Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, went black on Wednesday to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This was an attempt to show what might happen if Congress passes the bill that gives the U.S. Department of Justice broad powers to police the internet in the name of intellectual property protection.
Millions of people use Wikipedia as a tool to obtain information. This includes people wanting to know more about individuals running for office. Third party and independent presidential candidates and their campaigns recognize this fact and sometimes attempt to use Wikipedia to spread information about themselves.
However, this is adverse to the policies and consensus on Wikipedia, which lists only the candidates that have received enough mentions in reliable sources to merit a biographical article. The website looks down upon those that try to use it to promote themselves or edit with a conflict of interest. Sometimes this results in blocking.
For example, Reform Party presidential candidate Robert David Steele had his account blocked three years ago while attempting to add information about Open Source Intelligence from his personal website. After starting his presidential campaign, he requested to be unblocked earlier this month. He argued that his block was the result of “a couple of CIA fronts who absolutely did not want a serious Open Source Intelligence page” and that “Now that I am running for the presidential nomination from the Reform Party, such antics are harmful to the larger cause. I would like to get my personal page fixed up…” His request was declined.
Conversely, one successful wiki effort started last summer, when, before an interview with Wikinews, Libertarian Party presidential candidate RJ Harris mentioned that his web developer was trying to figure out how to list his name with other candidates on Wikipedia. The next month, Harris was added, but promptly removed. It is unknown whether anyone from the campaign added Harris, but this was repeated several times. The persistence evidently paid off, since Harris was permanently added to the list earlier this month after a Wikipedia article was written about him.
This is not the only instance concerning a libertarian candidate. Later in the summer, an individual using the name “Carlpers” tried to add attorney Carl Person to the list of candidates, but was reverted. While there is no confirmation that Person actually made the edit, the same account added Person to the list of candidates for New York Attorney General in 2010.
In many ways, whether a candidate is listed can potentially make or break a campaign.
Last August, independent candidate Ken Grammer used Wikipedia under the name “Usenduro” and tried to create a page for himself, but was reverted. He later apologized, and explained:
“please understand that it is very hard for an independent candidate to get noticed and my desire to be recognized through Wikipedia should be seen as a statement of how important I feel Wikipedia is with regard to people seeking basic information.”
Shortly thereafter, he ended his campaign.
Similarly, Green Party candidate Mike Ballantine used the site to create a page for himself. After the page was deleted, an anonymous user from Hanoi (Ballantine’s place of residence) complained:
“[Green Party candidate] Kent [Mesplay] is not constitutionally eligible for President because he was born in Papua New Guinea yet you have him listed as a real candidate. If you don’t list Mike [Ballantine], then you are picking and choosing the candidates instead of allowing the people to decide.”
Shortly thereafter Ballantine was denied a spot in the Green Party California Primary.
Despite its rules, candidates will likely continue to use Wikipedia to promote their campaigns; and individuals will continue to use Wikipedia to learn about candidates. However, if the recent blackout reflects what truly will happen under SOPA, it may become more difficult for individuals to learn about third party and independent candidates.