After 19-years the Exxon Valdez oil spill is back in the news thanks to a precedent-setting case by the US Supreme Court. That gives us an excellent opportunity to check what edits the Exxon Mobile Corporation has made to the Wikipedia entry about the spill.
That’s right, Wiki Scanner, a no frills Web site some genius hacker kid invented last year, makes it possible to learn who is editing Wikipedia entries.
So if you plug “Exxon Valdez oil spill” into Wiki Scanner you learn that someone using an IP address registered to Exxon Mobile Corp. in Houston made three of the 501 edits to this Wikipedia page.
Quick side note: Nothing in Wiki Scanner indicates Exxon’s PR team made these changes as part of an organized campaign. In fact, it’s unclear if an actual Exxon employee made the edits. Of course, circumstantial evidence, ahem, IP addresses, suggests otherwise.
Also, the entries are pretty raw on Wiki Scanner. For instance, there are double brackets surrounding certain words or terms. I think it has something to do with HTML code; I eliminated those brackets to make it an easier read.
Now, onto the edits, all three were made on December 29, 2004, between 9:38 pm and 10:22, from the same Exxon Mobile IP address.
Someone first added this paragraph to the Wikipedia entry on “Exxon Valdez oil spill”:
“The plaintiffs' attorneys in the still-pending suit have not hesitated to seek appeals and delays in this case when they believed it was to their advantage to do so. These attorneys, many of whom do not live in the state and have not made any contributions to the quality of life in Alaska, stand to make an enormous windfall off the Valdez accident if the punitive damage award is upheld.”
And then moved this sentence, which was already there, below the bit about those greedy lawyers: “In 1991, following the collapse of the local biology/marine population (particularly clams, herring, and seals) the Chugach Native American group went bankrupt.”
Don’t know what’s true or false here—it is Wikipedia after all—but pitting your company, which allegedly destroyed marine life and bankrupt an entire Native American group, against some money-grubbing lawyers is a fairly shrewd move.
The second edit came about 20 minutes later, when someone inserted the word “alleged” into the above sentence. It then read “… the alleged collapse of…”
Another 20 minutes later someone decided to change that paragraph altogether. It became: “Following a series of bad luck and poor investments, the Chugach Native Corporation went bankrupt, partially as a result of Exxon Valdez' impact on the local herring population.”
Is your head spinning? Well just wait, you have yet to read the coup de gras. The imaginative editor took this paragraph:
“The long-term effects of the oil spill have been studied. Thousands of animals perished immediately, the best estimates are: 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 orcas, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Though even as soon as a year later, one had to look carefully on most beaches to find any evidence of the spill. In the long term, declines have been observed in various marine populations, including stunted growth and indirect mortality increases in pink salmon populations. Sea otters and ducks also showed higher death rates years later, partly because they ate contaminated invertebrates. The animals also were exposed to oil when they dug up their prey in tainted soil.”
And turned it into this:
“Peer-reveiwed [sic] studies conducted by hundreds of scientists have confirmed that there has been no long-term severe impact to the Prince William Sound ecosystem. Thousands of species in Prince William Sound were never affected by the spill in the first place, or recovered quickly after the initial impact. As an example, six of the largest salmon harvests in history were recorded in the decade immediately following the spill.”
Don’t barf just yet, this Exxon IP address wasn’t done. He or she took this brief paragraph: “Researchers said some shoreline habitats, such as contaminated mussel beds, could take up to 30 years to recover.” And deleted it.
So there you go. Social media! Helping you delete history one Wikipedia entry at a time.
All of those entries were discovered and changed—if those changes are true is anyone’s guess.