A troll in the House as a gender battle erupts on Wikipedia

08/29/2014 4:31 PM

08/29/2014 6:58 PM

Congress might have taken a month off from its busy schedule of accomplishing nothing, but congressional staffers are still in Washington. And when the boss isn’t looking, workers often fool around online. Then it’s all fun and ice cream, at least until the trolls show up on Wikipedia.

Earlier this summer, some clever Wikipedia observers noticed that anonymous users with congressional IP addresses — the numbers that identify a computer’s network connection — were editing articles on the site. In order to create exposure, they launched a Twitter bot (@congressedits) that automatically sends a tweet whenever that happens.

A lot of the editing has been benign or boring. Some of it has been amusing, such as when someone waded into the pressing national debate about Choco Taco ice cream desserts.

And some has been disgusting, the product of one or more bigoted trolls lurking in the dark corners of the Capitol. Someone in the House of Representatives has a penchant for posting about transgender issues.

The editor’s work sparked a crescendo of Internet outrage when he or she changed the description of an actor on the page for the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black.” Before the edit, the page identified Laverne Cox, who plays a transgender inmate on the show, as “a real transgender woman.” The troll changed it to read, “a real man pretending to be a woman.”

For many heterosexual people, that might not seem inflammatory, but for the LGBT community, it was a direct slap in the face. It sought to overturn a person’s fundamental identity, cramming her into the gender preconceptions of a narrow mind. It didn’t help when the anonymous editor defended that view in a discussion thread about transphobia.

Anyone who ventures onto the Internet knows not to trust everything on Wikipedia. Nevertheless, Wikipedia remains a very useful and popular site, and to its credit, its users moderate each other. Wikipedia has temporarily banned anonymous edits from Congress for the third time this summer.

The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, wants House Speaker John Boehner to investigate, too, and to hold the anonymous editor accountable. Boehner should do so. This sort of activity reflects poorly on all of Congress. While it might seem impossible for Congress’ reputation to diminish any more in the eyes of the American people, anonymous bigotry from the House just might do it.

Yet the last thing Boehner should do is ban lawmakers and their staffs from engaging with the public on sites like Wikipedia.

Congress must transparently police its own when it comes to inappropriate Internet activity. American taxpayers do not pay congressional aides’ salaries so that they can spend their time waging culture wars online.

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