Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
February 13th, 2013


Lies in China

A well-read op-ed in this week’s Wikipedia Signpost lists off a number of well-known Wikipedia hoaxes over the years. One of these, about a supposed mayor of China, persisted on the site for years and became fodder for a Harvard admonition against using Wikipedia in academic research.

In 2008, during my internship at Microsoft, I heard through the grapevine about someone who wrote a Wikipedia article on himself, falsely claiming to be mayor of a city in China. Despite not knowing this hoaxer’s identity, it wasn’t difficult to come across the hoax. Few Chinese mayors had their own articles at the time, and this one didn’t read like a typical stub article. It was filled with personal details, non-résumé details, the kind of stuff editors grudgingly add after running out of ideas, just to round out an otherwise complete article. A quick Google search showed that there was a mayor, and it wasn’t the subject of the article.

So in the midst of an already productive night of editing, I flagged the article for deletion as a hoax and noted my concerns and evidence on the talk page.

The next morning, a total stranger stormed into my office, demanding that I take back my comments and publicly vouch for the article’s authenticity. He came prepared, pointing to a printout of my Wikipedia user page, then to a link to this blog, and finally to a comment my friend had recently left on this blog that hinted at my connection to Microsoft. He chided me for not properly maintaining my anonymity like he had.

Yeah, whatever. It’s not like I ever tried to hide my identity on Wikipedia. But who was this guy? For all I knew, someone interning in HR? I had never been challenged in real life about an action I took on Wikipedia. So I played along, feigning shock, and hammered out an agreement that he would take down the deletion notice himself and replace it with a source. My plan would be familiar with anyone fighting vandals or trolls: wait until they lose interest, then quietly wipe away every trace of their work.

In accordance with the agreement, an anonymous user soon removed the deletion notice and provided a link to a document that supposedly backed up the entire article. The page sat behind a paywall on a site like Newsbank or ProQuest, so an ordinary user wouldn’t be able to verify the source. I had a subscription through Stanford, but I’d have to wait until I returned to campus that fall.

That page has remained in my overflowing “to do” bookmarks folder ever since, a victim of my world famous procrastination. Meanwhile, the hoaxer apparently tipped off his alma mater’s writing center to the hoax and probably received fine accolades from the school library for his work. The article was finally deleted this past November, in response to Harvard’s guideline.

So no, you can’t trust Wikipedia for your academic research, because your classmates are perpetrating lies there, the bystanders are too lazy to act, and your school is chuckling hysterically.