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Woman Writes Fake Russian History On Wikipedia For Over A Decade Before Being Caught

It may be the biggest hoax in Wikipedia's history.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockJun 29 2022, 16:19 UTC
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An author stumbled across a wikipedia entry for a war fought over the Kashen silver mine. There's just one problem: It never existed at all. Image credit: dennizn/shutterstock.com

Here's one of the strangest Wikipedia edit stories of recent times: Someone has been editing the Russian history section of the Chinese language Wikipedia, inserting entirely fictional events and historical figures over the course of a whole decade.

As fun as it is to joke about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone is actually pretty accurate most of the time (99.5 percent accurate on the topic of drugs, according to one study). Even if you don't trust a particular claim, you can apply your own research by following the citations, or apply your own skepticism when you see the old "citation needed" mark. 

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Zhihu user Yifan is a fantasy novelist who headed to Wikipedia for a little historical inspiration while writing a novel. He found an entry about the Kashen Silver Mine, which operated with 40,000 workers, which he thought to be a gold mine of research for his book. 

"After discovering this information," he wrote on Zhihu, "I had a good eye to show it to a group of friends, and then I found the problem". 

The Kashen Silver Mine, his friends informed him after a little research, did not exist. Investigating the user who created the page, they soon discovered that the Chinese language versions of Russian history entries that she had edited tended to be a lot longer and more detailed than their Russian language counterparts. This, it would soon be explained, would be because she had invented a lot of the details, events, and people herself. 

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"There are characters that do not exist in the English-Russian Wiki directly on the Chinese Wiki, and these characters are even inserted into historical figures to achieve authenticity," Yifan wrote. These included "a lengthy Moscow-Tver war over the non-existent Kashin Silver Mine."

The pages – now deleted, along with the editor's accounts – were as detailed as they were fictional. Zhemao, as she is known, used multiple accounts to create these false entries, or add false detail to real ones, sometimes to add authenticity to her false entries. The edits went on for over a decade, since at least January 17, 2010.

"At present, the community has verified that User : The studious rookie began to falsify the history of the Qing Dynasty and modern Russian history in 2010," an investigation into the hoax by Wikipedia says. "It seems that [s]he began to falsify the history of the Russian Empire in 2015."

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Though there has been a concerted effort by Wikipedia editors to clean up the mess left by the hoax, they fear that the false information has spread to other entries beyond the 200 created or edited by Zhemao. She claims to be a full-time housewife who began translating work from Russian to Chinese, before filling in gaps she couldn't translate with things she had "blindly" made up. Zhemao cited non-existent books, and page numbers from real books that did not back up her claims.

"As the saying goes, in order to tell a lie, you must tell more lies. I was reluctant to delete the hundreds of thousands of words I wrote, but as a result, I wound up losing millions of words, and a circle of academic friends collapsed," Zhemao wrote in English in an apology letter to Wikipedia. 

"Responding to motivation and details: The main motivation is to really want to learn, so to learn from other people," she wrote., also admitting to pretending to be Taiwanese online.

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

Zhemao added that she would not try to cheat the ban using VPNs. She stated that "I am about to give birth, and my family is under great financial pressure," making editing Wikipedia with other made-up details an impossibility in terms of time management.


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