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SCRA Said To Be ‘Cleansing’ its Wikipedia Page

It would appear not everyone in South Carolina state government is all that thrilled with the open-source site Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, the free web-based collaborative encyclopedia project that encourages public input on articles, identified the S.C. Research Authority as the location of an Internet protocol address that had earlier this week repeatedly deleted information unfavorable to the state agency.

On three different occasions within a single day an anonymous individual or individuals using the same SCRA-registered IP address scrubbed information on a Wikipedia entry about the Research Authority that detailed a number of issues regarding the agency, including:


  • Controversy over what was originally touted as an agency-wide pay raise, but later turned out to be limited to mostly upper echelon staff;

  • A request by then-SCRA Chairman Bill Masters for "an independent investigation into the trustworthiness" of Chief Executive Bill Mahoney;

  • Claims by Masters in his resignation letter to Gov. Nikki Haley that the Research Authority “has evolved over the past five years from a scientific research organization into a political organization using its core competency of data and information manipulation to market itself and benefit top management and its allies,”;

  • That the organization is “run mostly for the benefit of its top management for monetary benefits and for exerting control and power”;

  • That SCRA is “exceptional at manipulating government contracts and data to pass audits”;

  • That management “does not fully comply with the constitution of South Carolina in arms-length handling of monies of affiliate SC Launch”; and

  • That the agency spent approximately $600,000 on an investigation directed mostly at Chief Executive Bill Mahoney in 2008.


Also deleted were admissions by Mahoney that most of the contract work that SCRA does goes to out-of-state firms and that the agency is doing a good bit of out-of-state hiring, along with the fact that Mahoney and his top lieutenants have earned lucrative bonuses over the past few years, with Mahoney himself pulling in a bonus of $125,189 in fiscal year 2010 to go with a $253,436 salary.

 

Mahoney did not respond to an inquiry from The Nerve seeking comment.

Masters, who was appointed chairman by then-Gov. Mark Sanford to bring accountability and transparency to the agency, resigned in February, frustrated by what he perceived as roadblocks by board members and executives, and was eventually replaced by Boeing executive Marco Cavazzoni.

SCRA is a state-created and -controlled technology and real estate company with annual revenues of $180 million. Acting much like a general contractor, the Research Authority specializes in forming partnerships to commercialize scientific and technological research.

The SCRA also is a key player in efforts by the state and some local governments in South Carolina to develop a “knowledge-based economy.”

Begun in 1983 with a gift of $500,000 and 1,400 acres of state land from the General Assembly, the Research Authority is a largely below-the-radar operation.

While the Research Authority doesn’t get any direct appropriations from the state, SCRA-affiliate SC Launch receives $6 million annually under the Industry Partners Fund, which provides working capital seed grants to new technology companies. Donations to the Industry Partners Fund are good for a 100 percent, dollar-for-dollar credit against state income taxes.

In addition, the Research Authority is exempt from income, sales and property taxes under its enabling legislation.

After two polite attempts to get the purported SCRA user to cease and desist from vandalizing the Research Authority’s Wikipedia page, a sterner message was sent by Wikipedia: “Please stop your disruptive editing. If you continue to blank out or remove portions of page content, templates or other materials from Wikipedia, as you did at South Carolina Research Authority, you may be blocked from editing.”

While it might seem unlikely that Mahoney is the source of the repeated attempts to censor SCRA’s Wikipedia page, it’s interesting that just last month he touted the agency’s commitment to integrity in a letter to The Nerve regarding the fulfillment of an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request seeking information on bonuses paid to agency employees.

“… transparency and accountability have been, and are today, embedded principles and practices within SCRA,” Mahoney writes in a letter dated June 30. “They are ingrained in SCRA’s corporate DNA,… “

It should be noted that much of the information deleted from the Research Authority’s Wikipedia entry came from stories written by The Nerve. In fact, every Nerve article cited on SCRA’s Wikipedia page – a half dozen in all – was deleted by the anonymous user.

How big an audience does Wikipedia have? Pretty big. The site hosts 18 million volunteer-written and edited articles in 281 languages and receives 25,000 to 60,000 page requests per second, depending on the time of day, according to a recent profile on Jimmy Wales, founder of the site.

The Wikipedia entry for the Research Authority has been “cleansed” previously, as well. Beginning in April a user identified only as “Palmettotriumph” removed numerous facts unfavorable to the agency and added material that read more like a promotional brochure.

It wasn’t possible from the user’s name to determine if the changes were made by someone from within SCRA, but many of the changes made earlier this year were similar to those made this past week from an IP address registered to the Research Authority.

By the time “Palmettotriumph” was finished with the Research Authority page, every Nerve article about the agency had been removed, as well.

This isn’t the first time a Wikipedia site with ties to South Carolina government or politics has been whitewashed.

More recently, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s entry has been repeatedly cleansed of information that puts the Charleston Republican in a bad light, though it’s not readily apparent who’s doing the scouring.

Also, Morton Brilliant, a one-time aide to former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges, resigned from the campaign of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Cathy Cox in 2006 after it was alleged he’d altered the Wikipedia biography of Cox's Democratic opponent, then-Georgia Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, to include a mention of the arrest of Taylor's son on charges of drunken driving in a fatal accident.

Brilliant, who was spokesman and deputy chief of staff for Hodges, stepped down after an internal investigation confirmed the posting about Taylor on Wikipedia came from within Cox’s  campaign.

Apparently, the issue of “cleansing” Wikipedia pages has been gaining increasing attention lately. A recent article by the London newspaper The Independent discussed the question of whether a mysterious web user had been cleaning up Wikipedia entries for some high-profile entries with ties to the United Kingdom.

“… turning someone's entry into pure spin is unacceptable,” Mark Flanagan, a partner at the London political consultancy and PR agency Portland Communications Ltd., told the magazine PR Week.

“It is also vital to respect the rules of Wikipedia and make sure changes are submitted to the community for their approval," Flanagan added. "Wikipedia is often the top result in search and a key factor in someone's online reputation so I am not at all surprised this has become a hot issue.”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or at kevin@thenerve.org.

[caption id="attachment_1128" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Screen grab of image showing warning sent to Wikipedia user who "cleansed" SCRA's Wikipedia entry of negative information."][/caption]

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