About 9:20 AM on Tuesday, someone on Capitol Hill tinkered with the Wikipedia page for the Nevada Test and Traning Range, a desert military outpost that contains the conspiracy-theory hub Area 51, to conclusively say that claims the site houses extraterrestrial beings are “completely unsubstantiated.”
Whether or not this Wikipedia contributor knows if the truth is out there is beside the point. The edit is one of dozens made every day from the halls of Congress, revealed thanks to a rapidly popular Twitter account, @congressedits, that tracks Wikipedia changes made by computers in the Capitol campus.
Launched last week, the account is the work of a software developer named Ed Summers, who created it to provide a greater lens on Congress’s activities.
“There is an incredible yearning in this country and around the world for using technology to provide more transparency about our democracies,” he wrote on his blog last Thursday. Summers, inspired by a similar account that tracks the British Parliament, wrote an algorithm that scans Wikipedia for edits made by users from internet protocol addresses assigned to Congress.
As a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedia is no academic source, but as the fifth-most trafficked website in the world, its cultural authority is difficult to ignore. The @congressedits account reveals just how much some people on the Hill care about their—or their bosses’—digital reputations. Among the House members whose pages have been edited in recent days: Virginia Republican Robert Hurt, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, Michigan Republican Justin Amash, and West Virginia Republican Thomas Massie. On Friday, for instance, someone tweaked Amash’s biography to change his past occupation from “corporate lawyer” to the more politically palatable “attorney.”
Other edits are less career-minded, though, and some are downright inane. One yesterday, made to the article for Choco Taco ice-cream bars, which was briefly modified to contain an unsubstantiated yarn about the Mexican-themed frozen treats being a favorite of former House speaker Sam Rayburn. Another anonymous Wikipedian on the Hill made edits to the page for the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
And in what’s perhaps an inevitable acknowledgment to Wikipedia’s inherently specious nature, there also appears to be a heady appetite for conspiracy theories. Just today, the page about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was edited to state that Lee Harvey Oswald acted on behalf of Fidel Castro, while the description of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld was changed from “politician and businessman” to “politician, alien lizard, and businessman.”
Both tinfoil-hatted edits have since been overturned by other Wikipedians outside Congress, but @congressedits remains a worthwhile account to follow.