The War Over Elizabeth Warren's Wikipedia Page

The page is constantly being edited to add or remove references to Warren's claims of Cherokee heritage.

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Back in June, when the heat was strongest on Democratic Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren for having allegedly misrepresented her heritage as Native American, her Wikipedia page included a lengthy section that criticized her for benefits she supposedly received at Harvard Law School in doing so.

In September, that section was considerably shortened. And today, as conservative legal blog Legal Insurrection notes, the Wikipedia page includes just a few sentences about the incident—most of which are favorable to Warren.

Warren—who ended up winning her election to the U.S. Senate—isn't the only politician with a constantly changing page on the community-edited encyclopedia web site.

[SLIDESHOW: Women of the Senate]

Washington, D.C.-based Wikipedia consultant William Beutler tells Whispers that the biographies of politicians are among the most contested articles on the cloud-sourced reference site.

Elizabeth Warren stands at the podium during day one of the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Early in her legal career, Warren claimed Cherokee heritage.
Elizabeth Warren stands at the podium during day one of the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Early in her legal career, Warren claimed Cherokee heritage.

"Politicians are currently in the news, so people are always searching for them," he says. "And those pages are also about topics people have really strong feelings about. This is a place where people can make changes and do something about that."

The Wikipedia user "GandyDancer," for example, was responsible for deleting the lengthy, critical section on Warren's heritage from the page back in November. GandyDancer's bio page on Wikipedia describes a struggle her aunt faced with gender pay equity, which is an issue Warren has said needs much work. A user called "TMLutas," meanwhile, who added previously-deleted details about Warren's heritage back to her page on Monday, describes himself on his Wikipedia bio page as "pro-life" and a "capitalist."

[READ: Wikipedia Gradually Accepted in College Classrooms]

It's not always outside admirers or detractors of politicians who make changes to a Wikipedia page. Congressional offices themselves have also been found making favorable edits to their member's Wikipedia page, as Buzzfeed reported back in July.

But no matter how much back-and-forth a Wikipedia page goes through, Beutler says topics often receive their appropriate weight on the site at some point.

"Wikipedia is self-correcting. The fact that anyone can edit a page is one of the greatest things about it," he says, though he acknowledges the encyclopedia isn't "reliably" so. His own consultancy Beutler Wiki Relations was set up to help brands, organizations and people get the most accurate biographies on Wikipedia when the site doesn't adequately self-correct.

[FLASHBACK: Warren, Brown Duel in Cash-Soaked Race]

The Internet encyclopedia does have a safeguard in place, however, to ensure that an incident like Warren's contested heritage doesn't overwhelm her page. It's a policy called "undue weight," and it states that articles "should strive to treat each aspect with a weight appropriate to its significance to the subject." Five paragraphs on the heritage incident, Wikipedia decided, was too "slanted toward recent events" and gave the incident undue weight.

Wikipedia users are the safeguard that provides balance to that policy. As shown by TMLutas, who added specific information about Warren's heritage claims back to her page on Monday, it is users who ensure embarrassing incidents aren't whitewashed from a politician's page altogether.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.