tip off

Who’s been digging into Melbourne journalists’ pasts and creating odd articles about them on Wikipedia?

Pure Poison IconThe name of our site might suggest a certain unfriendly approach to the nation’s media. We might often cover journalists who use their power to bully and threaten and harm others, and express fairly blunt criticisms of them.

But, as regular readers will be aware, the name is ironic. We want the best for our nation’s media, and those who work in it. We really do.

And when they become the victims, well, we are concerned. And we have some serious concerns about what’s been happening on Wikipedia around James Campbell, a journalist about whom we’ve been critical in the past, but to whose defence we will now leap.

Sit down while I tell you how I learned of this strange tale.

The other day there was a reference on Twitter to writing by a Melbourne gentleman with whom I’ve had some online problems in the past (which problems reached a level of seriousness that ultimately they were resolved by a court for my protection) and as a result I looked up his Wikipedia entry. And discovered that it had been whitewashed over the preceeding year, with a detail I knew (from the court matter) to be wrong included, details the subject wouldn’t like removed and strange promotional material added. I restored material deleted from anonymous IPs, corrected the false date… and promptly became embroiled in what is known on Wikipedia as an “edit war” – where one person, in this case an anonymous IP, promptly undoes changes without discussing them, and then the other person stubbornly restores them, and then a different anonymous IP promptly deletes them, and then it goes back and forth for a while.

Then “BrandonFarris”, an editor whose account had just been created, arrived. He or she was particularly vehemently opposed to my making any changes to the whitewashed article whatsoever. “Brandon” kept coming back, demanding that I be exiled from the page, and ignoring that I had not actually created the material I’d restored. I began to wonder who this person was, and why they had such a problem with me. I clicked on BrandonFarris’ “contributions”, and was surprised by the first article that showed up – a hagiographic and surprisingly detailed (but bereft of independent sources) biography of Herald Sun journalist James Campbell that BrandonFarris had created.


Webcomic xkcd’s famous cartoon on Wikipedia citations

Curious, and increasingly concerned, I looked at the list. In addition to the interest in Mr Campbell and the other gentleman, “Brandon” has added to Wikipedia from scratch articles for subjects of Campbell’s recent stories, including his dirt-digging on Nicola Gobbo (Brandon’s WP entry here) and his Age “hacking” story (“Brandon”‘s version here), that seem to have a very similar (and hardly neutral) point of view to the Herald Sun versions. They created a Wikipedia entry for one of the Age journos Campbell had condemned, Nick McKenzie, and an article for Jeremy Rapke, about whom Campbell wrote a story that won a “prestigious” (as “Brandon” repeatedly insists on describing it) Melbourne Press Club award. They created an article for HWT managing director Peter Blunden with some weird swipes at the man who sued News Ltd (and won), Bruce Guthrie. They’ve removed negative details from the entry for James Campbell’s colleague at the Herald Sun, Andrew Bolt. They complained about there being an entry for the “News Corporation hacking scandal”. They created an extremely negative entry for Crikey publisher Eric Beecher. They’ve even edited the entry for James’ old employer, former Liberal state shadow health minister Helen Shardey. Since creation of the account a week ago, “Brandon” has created 9 articles, all about Melbourne media figures or people about whom those Melbourne media figures have written, and made 225 edits.


Webcomic xkcd’s famous cartoon on circular sourcing via Wikipedia

I asked James Campbell via email: “Have you edited your biographical entry on Wikipedia this week? Are you making edits on Wikipedia using the username Brandonfarris? If you are not, do you know who is?” He replied: “The answer to all your questions, is no.”

So it’s definitely not him. And we could not and will not publish speculation to the contrary, because it would therefore be false.

Which leaves me wondering who “BrandonFarris” is. Who is this person going through Wikipedia creating and editing attack articles on certain Melbourne media figures, and hagiographic ones on others? Who is this person with so many obscure details about James Campbell’s past? What prompted them to spend so much time finding out private details about his past and, it seems to me, trying to curry his favour by turning his Herald Sun reporting into some kind of “notable” encyclopaedia record?

The whole matter is very mysterious and disturbing. And I hope that James takes the appropriate steps to protect himself from this unknown third person.

In the meantime, I have tried to tidy up some of these sadly corrupted articles – but the user BrandonFarris is very quick to revert them. And I suspect his or her dedication to vandalising Wikipedia is greater than my dedication to trying to keep it neutral and accurate, although I’ve given it a go. (Maybe now that I’ve raised the issue here, others can keep an eye on these articles instead.)


What do you want me to do, LEAVE? Then they’ll keep being wrong!

It’s a sad day for anyone when they realise that Wikipedia is even less reliable than they’d previously believed. It’s a sadder one still when they learn that it’s Melbourne media figures in the firing line. Here’s hoping that “BrandonFarris” turns out to be harmless, and that Wikipedia is able to restore some integrity to its coverage of a professional community for whom we here at Pure Poison wish nothing but the best.

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  • 1
    SHV
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Let’s see:

    Melbourne centric;
    Apparently rabid;
    Dishonest;
    Vehemently pro-News Corp and its ideology;
    Persistent;
    Gutless.

    I’d tend to speculate a young male. “Liberal” voter.

    You could say, a young liberal.

  • 2
    Angra
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy – brilliant and well done.

    We may have had differences in the past, but this a great piece of forensic investigation – which I doubt we have seen the last of.

    And where do the clues all link back to?

    Never trust Wikipedia without about three separate and independent sources.

    This is better than CSI – Melbourne; combined with Hackers.

    Watching with great interest.

    Though I am sure it could never involve anyone from News Ltd (perish the thought)?

    After all, consider their code of ethics.

  • 3
    Nick
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Um, speaking of references and attribution, shouldn’t you at have given attribution to the author of the cartoons you are using in this article? Looking at XKCD’s website, these images are not free for use by commercial organisations.

  • 4
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Well, I linked straight to them on xkcd. I’ve now added a reference underneath describing what they are, although I suspect that it’s kind of redundant. If you have other suggestions on that off-topic subject, please send them via email.

  • 5
    Aliar Jones
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    A google search revealed an InAIN boofhead who used to have the guts to post here (well to be honest, I wouldn’t either if I’d had my every single contribution dissected as the willful stupidity it was) is crowing about this..

    What is it with conservatives? They LOVE lies and the LIARS who tell them…then they have the arrogance to pretend the left live in a fantasy world.

  • 6
    wilful
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    As I understand it, the ‘real’ wikipedia editors, those with a very long history of curating the website, have the power to deal with cases like these, and would take action based on the evidence you’ve gathered. But they do need to be alerted to them.

  • 7
    Captain Obvious
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    To be fair to Wikipedia, it *is* an impeccable source of episode-by-episode synopses of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

  • 8
    Bob Hopeful
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    The most condemning evidence is that “Brandon’s” first Wikipedia edit was of the page listing ‘Ben 10 aliens’.

  • 9
    wilful
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Also, if you’re ever reproducing xkcd, you really need to keep the mouseover text.

  • 10
    Bob Biggs
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    @Aliar Jones 5

    You’ll find a lot of your answers in this e-book The Authoritarians (free to view). One reason is that conservatives of a certain bent only want to have their views reinforced. http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

  • 11
    Jack Sparraaggghhh
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    As frustrating and concerning as this kind of thing is to WP users, particularly contributors, you have to wonder … every time you see one of those ‘neutrality in dispute’ notices at the top of an entry, is there a similar dirty little ‘edit war’ going on there as well? Quite likely.

    The WP model is very effective, up to a point, but is obviously vulnerable to abuse by agenda monkeys who, pathetically, seem to believe objective reality is a matter of subjective discretion.

    And of course it’s not just WP. Recall, for a somewhat mundane example, the trolling of amazon.com user ratings by astroturfers who apply themselves with infinite — almost psychotic — patience. That kind of thing demonstrates a staggering level of commitment to mendacity.

    I was going to say… it’s all kind of worrying… but then I chill because, as a matter of policy, I NEVER WORRY.

    Anyway, we each of us make judgements all the time about the reliability of material we find on the web, and WP should be no exception. As someone else remarked earlier, depending on any one source for critical information is just asking for trouble.

    And yet, still it can be terribly vexing in the odd moment.

  • 12
    Matthew of Canberra
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    BB #10

    POI just did an interview on similar stuff. The interviewee did say some interesting things, but I’m (these days) wary of convenient taxonomies that allow one to “categorize” people whom one finds annoying (as a psychologist said a couple of years ago – paraphrased: isn’t it interesting how these days everyone at work we don’t like is a sociopath?)

    http://www.pointofinquiry.org/jonathan_weiler_authoritarians_versus_reality/

  • 13
    Bob Biggs
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    I agree. I wouldn’t try to apply the study of authoritarians to, say, Ted Lapkin, but I would make statements like, “People like Ted Lapkin are more likely to a… b… c…”. In other words I treat it as a statistical phenomena rather than something that can predict individual behaviour.

  • 14
    returnedman
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Someone is WRONG on the internet

    Yes, and I know who it is! He has a long beard and lives in Queensland.

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