Another hoax on the English Wikipedia was uncovered this week—not by any thorough investigation, but through the self-disclosure of an anonymous change made when the editors were in their sophomore year of college. The deliberate misinformation had been in the article for over five years with plenty of individuals noticing, but not one suspected its authenticity. This leads to one obvious question: how many more are there?
Amelia Bedelia is a fictional character used by children's book author Peggy Parish and her nephew Herman Parish, who stepped in to continue the series after the former's death in 1988. Bedelia is over 50 years old and is literal-minded to the extreme. According to publisher HarperCollins, "When she makes a sponge cake, she puts in real sponges. When she weeds the garden, she replants the weeds. And when she pitches a tent, she throws it into the woods!" The New York Times Book Reviewnoted that "No child can resist Amelia and her literal trips through the minefield of the English language—and no adult can fail to notice that she's usually right when she's wrong." Writer Cynthia Samuels continued:
Much as another beloved children's hero, Curious George (always in scrapes because of his curiosity), often saves the day because of his special monkey talents - so Amelia redeems herself through her special talent. She can cook. Just when things are at their darkest, or dustiest, or weediest, Amelia pulls out a little this and a pinch of that and comes up with the best meal in town. Like George, Amelia is forgiven because of her special gifts. Certainly a child could wish for no less.
However, Peggy Parish would likely be the first to tell her readers that her main character was not based on a maid in Cameroon.
Nor did she spend some "formative years" there.
Yet this is precisely what the Wikipedia article on Amelia Bedelia had said since January 2009: "Amelia Bedelia's character is based on a maid in Cameroon, where the author spent some time during her formative years. Her vast collection of hats, notorious for their extensive plumage, inspired Parish to write an assortment of tales based on her experiences in North Africa."
The hoax was only revealed when EJ Dickson, a journalist and one of the two original hoax editors, noticed a series of tweets including one from Jay Caspian Kang, an editor for the New Yorker, that highlighted the text Dickson wrote five years earlier. In her words, "It was total bullshit ... It was the kind of ridiculous, vaguely humorous prank stoned college students pull, without any expectation that anyone would ever take it seriously." Her co-editor Evan continued, "I feel like we sort of did it with the intention of seeing how fast it would take to get it taken down [by Wikipedia editors]".
Hoaxes have a lengthy history on Wikipedia. The longest-lasting hoax was a two-sentence, obscure biography of Gaius Flavius Antoninus, who was supposedly a Roman politician who helped assassinate Julius Caesar in 44BCE.
At least 23 known hoaxes have lasted for five to six years, including an article on an equally obscure alleged war between Portugal and the Maratha Empire of modern-day India. Wikipedia editor A-b-a-a-a-a-a-a-b-a, who is now indefinitely blocked, wrote that this "Bicholim conflict" took place in 1640–41 and the resulting peace treaty played a major role in Portugal's keeping control over Goa until the 1960s. At the time it was exposed as a hoax, the meticulously created article had held good article status for five years. It was over 4300 words long, and had about 150 citations.
Numerous hoaxes have existed for shorter amounts of time. Among the most colorful was another painstakingly detailed entry on the Upper Peninsula War. Boasting 23 references in its bibliography, this fake article chronicled a struggle between the United States, Canada, and nascent separatists in Michigan spawned from a disputed territorial line in the Upper Peninsula. It ended with the massacre of numerous Canadian troops (along with 80–120 civilians suspected of being Canadian co-conspirators), and the arrest and execution of Michigan's governor.
This fantastical story turned out to be a success story for Wikipedia: the hoax, despite the effort that had been put into it, was caught, nominated for deletion within a week of creation, and disposed of.
With this latest hoax revelation, how many more are out there? An op-ed published in the Signpost last year argued that studies show Wikipedia is very accurate and false information is near the level of statistical irrelevance. When hoaxes do occur, they "have reached great prominence, true, but they are small in number, and they can be caught." According to the author, "Wikipedia is generally fairly effective (if not perfect) at keeping its information clean and rid of errors."
Yet just by itself, the Bedelia hoax caused a number of others to be revealed in comment threads discussing the case, including false ghost stories and a new origin story for the corporate name Verizon. Dickson's article also referenced a prior hoax regarding the alleged inventor of S'mores; one of those claimed inventors even had their own biography article which was deleted last year, but not before being cited in a number of books. How many more remain hidden in plain sight?
Though not a defense, these problems of falling for false information are not new. John McIntrye, a copyeditor for the The Baltimore Sun and a noted critic of Wikipedia, also wrote about this latest hoax, and noted that those who were duped showed a "hardly novel" combination of laziness and gullibility, as demonstrated long ago by H.L. Mencken's 1917 Bathtub hoax.
Still, as EJ Dickson's article concluded, "I learned from my inadvertent Wikipedia hoax ... not that Wikipedia itself isn't reliable, but that ... many people believe it is." Numerous examples of Bedelia's alleged Cameroonian origins have been written about by scholars, bloggers, academics, and apparently even the current author of the series himself, who reportedly told a journalist in 2009 that the character was based on "a French colonial maid in Cameroon." The fact that these hoaxes are not caught for such a long time does not mean they cannot be caught—a discerning editor looking for questionable claims and lack of citations may spot them.
But the average reader using Wikipedia will likely not.
Swedish Wikipedia hits yet another milestone: The Swedish Wikipedia, which as of two weeks ago was the fourth-largest Wikipedia (behind the Dutch and German), is now the second-largest Wikipedia. In that timeframe, Swedish has grown by about 65,000 articles, compared to the German's 6,000 and the Dutch's 2,000—principally thanks to bot-created articles, a process that has proved controversial among Wikipedians.
New iOS app: Following the redesigned Wikipedia app for Android phones in June, the Wikimedia Foundation has now released a companion app for iOS, which has similar features including the ability to edit (for the first time) and saving pages for later offline viewing. Fast Company's story notes that the WMF is "really interested" in eventually raising funds through the app.
US Congress edits: Wikimedia DC has started a dialogue with staffers from the US Congress. According to DC president James Hare, "they are interested in exploring how they can contribute information in a manner consistent with Wikipedia policies and best practices."
University Challenge on Wikipedia: The well-known UK quiz show University Challenge featured a bonus round last week focusing on Wikipedia. The Wikimedia UK blog asks "how would you fare against the students of Jesus College, Oxford University who faced the questions?"
Royal Society of Chemistry: The UK Royal Society of Chemistry is calling for a six-month Wikipedian in residence "to join the Communications and Campaigns team and foster collaboration between our staff, members, Wikipedians, the research community and the general public, with the aim of better understanding and improving the usability of chemistry related content on Wikipedia."
Program intern: Wikimedia UK is recruiting a program intern that will assist in putting on gender gap events later this year.