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Where flattery, insults live side by side Wikipedia offers 'regular folk' a chance to libel or glorify public figures

At the start of February, Samara Barend's entry on the Wikipedia Internet encyclopedia listed just the basic facts about the one-time Southern Tier congressional candidate.

But over seven minutes on Feb. 1, unidentified vandals added several disparaging remarks.

"She is also a former prostitute with a horrible fashion sense. Her buck teeth seem to ruin her complexion," read part of one change. "Her grammatical skills draw doubt on the thought that she ever even attended college," read another.

The fake information stayed up for three days, until someone else deleted it. Today, Barend takes the cyber-assault in stride.

"You just have to laugh, I guess," said Barend, who lost a hard-fought race to Randy Kuhl in 2004. "It's the price we pay for the Internet, and it's the price we pay for democracy."

The attack and counterattack over Barend's entry crystallizes what is so good and so worrisome about Wikipedia, an Internet encyclopedia whose popularity is growing.

Wikipedia's entries are written and updated by an army of largely anonymous volunteers. "I think [sites such as Wikipedia] are useful because, in a way, it's one of the most democratic ways of sharing knowledge. We don't have to rely on authorities to provide information," said Kevin Lim, a University at Buffalo graduate student whose Web log, theory.isthereason, tackles technology issues.

But in recent weeks and months, a number of mean-spirited acts of vandalism brought unwanted publicity to the site. The biased editing included the work of staffers in several congressional offices who were caught polishing their bosses' entries.

These actions raise questions about Wikipedia's reliability, but users praise its openness. "Wikipedia is forcing us to rethink conceptions of trust. I trust it as much as I trust any resource that's on the Web," said Derek Lackaff, a graduate student at UB whose research involves Wikipedia.

First, a quick primer on Wikipedia. A Wiki is a Web site that allows users to add and change content easily. It comes from the Hawaiian term "wiki," which means quick, according to its Wikipedia entry.

Wikipedia's founders launched the site -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page -- in January 2001. "I think this is one of those serious . . . milestone, collaborative works," said Alex Halavais, a UB assistant professor of communication. "This is graffiti that builds a temple."

Unlike entries in traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia entries are added, expanded and edited by regular people, usually those who have an interest in a particular subject.

The Oxford English Dictionary started out this way, hundreds of years ago, relying on volunteers to provide the definitions for words early on, noted Ken Fujiuchi, the emerging technologies librarian at Buffalo State College's E.H. Butler Library. "Because of the digital age, [Wikipedia] can get to a point where it's more reliable, faster," Fujiuchi said.

The journal Nature asked scientists to compare entries on the same topic from Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and found Wikipedia's entries were only slightly less accurate.

But on Wikipedia, problems occur with the entries for people in the public eye, particularly those of politicians. Vandals attacked the Wikipedia entry for President Bush so often that it is now locked and cannot be edited by new or anonymous users.

And Wikipedia briefly barred anyone using an Internet connection in a congressional office from editing an entry.

This came after the site's operators learned that some Capitol Hill staffers were editing unfavorable -- but accurate -- information off their bosses' entries.

An intern in the office of seven-term Rep. Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., for example, altered his entry to remove reference to Meehan's pledge to only serve four terms in Congress.

Among members of the local congressional delegation, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, has the most extensive and flattering Wikipedia entry.

Slaughter's entry expanded significantly last July, when someone who registered as Votelouise added to and edited her entry 36 times over two days.

In some cases, entire paragraphs Votelouise added to Slaughter's Wikipedia entry match word-for-word the text on her official Web site.

"It is possible that it was a former staffer, or somebody connected to the congresswoman's staff. But it was not done at the behest of the congresswoman," said John Santore, a Slaughter spokesman.

Last month, Wikipedia posted a note on Slaughter's entry stating, "The current version of the article or section reads like an advertisement," and asked someone to edit the entry.

The shorter entry for Rep. Brian Higgins also is fairly positive.

But Slaughter's generally fawning entry contrasts with the Wikipedia entries for Reps. Randy Kuhl and Thomas M. Reynolds and Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, all of which bring up unfavorable information.

Clinton's entry notes that she is a polarizing political figure, recounts her failed effort to change the nation's health care system and links to a lengthy list of her controversies.

And Kuhl's entry recalls his 1997 guilty plea for drinking and driving and the allegations raised in his divorce records.

However, Wikipedia notes that someone from a House of Representatives IP address edited Kuhl's entry to remove scandal-related information. "From what I've been able to tell, it's nobody in our office right now," said Bob Van Wicklin, a Kuhl spokesman.

A review of the entries of prominent people with ties to Buffalo found several were victims of vandalism, if only for a few hours or days.

Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra's entry initially suffered from the fact his last name was spelled "Giambria."

After a user fixed that mistake, other users later vandalized the entry to say "Joel Giambra never graduated from college -- and you can see why if you live in Erie County."

Another user changed the entry to note Giambra attended Erie Community College.

Jim Kelly's entry was vandalized twice with crude comments, on Dec. 22 and Feb. 24, both of which were taken down the same day. And the entry for Dominik Hasek, the former goalie for the Buffalo Sabres, has been the subject of extensive editing and vandalism since its creation in January 2004.

In fact, while all the acts of vandalism are preserved on Wikipedia under the history of each entry, the current entries of the locally prominent figures all were clean as of Friday.

In the end, as Samara Barend can attest, an entry is only as good as its last editor. "Whoever has the time and the power to make the changes, they will prevail," said Miguel E. Ruiz, UB assistant professor of library information studies.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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