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Wikipedia’s New Year begins with a hoax

By Andreas Kolbe and Tippi Hadron

[To view or participate in a forum discussion on this topic, please click here.]

On New Year’s Day, The Daily Dot reported that a “massive Wikipedia hoax” had finally been exposed, after more than five years. Wikipedia’s article on the “Bicholim Conflict”, listed as a “Good Article” for the past half-decade, had turned out to be a complete invention, the key sources cited in it non-existent.

As The Daily Dot put it:

Up until a week ago, here is something you could have learned from Wikipedia:

From 1640 to 1641 the might of colonial Portugal clashed with India’s massive Maratha Empire in an undeclared war that would later be known as the Bicholim Conflict. Named after the northern Indian region where most of the fighting took place, the conflict ended with a peace treaty that would later help cement Goa as an independent Indian state.

Except none of this ever actually happened. The Bicholim Conflict is a figment of a creative Wikipedian’s imagination. It’s a huge, laborious, 4,500 word hoax. And it fooled Wikipedia editors for more than 5 years.

The Bicholim Conflict article was the creation of a Wikipedian known only as A-b-a-a-a-a-a-a-b-a. The user had succeeded in having his piece listed as a Good Article in 2007, a quality award given to no more than about 1 out of every 250 Wikipedia entries. Shortly after, he had even submitted his work for Featured Article status, Wikipedia’s highest quality award. That attempt failed – the reviewers’ opinion was that the entry relied too heavily on a small number of sources, and the review petered out.

However, the Featured Article reviewers did not spot that the key sources cited in the piece were entirely made up. Nor did they spot that the Maratha Empire did not exist in 1640: it only came into being several decades later.

A-b-a-a-a-a-a-a-b-a stopped editing after the failed review (at least under that user name). His creation then spent five uneventful years listed as a Good Article on Wikipedia.

Fast-forward to late December 2012, when the entry attracted the attention of Wikipedia user ShelfSkewed. ShelfSkewed later explained how he realised the meticulously detailed narrative was a hoax:

If anyone cares how I got into this, it was as a result of checking and correcting ISBNs from Category:Articles with invalid ISBNs. It was the purported Oxford University Press book that I singled out in my AfD nomination that set me off. I have never had any difficulty tracking down a book from that publisher, so I dug a little harder, expanded my search to the article’s other sources, and then started looking for any sources that would support the topic of the article. That’s how it happened.

ShelfSkewed nominated the article for deletion, and once the sourcing problems were pointed out to them, other volunteer editors promptly and unanimously agreed that it was a hoax and should be deleted. One of Wikipedia’s volunteer administrators removed the entry from view on 29 December 2012.

The Daily Dot’s report on 1 January 2013 was quickly picked up by other publications: PC WorldYahoo News, then The Daily MailUPI and TechCrunch. Over the first week of 2013, the story spread from publication to publication, from country to country, reaching all the way back to South Asia, where it was reported by the Times of India and the Indian Express, as well as Republika in Indonesia.

Wikipedia’s main response to date has been to block the User:A-b-a-a-a-a-a-a-b-a account – even though it has not edited in five years. But the underlying problem is that in Wikipedia, Good Article reviews are performed by an individual editor – who may be a professor or a schoolchild. The “Reviewing Good Articles” guideline states,

Ideally, a reviewer will have access to all of the source material, and sufficient expertise to verify that the article reflects the content of the sources; this ideal is not often attained.

There has been some lacklustre discussion among a few volunteer editors whether the reviewing guidelines should be changed, but it is unlikely: the Good Article review process has been notoriously backlogged for years, and there simply aren’t enough people willing to do this rather demanding work. As it is, Good Article nominations often languish for several months before a volunteer reviewer will attend to them.

Of course, as The Daily Dot pointed out, the deletion of the hoax from Wikipedia has not removed it from the Internet. As Wikipedia articles are widely mirrored on other websites, multiple copies of it still exist online: it is even available in book form, at a cost of $19.33.

Indeed, given the substantial media coverage the hoax has received, it seems likely that it will soon have its own Wikipedia page again, discussing its significance as an example of “wikiality” – and adding to the sum total of human knowledge.

Addendum: In the wake of this story, another prolific contributor of Good Articles and Featured Articles to Wikipedia has been indefinitely blocked for “damaging the integrity of the encyclopedia”. He had been accused of falsifying sources and fabricating quotations in articles on entertainers like Madonna. On his user page, he claimed authorship or significant contributions to 95 Good Articles and 7 Featured Articles in Wikipedia, most of them related to popular music.

Image credit: Image from the Illustrated London News 1845, found in Wikimedia Commons.

4 comments to Wikipedia’s New Year begins with a hoax

  • Delicious carbuncle

    People unfamiliar with how the Wikipedia sausages are made will assume that a “good article” has undergone some form of fact-checking, or at least a review of the sources used. This is often not the case. Much like the “did you know” teasers that appear on the front page of WP, many good articles are “reviewed” by colleagues of the article creator. Perhaps “stooges” would be a better word…

  • Volunteer Marek

    Even putting the friends/colleagues/stooges angle aside, in my experience most good article reviewers just check things like grammar, spelling, citation style and making damn sure you used dashes rather than hyphens (or other way around, I can’t remember) rather than whether or not the text corresponds to the actual sources used (assuming these exist). In many cases, they actually are incapable of checking the sources as these might be in languages they do not speak (the hoaxer should’ve fabricated Hindi language sources, not Oxford Univ ones). The smart/good ones will highlight “red flags” and press you on those, including asking for translations etc. But in many cases that doesn’t happen.

    Usually problems with misrepresenting sources are picked up only if there’s something controversial about a topic. THEN the article gets a lot of scrutiny during the process. Basically, the problem here is that there isn’t enough BATTLEGROUND on Wikipedia. Sort of.

  • […] specific subset of quite specialised science articles. As the world found in early 2013, when the Bicholim conflict hoax attracted global amusement, not even arcane topics are free from interference by […]

  • […] recent blog post on this site covered a multitude of documented cases, from a Wikipedia article on a wholly fictitious war that won a Wikipedia quality award (and retained it for five years) to the invention of a new name […]