Anyone can edit Wikipedia. It says so right on the front page of the website, among the most visited on the planet.
However, the definition of “anyone” gets iffy when a public employee uses public equipment to scrub from a Wikipedia page unfavorable references about his boss, who happens to be running for re-election.
Public and online records show that James Lynch, spokesman for Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, tried to edit Lindquist’s Wikipedia page in early March. The same records show Lynch was banned from further editing attempts.
Lynch’s edits, subsequently undone or “reverted” by Wikipedia editors, removed references and links to various news articles that shed unfavorable light on Lindquist’s actions in office.
The stories were published by The News Tribune, KIRO-TV and the Seattle Times. The links, including a 2015 Times editorial that called for Lindquist’s resignation, have since been restored by anonymous Wikipedia editors, who referred to Lynch’s changes as “vandalism” originating from an online address tied to Pierce County government.
Lynch acknowledged his attempts to edit the page. Asked about his involvement, he provided an emailed statement:
“As Communications Manager for the Prosecutor’s Office, I routinely monitor the office’s presence online. I made changes to the Wikipedia page after noticing the page was heavily weighted in the negative, which provided an entirely one sided, unfair view of the office.
“I sought to create balance.
“Anyone can edit a Wikipedia page. An individual this office prosecuted is believed to have vandalized the page and deleted anything positive about the office, which, to my understanding is contrary to the rules of Wikipedia.
“Because we work for the people, we want them to have fair, balanced, unbiased information.”
Technically, it was Lynch who was accused of vandalism and attempts to suppress information, according to comments on the Wikipedia page.
Lynch’s mention of “an individual this office prosecuted” refers to John Dempsey, 48, a Seattle resident.
In February 2015, Dempsey was charged with seven counts of felony harassment. The charges, dismissed eight months later, stemmed from a separate child custody case filed in Pierce County.
Dempsey was the petitioner; the matter was contentious. While the custody case was active, Dempsey posted a music video on his Facebook time line after a New Year's Eve party. The video played a violent punk-rock song that depicted men in suits being shot and stabbed. Dempsey added a comment: “This is my plan for superior court!”
The video provided the basis for the harassment charges. Dempsey was acquitted on all counts. Superior Court Judge Ron Culpepper found that Dempsey didn’t intend to threaten any of the specific parties in the case, adding that prosecutors couldn’t prove otherwise.
Since then, Dempsey has become a vocal critic of Lindquist, who commented publicly on the harassment case after the initial charges were filed.
Dempsey’s father filed a public records request for Lynch’s internet activity earlier this year. The county's response to the request was subsequently shared with The News Tribune. The information linked Lynch's county-owned public account with the attempted Wikipedia edits.
Dempsey criticized Lynch’s attempts to remove information from the Wikipedia page.
“The entry presents relevant facts from the most credible sources,” Dempsey said. “Mr. Lynch earns $86,000/yr making PR for Mr. Lindquist. Four Wikipedia editors reversed Mr. Lynch's changes and banned his IP address. People should look more closely at Lindquist's record in public office, from sources other than his publicist.”
Lindquist, who is seeking re-election this year, is known for taking pains to guard his public image and attack critics. A long-running public-disclosure lawsuit involving text messages on his personal phone revealed that Lindquist told told a subordinate to coordinate online comments on a News Tribune story he felt was negative.
The text-message case ended earlier this year with a judgment that ordered disclosure of the messages despite Lindquist’s efforts to prevent it. All told, the case cost taxpayers more than $1 million in fines and attorney fees.
The News Tribune asked Lindquist whether he directed or knew of Lynch's efforts to edit the Wikipedia page. Lindquist did not answer; he forwarded the question to Lynch, who emailed another statement.
“It was my decision to make the changes, not Mark's,” Lynch wrote. “He's been made aware there's an issue but is busy with other matters and isn't dealing with this.”
Stealth attempts to edit Wikipedia pages devoted to political figures are nothing new for the site; it has an entire section devoted to discussion of the practice.
The site’s standards set a “neutral point of view” guideline that emphasizes reliable sources. Paid advocacy, deemed a conflict of interest, is frowned upon. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales addresses editing by political advocates, suggesting “a very simple rule that constitutes best practice: do not edit Wikipedia articles directly if you are a paid advocate.”
Locally, it’s not clear whether Wikipedia editing by Pierce County employees violates any written rule or standard. Formal filing for local elected offices begins in May, touching off the campaign season and increased sensitivity toward potentially inappropriate use of public equipment for political purposes.
Libby Catalinich, spokeswoman for County Executive Bruce Dammeier, said her office has no specific policy on Wikipedia editing by employees.
“The Pierce County Office of Communications does not have a policy regarding content on Wikipedia pages, nor have I discussed this channel with either the County Executive or Chair of the County Council,” she said. “While we actively manage content on County-owned channels — such as social media channels, blogs and our websites — we realize that Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced, third-party platform. To my knowledge, no one from my team has edited a County-related Wikipedia page. Having said that, if we became aware of inaccurate information on a Wiki page we would consider making a correction.”
Asked about Lynch’s attempts to edit Lindquist’s Wikipedia page, County Councilman Rick Talbert said, “I can’t see that there is a stated county function being carried out by that activity.”
He added that he hadn’t considered the issue before, though he links it to an idea he’s pushed that would consolidate county communications operations.
“It’s a concern of mine that individual departments could be having communications and messaging that is contrary to the kind of stated mission of the county,” he said. “This year we’re conducting a review of who has their own communications personnel, how they’re funded, what their oversight is. My preferred model would be a communications function with maybe specialists that can address individual department needs, but that no department can control its own messaging. I think it’s an opportunity for abuse. This kind of exposes that.”
Since the March editing attempts by Lynch, other anonymous users have tried to revise the page in similar ways, sparking a minor editing war that so far has led to no changes. The would-be editors do not appear to be using county equipment.