In a tug of war of truth in which anyone can pull the rope, a Montana candidate for governor is struggling to keep control of his biography on Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia.
Wikipedia locked down former U.S. Congressman Rick Hill’s biography page Monday, after more than 30 attempts to add or scrub details about Hill’s past campaigns and his 1976 divorce.
Hill announced last November that he will run for governor in 2012.
The changes occurred over three days on the popular online encyclopedia written and edited by anyone who wants to contribute. Hill’s campaign manager, Chuck Denowh, acknowledges he had attempted to alter the website’s content, but that his try was futile.
“I don’t know who keeps changing it, who keeps throwing that crap out there, but whoever it is, they win,” said Denowh, who characterized the anonymous edits as vandalism.
More than once, Wikipedia contributors have inserted details of Hill’s 1999 campaign against challenger Nancy Keenan, a Democrat former state superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction.
Hill was criticized after describing himself as a family man and suggesting Keenan, a single woman with no children who worked for the government, couldn’t relate to voters with families. Keenan later revealed she had a hysterectomy.
References to Hill’s campaign against Keenan with nuances suggesting it was a national news issue were removed from the site. The New York Times did call the race one of the most mean-spirited in the nation.
Hill withdrew from his race against Keenan, citing vision problems related to a botched eye surgery. He was replaced by current Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who defeated Keenan.
Depending on what time viewers read Hill’s Wikipedia biography between June 25 and June 28, his divorce was explained as “Rick divorced his first wife in 1976 and retained custody of his three boys....” Or, “Rick divorced his first wife in 1976 following an affair.”
The latter version was confirmed to reporters for Lee Enterprises, Inc. by Hill’s first wife during an earlier House campaign against Bill Yellowtail in 1996.
Hill isn’t the first politician to wrestle with Wikipedia. In 2006, Wikipedia reported that some staff members of U.S. senators were fluffing their bosses’ biographies, including then Montana Sen. Conrad Burns. According to Wikipedia, Burns’ staff had removed references to Burns referring to Arabs as “ragheads” and inserted a paragraph titled “A voice for the farmer” singing Burns’ praises as a supporter of pro-agriculture government policies.
Wikipedia records indicate current Montana politicians Sens. Max Baucus, Jon Tester, Rep. Rehberg and Brian Schweitzer have biographies that receive minor deletions and insertions on a regular basis.
“The Internet is a double-edged sword. It allows you to contact a lot of people, but you do lose control,” said David Parker, political science professor at Montana State University. “I wonder why candidates ever bother with Wikipedia info. I would just ignore it.”
Parker said candidates today are losing control of their message both on websites like Wikipedia and Facebook, where a commenter can drive the narrative, and in races where independent groups can weigh in with large sums of money to influence a race.
Historically, political parties controlled candidate promotion through party-controlled newspapers with little candidate influence until television and radio arrived, giving candidates outlets for their own messages.
“You have to worry about what you can control and control it as best as you can,” Parker said.
In other words, Wikipedia will never be Rickipedia.