by Jar’edo Wens, Special Correspondent on Wikipedia hoaxes
The most viewed article on Wikipedia for the week ending 28 March was a short article about the passports of the tiny country of Bhutan. 1,771,673 page loads. The link to the article was widely shared on social media sites. Did the world develop a sudden interest in Bhutanese passports? No, the reason people were looking at that particular Wikipedia article was because the page included an audio file with what sounded like an auto-tuned racist caricature of an Asian accent reading the article text.
No Wikipedia admin had the sense to delete the audio file as the tasteless joke that it so clearly was. It was easy for people flooding in from Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere to overwhelm the “consensus” and have the file remain on the page. Several people argued that because the uploader of the file, KuchenZimjah, claimed to be from Bhutan, it could not be considered racist. It stayed until someone finally made a replacement and the original was deleted as unused.
As is typical in these cases, no one followed up or tried to learn anything from what had happened. KuchenZimjah was not blocked or even warned for uploading the file (in fact, several people thanked him for the joke). No one bothered to look at the other articles KuchenZimjah had created or the files he uploaded. Here’s what someone doing due diligence would have found without a great deal of effort.
KuchenZimjah’s previous Wikipedia hoax
KuchenZimjah had already demonstrated that they were not to be trusted. They had created an article about someone called “Maximums Edgar Snobbery” that was deleted on Wikipedia as a “blatant hoax”. The preserved article text shows that KuchenZimjah was a moderately talented but not very subtle hoaxer.
The Wikipedia admin who deleted that article knew that the image used in it was was bogus and asked for it to be deleted. It was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by a user named “Maxell Royaume” (almost certainly the same person as KuchenZimjah). Turns out that the image was a painting of someone named Francis Cresset, taken from Christie’s auction site.
The hoaxer’s fun with pictures
The only people more gullible than Wikipedia editors are Wikimedia Commons editors. On Commons, KuchenZimjah uploaded seven images. All of them were simply taken from various places on the internet. Low resolution images with the metadata stripped out should ring alarm bells on a project that claims to respect copyright, yet there is no mechanism to flag such uploads. Worse, the image can be added to Wikipedia articles or used elsewhere as soon as it is uploaded. One of the seven images, a copy of the Student Union of Bhutan’s logo, was deleted because it lacked appropriate permission. Of the other six, here are the sources.
|File:Chak Seelong, Myi Thaw Cafe, Rangoon.jpg
“Photograph of Chak Seelong, Myi Thaw Cafe, Rangoon. Also published on http://www.onourownpath.com/myanmar/an- … r/508/post, my website.” This image comes from the blog of an American couple who spent time in Asia (the url in the description). It is identified there as “Fried Chicken (Burmese: Jet Tha Jaw)”.KuchenZimjah also created the article Chak Seelong which includes that image.
|File:Dzok Trun Trun, at a Literacy Event, Thimphu, Bhutan.jpg
“Bhutanese author Dzok Trun Trun” This image comes from a 2011 article about a trip to Bhutan and is credited as “Photo By John W. Hyland Jr. / Hearst Newspapers”. The man in the picture is identified as “Sonam Peldon” who started Bhutan’s first ice cream shop.KuchenZimjah also created the article Dzok Trun Trun which includes that image.
File:JG Strijdom Shrubland & Field.png
“JG Strijdom Shrubland & Field, near Barkly West in South Africa”
That image is captured from Google’s street view of a field next to a highway in South Africa. It is listed in Google maps, but only because someone added it using Google Map Maker.
KuchenZimjah also created the article JG Strijdom Shrubland & Field which includes that image. Google Maps is used as a reference in the article, of course.
|File:Ngathrek Golop Lhakpa (Thimphu).jpg
“A photograph taken in Genye Gewog, Bhutan of Ngathrek Golop Lhakpa, a Bhutanese sweet dish.” This appears to be an actual Bhutanese dessert, but the image is taken from a web page showing how to make candyfloss cupcakes.KuchenZimjah also created the article Ngathrek Golop Lhakpa which includes that image.
|File:The front cover of Bhutanese passport.jpg
“Scanned cover of Bhutanese Passport” This image probably originated at a Vietnam travel assistance site where it was uploaded in 2012.KuchenZimjah also created the article Bhutanese passport which includes that image.
“Tselopka-Tselung, a Bhutanese floral spice powder made from an admixture of ground Allium carolinianum seeds and dried Buddleja forrestii plants.” A reverse image search on Google identifies a Nepalese blog as the likely source of this image. Although Google still has a cached copy of the image, it is gone from the page so it is not clear which of the dishes is pictured but none of them is the spice mixture described.KuchenZimjah also created the article Tselopka-Tselung which includes that image.
Assume good faith
Wikipedia operates on a principle of “assume good faith”. In other words, people will make mistakes because they aren’t familiar with the many Wikipedia rules but they are trying to help, so be nice to them. This principle certainly isn’t followed consistently, but if you were to accuse someone, for instance, of deliberately creating hoax articles you would probably be told to AGF (or “assume good faith”). Sometimes even the most obvious of trolls can persist for years on Wikipedia in part because people assume good faith and look past all indications to the contrary.
So when KuchenZimjah says on their user page that they are Bhutanese, Wikipedia editors assume good faith and believe them. When Wikipedia’s own newsletter The Signpostreported on the popularity of the spoken version of the Bhutanese passport they said it “has received significant social media attention because the reading, in what may be Bhutanese-accented English, is widely perceived as comic”. Even though their words signal that they know there’s something amiss, they assume good faith.
Anyone can edit
Anyone can edit Wikipedia. You don’t need to be an expert in a subject to edit an article. You don’t even need to know anything about it. And the same goes for your fellow editors. So if you add something that seems plausible, it will likely be left alone so long as you include a source. Don’t expect that anyone is ever going to actually look at that source to confirm that it says what you claim it says. Unless you edit an article with warring factions like politics, religion, or tree shaping. In that case, don’t expect anyone to assume good faith.
It is in this context that a hoaxer like KuchenZimjah flourishes. KuchenZimjah wasn’t terribly clever. They didn’t make their hoaxes very believable. They used images that were easily found. They used machine translation of existing articles (Martin Brauen came from the French Wikipedia and Högalidsspången came from the Swedish Wikipedia). They relied on the fact that Bhutan is a small country which most English speakers know very little about. Despite the fact that one of their hoaxes was quickly recognized for what it was, Wikipedia editors “assumed good faith” about their other contributions or simply didn’t bother to look closely at them. The person behind the KuchenZimjah account is probably still adding misinformation to Wikipedia articles and trying to create lasting hoaxes.
Many hoaxes have lasted for years before they were discovered and by that point they have made their way into other sources. How can Wikipedia expect to detect hoaxes when there are no recognized experts and no one checks that what is added is factual? The simple answer is that they can’t.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons (yeah, right.)
Editor’s note: all the images shown here were deleted from Wikimedia within 24 hours of the appearance of this blog article. However, we have retained versions of them which we are displaying under the Fair Use Doctrine, i.e., for the purposes of critical commentary.