Wikipedia Ethics, But First A Riddle: “How Is Wikipedia Like American Journalism?”

The answer is: Because its information seems accurate in inverse proportion to how much you know about the subject matter already.

A recent example from China: Yifan, a Chinese fantasy novelist, started browsing Chinese Wikipedia for inspiration for a new book. happening upon Russian medieval history, the writer learned about the great Kashin silver mine, originally owned by the Tver, an independent state from the 13th to 15th centuries, and then by the Grand Duchy of Moscow, until it closed down in the 18th century after the silver was all mined out. The Kashin silver mine, the articles revealed, were operated some 30,000 slaves and 10,000 freedmen at its peak. Wars and human drama surrounded its history, and Yifan felt this might be a fertile topic for a novel. After the Kashin information was as exhausted on Chinese Wikipedia as the silver was in the mine’s dying days, he turned to the Russian version of Wikipedia, but he was surprised to see that the Russian Wikipedia. Strangely, most of what he had read about the famous silver mine wasn’t there at all, and this was Russian history.

Intrigued, Yofan kept researching, and discovered that the Kashin silver mine never existed. The articles on Chinese Wikipedia about it were all fictitious entries, and they all were written by the same individual. There many other fictional articles by the writer as well. Yifan wrote about what he had discovered on Zhihu, a Chinese Quora-like Q&A platform. His account traveled around the globe like a Wuhan virus, and eventually caught the notice of Wiki Central, right here in the USA. It launched its own investigation.

The answer to the mystery turned out to be that a previously unknown Chinese woman, using fake credentials and operating several author accounts wrote several million words of fake Russian history comprising over 200 articles while contributing to hundreds more. Her assault on reality had been going on for over a decade. They were fascinating tales of fictional wars, conflicts, heroes, villains, tragedies and triumphs, all polluting what users thought was a factual reference resource.

“Zhemao,” which is one of her aliases on Wikipedia, had claimed to be the daughter of a diplomat stationed in Russia and to have a degree in Russian history. Now, busted and outed, she confessed to being a housewife with no more than a high school degree. She was bored, and wrote the phony articles for fun.

“The trouble I’ve caused is hard to make up for, so maybe a permanent ban is the only option,” she wrote. “My current knowledge is not enough to make a living, so in the future I will learn a craft, work honestly, and not do nebulous things like this anymore.”

The Netflix series “Clickbait” involves someone like this. (I know: I promised to hold a special Ethics Alarms Zoom session about that show, and never carried through.) The question the “Zhemao”episode naturally raises is, “How many people like her are there?” My guess is , “A lot.” I already know Wikipedia is nowhere near as reliable as people who rely on it think it is. When I’m checking on topics I am personally informed about, I encounter outright factual errors as often as not. My father discovered so many errors regarding the WWII battles and campaigns he was part of that he tried submitting corrections. They were rejected because of some rule that you can’t make entries about events you participated in.

He could have written an article about a fake battle, I suppose, since he wasn’t a combatant.


Pointer: Oddity Central

4 thoughts on “Wikipedia Ethics, But First A Riddle: “How Is Wikipedia Like American Journalism?”

  1. Historical fiction is certainly fun to read or even write, but don’t try to pass it off as fact. I could write you some very real-sounding stories about the exploits of the DKMS Tannenberg, the US rangers at Carrefours, or the 11th Division in the Lorraine Campaign, but none of it is real. The thing is there’s more history than there’s time to know, so it’s easy to play on that ignorance.

  2. My father discovered so many errors regarding the WWII battles and campaigns he was part of that he tried submitting corrections. They were rejected because of some rule that you can’t make entries about events you participated in.

    There are two principles involved, sourcing and conflict of interest.

    Wikipedia does not allow authors to perform “original research”; this means they can not glean new conclusions straight from primary sources. An eye witness to the event, such as your father, would be a primary source. This system is far from perfect, as the Daily Beast, Salon, and other repeat offenders are considered “reliable”, thus providing cover for much of the liberal bias on Wikipedia.

    The second issue is that participants have an an interest in portraying their side favorably; this is a conflict with portraying the issue factually. It is not an unsurmountable conflict, but submitting your own first hand information, without reference to a published source, is looked upon with suspicion. (This is, essentially, what occurred in China, a person claimed to be a diplomat and cited herself for her fictitious entries.) It is a real problem dealing with personal biases, even if the personal biases of other editors often resolve this conflict in a counter-factual manner.

    Had your father provided citations to established historical accounts of the various battles, it would absolutely be inappropriate to reject those edits. However, I’ve seen it often that people are unwilling to learn the rules of Wikipedia, and make edits without citation to sources other than themselves, and then complain that their unverifiable edits are rejected. There is a need to respect the Wikipedia process if one wants to participate. Stipulated, participation is often fraught when making edits that counter the prevailing ethos on the site.

    • But the objective is, one would think, getting it right. Thus a published reference that claimed a famous figure was left-handed when he was, in fact, right-handed, could not fix the error, despite being the ultimate authority on the matter. Thus people lie, make up credentials, etc….all leading to the kind of misinformation the China episode illustrates. Political campaigns routinely slant the Wiki entries about their principle, so obviously the conflicts system doesn’t work very well.

      • The goal is to have every fact or statement of analysis directly attributed to a source off Wikipedia.

        Knowing that the source for some information is a political campaign, for instance, should tip off the astute reader that information maybe (is) biased. (This of course requires readers to have critical thinking and reading skills). Certain biographical information is also allowed to be provided directly by an individual; it just has to be disclosed the source is the person himself.

        The Chinese incident is not necessarily representative of English or other language Wikipedia’s (Each language Wikipedia operates independently of the other languages). In China, the rotten culture dictates that you do not challenge stated facts. Millions of people probably read those articles, and recognized they were fiction, but wouldn’t dare edit them for fear of the gulag. The English language page doesn’t tolerate outright fiction, even though it largely parrots the liberal biases and fantasies of the mainstream media.

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