Public servants and political staffers appear to have made tens of thousands of anonymous changes to Wikipedia that insult a world leader and a former prime minister, scrub embarrassing information and even claim the Holocaust was "justified".
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has ordered the heads of the Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Health, Agriculture and Parliamentary Services departments to urgently investigate possible breaches of government IT policy and report back in a week.
An analysis by Fairfax Media using the WikiWatchdog website – which tracks anonymous edits made to the online encyclopaedia and logs the internet protocol (IP) address the changes were made from – indicates 8790 pages have been anonymously altered by staff across major federal government departments over the past decade.
Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world, with 5.2 million pages in English that anyone can edit anonymously or after creating a username and password.
Free online look-up websites offer tools that can trace IP addresses to their source, which allow the anonymous Wikipedia edits to be linked to the specific IP address of a government department's computer network.
While the majority of the changes are innocuous, some have the potential to cause severe embarrassment to Canberra's mandarins and the Turnbull government.
One of the most concerning changes appears to have been made by someone on the Defence Department network in May – the Schutzstaffel (Nazi SS) Wikipedia page was edited to state the organisation was "justified" in killing Jews. The edit removed the word "genocide" and also reduced the number of Jews killed from 6 million to as few as 30.
Other serious examples include:
- A 2015 change made on the Defence network to the Zambar, Afghanistan page that stated: "In May 2002 the Australian SAS kicked some serious butt. Over 100 Taliban were killed in the action which was well supported by an AC130."
- Someone from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade editing the Hassan Rouhani page so it stated the Iranian President "is diagnosed with Acute Flatulence Disorder (AFD), causing him to constanty [sic] expel gasses and making it difficult for world leaders to be in his presence". Another edit stated he was born "to a family of pumpkin farmers", and that his surname meant "flatulent" or "farty".
- Someone from the Department of Health network editing the Tony Abbott page to state the former PM has "chimpanzee ears", is "dishonourable", that his maternal grandfather "died of shame", and that "Abbott has the dubious honour of being the most unworthy and grossly undeserving holder of the prime ministership in Australia's history".
- Department of Agriculture staff editing Barnaby Joyce's page to point out the Nationals leader "has crossed the floor on 28 occasions during his time in Parliament".
After being contacted by Fairfax Media about the apparent widespread editing, a spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said the "relevant departmental secretaries have been asked to investigate as a matter of urgency, and will report back within a week. If there has been a breach of IT policy it will be treated very seriously."
Staff on the Parliament House network have made hundreds of changes to dozens of politicians' pages, with many edits erasing unfavourable information that is factually accurate.
Trade Minister Steven Ciobo's page has been edited 43 times – more than any other MP – by someone on the Parliament House network.
On February 15, 2016, Mr Ciobo's page was changed to remove this sentence: "Prior to this appointment [as minister] he gained notoriety for implying that serving prime minister Julia Gillard's throat should be slit."
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann's page is the second most-edited page, though the changes are largely technical and relate to formatting and dates.
Other examples of political edits include:
- Someone on the Parliament House network editing the Wikipedia page of Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie to say she lived in Ballarat, and embarrassing references to her once claiming to live in Bendigo when she actually lived in Elwood were scrubbed.
- Someone on the same network scrubbing former MP Nickolas Varvaris' page to remove references to him being "best known for falling asleep and accidentally voting for Labor" and not living in his electorate.
Fairfax Media does not suggest these MPs have edited their own pages.
In November last year, someone working on the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet network edited the page of former deputy secretary Gordon de Brouwer – who now heads the Department of Environment and Energy – to remove a description of him as a "renowned climate change believer".
Dr de Brouwer's entry was also edited to delete a sentence that stated he "chaired the 2008 whole-of-government committee that devised the Rudd government's climate change policies, including the Energy Efficient Homes Package, which included the Energy Efficient Homes Package Home Insulation Program that resulted in the deaths of four insulation installers".
In 2007, Fairfax Media revealed staff in the prime minister's department had been editing Wikipedia to remove details damaging to the Howard government. It also revealed Defence staff were prolific Wikipedia editors. At the time, Defence said it would ban staff from the site, but that appears to have lapsed.