PR Fail

07.14.14

@CongressEdits Helps You Track Your Congressman’s Vanity in Real Time

A new Twitter account monitors changes to Wikipedia pages made from congressional computers—and its creator has made the coding that powers its bot public.

Hey, Congress, your Wikipedia edits are showing.

That’s all due to @CongressEdits, a new Twitter account that tweets out changes to Wikipedia pages made from congressional computers. A bot monitors IP addresses associated with Congress and notifies the account’s 11,000 followers when an edit has been made.

And since Ed Summers created @CongressEdits earlier this month and made its coding public, similar bots have been launched for the German legislature, South African parliament, scientific institutions in Berlin, the North Carolina legislature, and PhRMA member organizations.

“There is an incredible yearning in this country and around the world for using technology to provide more transparency about our democracies,” Summers writes in a blog post explaining why he took the time to code the bot. (Summers, who writes on his website that he works for the Library of Congress, declined an interview request.)

At a time when politicians operate under a regime of strict public relations management and there’s often a wall between what a politician believes and what he or she is ready to say to the public, the interest in @CongressEdits indicates a hunger for transparency, writes Summers.

“[B]y and large people on Twitter have been encouraging, supportive and above all interested in what their elected representatives are doing,” he writes. “Despite historically low approval ratings for Congress, people still care deeply about our democracies, our principles and dreams of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

“I created @congressedits because I hoped it could engender more, better ideas and tools like it.”

So far, the bot has turned up few scandalous results. The president’s encounter with a man wearing a horse head mask was added to the horse head mask Wikipedia page. Rep. Justin Amash’s history was changed to reflect that he was an “attorney” rather than a “corporate lawyer” before entering politics. And Rep. Blake Farenthold made it onto the list of “notable people” from Corpus Christi, Texas.

But Summers insists he’s not trying to play the gotcha game with public officials.

“[M]y hope for @congressedits wasn’t to expose inanity, or belittle our elected officials,” he writes. “I created @congressedits because I hoped it could engender more, better ideas and tools like it.”

@CongressEdits joins another tech innovation that monitors the behind-the-scenes political public relations game, the Sunlight Foundation’s Politwoops archive, which tracks tweets deleted by American politicians.

Still, the new Twitter account’s usefulness is likely to diminish over time. One imagines that congressional staff will catch on and just make edits from the nearest Starbucks—leaving @CongressEdits to track only the edits by congressional interns who don’t know better.