These days, when people don’t know anything about a subject, the first thing they might do is consult Wikipedia, the user-updated online encyclopedia. For people curious about Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Marshall Township), however, they might want to rethink that decision.
For the past few years, editors have been shaping Turzai’s page, consistently removing critical information about the speaker and replacing it with paragraphs about his legislative accomplishments, and peppering the entry with phrases like “a relentless champion.” Turzai is even credited for leading an “agenda that improved the state’s business climate,” but without citing any sources.
While many minor changes to Turzai’s page have been made by active, volunteer editors with usernames like “Psyden” or “Cwobeel,” it’s the praise-laden changes that raise questions, especially because one editor is linked to the offices of the Republican Caucus of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, of which Turzai is the highest-ranking member.
William Beutler runs Beutler Ink, a Washington, D.C.-based business that helps large clients craft fair and accurate Wikipedia pages. Beutler says people with biases for or against Turzai shouldn’t be editing his page. “There are a lot of good editors out there, but they care a whole lot less [about personal bias] than these anonymous editors trying to influence the page,” says Beutler. “It’s clear that there are still not enough editors to keep everything at a high level of quality.”
Modifying politicians’ Wikipedia pages is nothing new. Members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs have been editing their own Wikipedia pages since 2006, sometimes fluffing them with overt praise. The Twitter account “@congressedits” was created in 2014 to track those edits, giving the public more transparency about whether edits comply with Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View (NPOV) guidelines. But Beutler says there are no similar measures for state houses.
With Wikipedia attracting millions of viewers a day, and more Americans using the site as a reference tool, should Pennsylvanians be more skeptical of Wikipedia pages, particularly those of politicians looking to gain influence? Someday soon, Turzai’s influence could extend beyond Speaker of the House.
In May, the Associated Press obtained a letter sent by Turzai to Pennsylvania’s Republican Party committee informing them he’s considering a run for governor in 2018, and asking for their support. News reports since the fall of 2016 have also indicated Turzai’s interest in running for governor.
On Nov. 30, 2016, a nameless editor with an IP address of 126.96.36.199 removed from Turzai’s Wikipedia an unsourced section page that read: “In 2012 he came under fire for admitting that Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law was actually designed to cause voter suppression and win the state for Mitt Romney in a [speech] to the Republican State Committee. He also came under fire for insulting and screaming at parents who wanted medical marijuana legalized to treat their children which 88% of the [state’s] voters supported.” This editor, whose IP address is listed on multiple IP address locator websites as the House Republican caucus in Harrisburg, justified this removal by writing in the edit section of the site, “The statement is inaccurate. Turzai NEVER said Voter ID legislation was about suppressing votes.”
The editor is correct: Turzai never actually said those words. But many observers inferred that that’s what he meant when he said in a 2012 video, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” Also, the editor never explained why Turzai’s medical-marijuana opposition was removed, even though it’s been well documented and was properly sourced on the Wikipedia page.
This isn’t unusual behavior for the editor linked to the Pennsylvania House GOP. This editor has injected paragraphs into Turzai’s page since 2013, detailing legislative accomplishments with descriptions like “historic” and “conservative.” In fact, on July 7, just hours after Pittsburgh City Paper contacted Turzai’s office to request comment for this story, edits were made to Turzai’s page from the same IP address, including the removal of the page’s only critical sentence, which said, “In 2012 he came under fire [for] remarks he made about Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law and Mitt Romney winning the state in a speech to the Republican State Committee.” This sentence was sourced from a 2012 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
CP’s requests for comment from Turzai’s office and the state’s House GOP caucus went unanswered.
Since 2005, the IP address linked to the House GOP caucus has made some edits to pages on topics including college football and Pennsylvania high schools, but the majority of edits have focused on Republican state politics.
In 2015, large sections were removed from state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s (R-Cranberry) page. The page originally listed legislation proposed by Metcalfe that many consider anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant, and replaced it with paragraphs about Metcalfe’s pro-life stances. The computer linked to the IP address also completed similar edits to the pages of state Rep. Seth Grove (R-York County) and state Rep. Nicholas Miccarelli III (R-Delaware County).
Beutler says altering Wikipedia information like this can have a powerful influence.