Twitter has revolutionized the way constituents interact with their representatives in Congress. Will Wikipedia be the next interactive legislative platform?
If developer and Library of Congress employee Ed Summers’ ideas take off, maybe so. This week, Summers created a bot called @congressedits that tweets out anonymous Wikipedia edits from congressional IP addresses. The account has mainly uncovered the innocuous and the banal, from noting the availability of Choco Tacos in the Rayburn building to correcting grammar in the article for Step Up 3D. However, the account also enables the public to see when staffers vandalize or rewrite politicians’ biographical information, whether updating word choice (Justin Amash is an “attorney,” not a “corporate lawyer”) or casually defaming likely opposition (activist Kesha Rogers is a “Trotskyist”).
Rogue political Wikipedia edits have been controversial before. In 2006, staffers for politicians from Rep. Marty Meehan to Sen. Joe Biden were publicly called out for removing criticism from their bosses’ pages. Wikipedia’s usual crowd of vigilant editors reversed the few problematic edits they found after investigating other congressional activity on the site, but left most edits intact as intended “in good faith.”
But Summers’ project is not a series of overt agendas connected to individual staffers. Its real-time, eerily specific feed of edits streams activity from the entire congressional workforce in what Megan Garber has called a project of “ambient accountability.” Like the earlier controversies, Wikipedia can yet again serve as a proxy for political fights happening elsewhere, but it can also serve as a window into everyday life on the Hill at its most bizarre and inconsequential.
There is a significant online audience for Capitol Hill quirkiness. Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson more or less makes a living off it, while members of Congress have social media interns delving into the ever more surreal with legislative doge memes. The @congressedits project could appeal to both easily amused political junkies and to accountability advocates who see it as an opportunity to expand access to the people that they say should be the government’s most visible and engaged group.
Summers, while recognizing that the account will likely discourage anonymous use of Wikipedia on the Hill altogether, hopes his project can spark more ingenuity in connecting citizens with their public officials. He indicated that the account does not merely belittle ongoing activity but illustrates how important Wikipedia is in the public eye. The account’s popularity could encourage members of Congress to log in and participate actively, contributing to topics of their interest—from bills they sponsor to issues on which they are experts. “You could imagine politicians’ home pages with a list of their recent edits, that they would be proud of the things that they are doing,” Summers said.
Derek Willis agreed with Summers’ ideas, adding that @congressedits represents a real-time feed of congressional activity that Congress itself has hardly sought to provide.
Congress is no stranger to scrutiny, but despite its mostly centralized technology, it has taken few steps to simplify how the public can track individual changes in the legislative process. (The House Clerk does have a page with near real-time updates on activities on the House floor, but the Senate has almost no official real-time services.)
This matters because lawmakers already operate on a real-time basis. They tweet, sometimes mistakenly, and they issue news releases even before events happen. Some of that activity the public can see in real time without a lot of digging. Much of it, especially the details of legislative work, is effectively obscured. There’s no account for edits to bills. Twitter bots like @congressedits are one way to see what congressional offices are doing, at least on Wikipedia.
The @congressedits account will likely disappear into the next news cycle of D.C. idiosyncrasies. But if Summers and Willis are right about the widespread appetite for more engagement with the democratic process—even if it’s just to exchange JFK assassination theories with Hill staffers—expect to see more grassroots accountability projects take off.