False Prophets and Hallowed Halls
The Congressional Intern Secretly Vandalizing Wikipedia
‘I mean, I only edit Wikipedia from within the hallowed halls of Congress,’ she told The Daily Beast.
On Dec. 5, Kate Kohn fired up her computer in the U.S. Capitol for one last time and performed one of the only wildly popular, top-secret actions regularly performed in the halls of Congress: vandalizing a dead person’s Wikipedia page.
“Hi everyone, it’s the last day of my internship. I just wanted to thank you for laughing at, or otherwise enjoying, some of my edits. I’m writing this on the page of a personal hero of mine. Maybe i can be as badass a woman as she someday... well, after i graduate,” Kohn wrote.
“Thanks for this fun semester of shitty wiki edits! Have a Happy Hanukkah!!”
The Twitter bot @CongressEdits tracks every change made on Wikipedia from the U.S. Capitol building. Any edit made with a Capitol IP address is preserved with a screenshot and posted instantly, which has won it an avid following of 60,000 Beltway obsessives.
And one of those screenshots was Kohn’s farewell message, which she tacked onto the bottom of the entry for Olga Bancic, a Romanian communist who was executed by the Nazis for her antifascist activism.
Days later, Kohn, in a conversation with The Daily Beast, became the first member of what she says is a secret society of interns editing Wikipedia pages with political messages they know will reach some of the biggest names in Washington to out herself.
“It was all for the goof, but some people were really radicalized by the past election,” Kohn told The Daily Beast. “I won’t say I wasn’t one of them.”
Kohn, a 20-year-old American University student, spent the last few months interning for Rep. Brendan F. Boyle (D-PA), whom she called a “chill guy” and “an Irish-Catholic man who loves his district.”
Boyle’s communications director, Sean Tobin, told The Daily Beast that “her efforts, hard work ethic and enthusiasm are very much missed” around Boyle’s office.
Although Tobin may not have known, some of Kohn’s efforts included a wide range of Wikipedia edits that spanned from overt political statements to fixing genuine grammatical and factual errors in entries about quantum physics, video games and Korean pop stars.
She said she appended the entry for the word “Internship” with a plea to “please pay us.” Shortly after Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) became embroiled in sexual harassment allegations, “Retire Bitch” was added to The Al Franken Show page. In a span of three days, she said she swapped the wording on the page for the particles that make up dark matter to be more scientifically accurate, then separately added a detail about how one of the hosts of the left-wing Chapo Trap House podcast “got cucked on [another podcast] Lovett or Leave It.”
Kohn claims she was also responsible for an edit that made Tom Nook, a character in the Nintendo GameCube game Animal Crossing, “directly responsible for the rise of ISIS.”
(After this story published, Liz Drinkwater, a former intern for Seth Moulton, and Cliff Green, an intern for Jamie Raskin, claimed credit for that last edit. They didn’t provide proof, but Green quickly edited the Wikipedia entry for “Stolen Valor” to include Kohn’s name.)
CongressEdits’ screenshots of some of those edits received thousands of likes and retweets.
“The better received ones are culture things,” she said. “I think it’s probably comforting to some people to know that somebody in Congress has played as Snake.”
Snake is the main character from the video Metal Gear Solid, and Kohn’s addition of a comma to the game’s page was how she discovered how easy it was to accidentally join the ranks of Wikipedia vandals in Congress.
That comma, in fact, is when Kohn realized the enormous power she had on her laptop in the Capitol.
The tradition of terrorizing Wikipedia entries from government IP addresses is time honored and goes back as far as 2014, when Congressedits was viewed as a revolutionary tool for government transparency.
Normally, repeated trolling edits would lead to potentially permanent suspensions of the IP address from Wikipedia. But Capitol IPs are instead met with regular 10-day suspensions. (And while troll edits are quickly removed from Wikipedia entries, the troll edits made from Capitol IPs have already been screengrabbed and tweeted by @CongressEdits by the time they’re taken down.)
When bored congressional staffers edited the Wikipedia entry for Donald Rumsfeld to call him an “alien lizard” and to dub Lee Harvey Oswald a “Russian Puppet,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales misappropriated blame on Congress’ “IT staff,” rather than its interns.
“There is a belief from some of the [Wikipedia] community that it only provoked someone—some prankster there in the office—to have an audience now for the pranks, and actually encouraged them rather than discouraged them,” he said.
The Daily Beast was able to authenticate a screenshot provided by Kohn showing when she attempted to edit Wikipedia while the site’s IP address was temporarily banned.
Kohn did not take her trolling responsibility lightly.
“Someone apparently vandalized the stevia page,” she told a friend at the time of the 10-day ban. “Some scrub ruined it for all of us.”
Kohn believes CongressEdits was never really about tracking elected representatives subtly dropping hints about future legislation, or, as CongressEdits’ creator Ed Summers put it, to “provide more transparency about our democracies.“
CongressEdits was always about giving bored interns a way to be heard.
“People following this know it’s a bunch of interns fooling around. I mean, I only edit Wikipedia from within the hallowed halls of Congress,” said Kohn.
“It’s just a series of little acts of resistance that show there’s a younger generation of people coming into their own in a dire political time. They don’t have the reins yet, but it’s a reminder that a different, better time is coming.”
The day after Kohn left her internship, someone editing from the Capitol wrote on on the Bears Ears National Monument’s Wikipedia page that Kohn was a “false prophet,” and said: “I can assure you I am the one who has made all the best ones and I am still here, still editing.”
“Anyway,” the anonymous staffer wrote, “all sexual harassers in Congress should resign and we should leave public lands to the public.”
Update: This story has been updated with comment from Liz Drinkwater.