Cloaked Campaigning: Politicians in the Wikipedia Marketplace of Information

Research question/goal: 

This project aims to study hidden campaigning activity on Wikipedia by constituency candidates in three western democracies—Germany, Belgium, and the United States. Wikipedia’s popularity and reputation as a trusted and neutral source of information makes personal biographies on the platform an attractive medium for politicians to enhance their online appearance effectively and tailored to their electorate. The project asks whether and how political elites make use of this platform, and which role electoral incentives play in that regard. Inferences about the authors of edits can be drawn by tracing back the IP address space to the parliaments and its members’ offices. A combination of machine-learning and crowdsourcing techniques helps assess the quality of edits. Online experiments are used to identify the effects of cloaked campaigning efforts on voters’ opinion about their constituency representatives.

In comparison with other online channels of political communication, Wikipedia is an attractive platform for political candidates to advertise themselves to their constituencies, as it is a widely used source of political information and, perhaps as important, is often deemed neutral. Being a free and collective endeavour of knowledge production where everyone at any point in time can edit content, Wikipedia brings together a multitude of values, beliefs, and opinions when dealing with such contentious issues as politics. This makes it a place for active political communication. Politicians are well aware of the (positive as well as negative) potential of the platform. Fortunately, Wikipedia stores every detail of these interactions in publicly accessible edit histories, providing systematic information about the date, type, content, and source of each edit.

Exploiting this unique set of information, the project is set out to yield insights into individual MPs’ strategic behaviour as well as into the role of Wikipedia for political communication and digital campaigning in general. In particular, we ask how the platform has developed over time as a tool of cloaked campaigning, why some politicians use the platform to sandpaper their biographies while others do not, and whether substantive edits have the power to affect voters’ perceptions of political candidates, i.e., if they are an effective tool of political campaigning. As one can expect both electoral incentives and the existing culture of online campaigning to play a role in politicians’ behaviour, the project considers three empirical cases that offer variation concerning these variables: Germany, Belgium, and the United States.

Fact sheet

Funding: 
MZES
Duration: 
2016 to 2019
Status: 
in preparation
Data Sources: 
observational web data, online experimental data
Geographic Space: 
Germany, United States, Belgium

Publications