Protecting Sean Penn (With Federal Government Computers)

Some federal employees may be about to run into a firestorm. How is government equipment being used to influence public opinion on issues through the use of Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is an internet phenomenon. It is a quick way to find out information about almost anything. It describes itself as “a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. With rare exceptions, its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet….”

Federal agencies spend hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars on projects and missions. Many federal employees are engaged in providing accurate information on these programs to Americans and others throughout the world.

It seems logical that Wikipedia would be used for this purpose. Why not use a free service to tell people more about a project, an agency or a program? Agencies do it and routinely update information on their organizations.

So there is a downside to the Wikipedia concept. Who is making changes to Wikipedia? How reliable are the changes? How are the vast resources and power of federal agencies being used with regard to this free service available to anyone in the world with access to the internet? News items from Australia as well as from Canada have already pointed out that people in governments in these countries are making changes to remove details that may be damaging to the reputation of government officials or organizations.

How well do you know the person in the office or the cubicle next to you? What does that person think about issues? What is he or she really like?

New software now tracks who is making changes to the Wikipedia and what changes they are making. Perhaps there are some readers making changes that assume using a government computer in a private office shields them from anyone knowing how they are using their time and equipment. But if that used to be true, it is no longer the case.

Wikipedia Changes Being Made

So, out of curiosity, what changes are being made to Wikipedia using government equipment?

Having spent more time that I would like to admit figuring out the software and searching through many changes made on government equipment, several things become apparent. That is not to say that I have gone through the tens of thousands of changes made from within government agencies. But I picked several agencies at random to see how federal government equipment is being used–possibly to influence public opinion with through the use of federal funds.

Searching through the changes made on equipment within several agencies, it is obvious that public affairs offices or agency experts are working to keep name changes, organizational changes or descriptions of agency programs and projects up to date. That, presumably, is part of their job and useful to the public.

But what other changes, if any, are being made through the use of government computers?


One of the most interesting uses of government equipment to modify Wikipedia is from within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA is a large, diverse agency with several different addresses used by different parts of the organization.

The most striking feature of the VA edits is that the most common topic of interest appears to be different aspects of conspiracy theories surrounding the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11. Many of the hundreds of Wikipedia edits surrounding this one topic are from a computer address assigned to the VA hospital in Martinez, California (

It’s not clear, of course, if the facilty computers are from one person or several who must work hard to check out all entries related to this topic. At least one other person using a VA computer assigned to the agency in Washington ( also appears to be intensely interested in the topic.

For example, on September 12, 2006, at 22:28, someone made an entry on the subject noting that “According to MIT Engineering Professor Thomas W. Eagar…These people (in the 9/11 truth movement) use the ‘reverse scientific’ method. They determine what happened, throw out all the data that doesn’t fit their conclusion, and then hail their findings as the only possible conclusion.” At 23:12 on the same date, someone using a government computer assigned to the VA took out the entry and entered this comment: “Eagar is not a part of the movement, sorry, Tom”

In any event, for better or worse, government equipment is certainly being used to contribute to information on conspiracy theories surrounding the events of September 11.


With a vast database, choosing a starting point can be daunting. In this case, I chose the Office of Personnel Management for no particular reason for choosing this agency other than I used to work there and its mission is centered on human resources–a topic in which I have an interest and some experience.

One might think that much of the agency’s time and effort would be to make changes to Wikipedia entries having to do with finding a federal job; computing federal retirement or implementing or explaining any of the numerous federal human resources programs.

That, apparently, is not the case. In fact, out of the many edits being made to Wikipedia on government equipment, it would be hard to find any changes that are within the normal scope of the agency’s operations.

One that caught my eye was someone’s interest in the actor Sean Penn. Somewhere within OPM, there is a person concerned about the actor’s career, politics and public image who was sufficiently motivated to make changes so that the Wikiepedia entry about Penn was sufficiently objective. This person took the time to delete references to the actor’s liberal activism at 15:56 (3:56 PM) in the afternoon and allegations of spousal abuse (change made several days earlier at 18:53).

Perhaps of even more interest is the interest of someone using an OPM computer in the personalities of a local radio show.

Radio station WIHT has an entry in Wikipedia. It is a radio station in the Washington, DC area. At 11:16 AM on March 19, 2007, someone using an OPM computer saw fit to make this entry with regard to a readio program: “Slacker Sammy is my baby daddy i just gave birth to his son lats month but he dont know that.” I have not quoted the rest of the insertion because of its increasingly offensive nature.

The new software does not identify the identify of the employee making the entry; one can hope it is not someone from within the agency writing new federal regulations on the hiring process for new federal employees or writing the copy for the new TV ads seeking new federal employees. If I still worked at OPM, I could not help but be a little worried if this person were sitting next to me.


What about the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA)? It seemed like a logical choice, again because I worked there some years ago and it is a small agency with a defined mission.

One would expect it would have an interest in the labor relations statute, federal employee unions and the like. But, to my surprise, there were not any of these topics among the changes made on FLRA computers.

There were no changes about Jazz artists or musical instruments (a favorite from within OPM) or changes to entries on plays, movies and books (a favorite among Department of Homeland Security employees).

Instead, the only changes were to an entry about an organization called “ReNudePride.” I was not aware of the group but learned from the site being altered and reviewed by someone within the FLRA that the organization is “the name of a gay male nudist organization founded [[May 16]], [[2003]] by [[Stephen Gerard]] in [[Washington, DC]]. Gatherings include such activities as nude happy hours, dinner parties, artist dates, camping trips, Sunday teas, massage workshops, theme parties, discussion forums, game nights, and weekend getaways to naturist locations like nude beaches.”


Most readers work for our large federal government that probably has millions of computers in use by employees and contractors. The changes to Wikipedia are a very small slice of how computers are used on a daily basis and how the power of government may be used to influence topics and issues.

It may be that some agencies are making changes as a way to disseminate false information or to improve the public’s knowledge of agency missions and programs. But, while the quick search of several agencies is not yet that thorough, the initial findings may discourage some agency managers who, perhaps, were hoping the use of government computers would be limited to legitimate government business.

The vast majority of the edits to Wikipedia on government computers was not nefarious. The changes appear to reflect someone’s personal interest in movies, books, films, jazz, history or other topics as varied as the workforce.

But, one bit of advice for anyone with access to government computers: be careful of how you are using federal equipment. Millions of people will have an interest in how government equipment is being used to influence topics or events. If an agency wishes to track how an individual is using government equipment, I suspect most agency IG offices can track individual usage. Using computers for personal interests such as the ones outlined above is not the best way to advance in a federal career.

If any readers find edits having been made to Wikipedia through government computers, please send them along for our use in future articles.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47