’s both admirable and problematic, as you can end up with, for instance, PR companies tweaking entries or men deciding women don’t belong—you don’t really picture members of government spending their lunch break replacing former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s entry with the succinct opinion “he should be assassinated.” Yep, that was actually one of the edits.

Benton said he wouldn’t be able to tell how many government workers have a penchant for Wikipedia editing in general as, if users are logged in, they’re only tracked by their username. You can, however, see all the edits made by the two known IPs by searching for their contributions (the addresses are given by the BBC as 62.25.106.209 and 195.92.40.49). Whoever's behind it seems to be a big football fan. And have an interest in politics.