In one of the largest hoaxes on the open-source platform, a Chinese woman posing as a scholar spent years writing alternative accounts of mediaeval Russian history on Chinese Wikipedia, conjuring imaginary states, battles, and aristocrats.
This article was based on the Original Article by Vice – Rachel CheungVICE
Last month, Chinese novelist Yifan discovered the scam while researching for a book and came across an article about the Kashin silver mine.
According to Wikipedia, the mine was discovered by Russian peasants in 1344 and employed more than 40,000 slaves and freedmen, providing a remarkable source of wealth for the Russian principality of Tver in the 14th and 15th centuries as well as subsequent regimes. The entry goes into great detail about the geological composition of the soil, the structure of the mine, and even the refining process.
Yifan believed he had discovered interesting material for a novel. He had no idea he’d stumbled across an entirely fictitious world created by a user known as Zhemao. It was one of 206 articles she wrote on Chinese Wikipedia in 2019, weaving facts into fiction in a complex scheme that went unnoticed for years and tested the limits of crowdsourced platforms’ ability to verify the information and thwart bad actors.
“Her content is of high quality, and the entries are interconnected, creating a system that can exist on its own,” veteran Chinese Wikipedian John Yip told VICE World News. “Zhemao invented a new way to undermine Wikipedia on his own.”
Yifan became suspicious after running the silver mine story by Russian speakers and fact-checking Zhemao’s references, only to discover that the pages or versions of the books she cited did not exist. People he consulted also pointed out her lengthy entries on ancient Slavic conflicts that could not be found in Russian historical records.
“They were so detailed that they put English and Russian Wikipedia to shame,” Yifan wrote on Zhihu, a Chinese site similar to Quora, where he shared his discovery last month, causing quite a stir. After a group of volunteer editors and other Wikipedians, including Yip, combed through her past contributions to nearly 300 articles, the scope of the scam became clear.
One of her longest pieces was nearly as long as “The Great Gatsby.” It detailed three Tartar uprisings in the 17th century that had a lasting impact on Russia, complete with a map she created, in the formal, authoritative tone of an encyclopaedia. In another post, she claimed to have obtained rare images of ancient coins from a Russian archaeological team.
One article she heavily altered dealt with the deportation of Chinese in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. It was so well-written that it was chosen as a featured article and translated into other languages, including English, Arabic, and Russian, causing havoc on other Wikipedia language editions.
Yip, one of the first users to interact with her, couldn’t believe it when he discovered how she’d duped the system. He, like many others, had previously been impressed by Zhemao’s knowledge of the obscure subject and her dedication, as she made edits almost every other day.
“Her entries appeared comprehensive, with proper citations, but some were made up, and others had page numbers that did not add up,” Yip said. For example, she frequently quoted from “History of Russia From Earliest Times,” a massive work in 29 volumes by well-known Russian historian Sergei M. Soloviev. However, the Chinese translation she cited was incorrect.
Editors typically assume writers are contributing in good faith, according to Yeh Youchia, a volunteer editor who fills the roles.
Yip, one of the first users to interact with her, couldn’t believe it when he discovered how she’d fooled the system. He had previously been impressed by Zhemao’s knowledge of the obscure topic and her dedication, as she made edits almost every other day, like many others.
Editors typically assume writers are contributing in good faith, according to Yeh Youchia, a volunteer editor who serves as a patroller and a rollback and helped to contain the fallout.
“When surveying new content, we only look for obvious plagiarism and proper attribution.” “She understood the Wikipedia format very well and provided sources that were extremely difficult to verify,” Yeh said.
Her invention is more than just the content.
Zhemao described herself as the daughter of a Chinese diplomat stationed in Russia who married a Russian man and listed her academic credentials on her user profile, including a doctorate in world history from Moscow State University, to give herself credibility. She recently added that she was a pacifist and attached a petition signed by her husband in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Though Zhemao feigned humility and expressed disgust with “online circle-jerking,” the investigation discovered that she controlled at least four sock puppets, which she used to create the appearance of support. “Please do not address me as boss; I am just an ordinary student,” Zhemao replied to one of them. She pretended to be a doctoral student in world history at Peking University who had studied in Russia and claimed to know Zhemao in real life, using another sock puppet. Though one account, Inquisitive Amateur, had been active since 2010, the investigation revealed that she only took control of it in 2019.
Zhemao’s convincing persona as a modest scholar won her the community’s trust.
“I thought she was a rare talent, as the site lacked writers knowledgeable in mediaeval Russia,” said Eric Liu, a history student who has been involved with Wikipedia since 2015. To thank her for her contributions, he gave her a Wikipedia barnstar earlier this year.
“I deeply regret not recognising her nonsense and even supporting her.” “It feels like I was complicit in her scheme,” Liu explained. The incident damaged the site’s dwindling credibility, and many users are now fearful of potential fraud, he added.
As a result, Zhemao and her affiliated accounts were permanently suspended. The majority of her articles were removed as a result of community consensus. Some Wikipedians even contacted experts for assistance in sorting the wheat from the chaff.
“Volunteers are continuing to review additional articles that may have been affected,” a Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson told VICE World News in an email.
“Vandalism or other negative behaviour on Wikipedia is to be expected, as it is with any open, online platform that anyone can contribute to.” “However, this type of behaviour on Wikipedia is not common,” they added.
So, who is Zhemao in real life? Last month, she apologised on her Wikipedia page. She is a housewife with a high school diploma who speaks neither English nor Russian.
The hoax began innocently enough. She couldn’t understand scholarly articles in their original language, so she pieced sentences together with a translation tool and filled in the blanks with her own imagination. “As the saying goes, in order to defend a lie, you must tell more lies,” she wrote. They quickly grew to tens of thousands of characters, which she was hesitant to delete.
The other accounts were imaginary friends she “cosplayed” with when she was bored and alone because her husband was away most of the time and she didn’t have any friends. She also apologised to actual Russian experts, whom she had attempted to befriend and then impersonated.
“Right now, I don’t have enough knowledge to make a living.” “In the future, I’ll learn a craft, work hard, and stop doing pointless things like this,” she added.