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By Gamaliel

Wikipedia plagiarism allegations leveled at another journalist

Fareed Zakaria

In July, Buzzfeed fired editor Benny Johnson after discovering more than 40 instances of plagiarism in his articles for the website, including many which took material from Wikipedia (see previous Signpost coverage). The plagiarism initially came to light due to two anonymous Twitter accounts – @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, and their WordPress blog, Our Bad Media. Now the anonymous duo has labeled a much bigger target as a plagiarist: the prominent American journalist and author Fareed Zakaria, whose résumé includes Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and CNN.

Back in 2012, a Zakaria article on gun control was found to have portions closely resembling a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. Zakaria was briefly suspended and an examination of his work was conducted by Time, CNN, and the Post, none of which publicly identified any further instances of plagiarism. On August 18, 2014, the Twitter duo listed on their blog 12 instances of what they alleged to be plagiarism in Zakaria's work for those three employers from 2011 to 2012, all of which predated the gun control article and thus would have been included in the 2012 review of his work. The examples range from close paraphrasing to word for word matches of sources including the New York Times, The Nation, Forbes, Vanity Fair, Businessweek, a report from the Center for American Progress, and Wikipedia. In a 2011 Time article called "The Debt Deal’s Failure", Zakaria wrote about US President Ronald Reagan:

Spending under Reagan averaged 22.4% of GDP, well above the 1971 – 2009 average of 20.6% ... The national debt tripled, from $712 billion in 1980 to $2 trillion in 1988.

In 2011, the Wikipedia article Reaganomics stated:

Spending during Reagan's two terms (FY 1981–88) averaged 22.4% GDP, well above the 20.6% GDP average from 1971 to 2009...the public debt rose from $712 billion in 1980 to $2,052 billion in 1988, a roughly three-fold increase.

In an email to Dylan Byers of Politico, Zakaria disputed the new charges of plagiarism:

Two anonymous bloggers today have alleged that there are 11 cases in my writing where I have cited a statistic that also appeared somewhere else. These are all facts, not someone else's writing or opinions or expressions. For example, in one column, I note that the national debt tripled under Ronald Reagan. The bloggers point out that this is also in Wikipedia's Reagan entry. But it is also in hundreds of other articles, studies, and reports – just Google the phrase. Until today, I had never read the Wikipedia entry for Ronald Reagan. As it happens, it is incorrect. (There is a difference between "public debt" – Wikipedia's words – and national debt.)

Zakaria writes that many of these examples are statistics he learned of from sources other than those from which he is alleged to have plagiarized. The 12th instance is a quote from Richard Holbrook that Zakaria writes he drew directly from Holbrook himself.

Fawaz Gerges

Politico reported that CNN, Time, and the Washington Post expressed satisfaction with the previous 2012 review of Zakaria's work, though a Time spokesperson said "We will be reviewing these new allegations carefully." Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt defended Zakaria in statements to numerous news outlets, including Talking Points Memo, which quoted him as saying "I honestly think it is reckless even to suggest this is plagiarism." Byers noted that "The accusations against Zakaria ... don't seem to be gaining nearly as much steam as those that brought down BuzzFeed editor Benny Johnson."

On August 20, Our Bad Media responded to Zakaria and Hiatt. The anonymous duo wrote "Just because another journalist’s phrases happen to include statistics does not mean they are free game for cribbing without attribution." Highlighting the alleged plagiarism from Wikipedia, they wrote:

Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article had the idea to take the spending under Reagan and compare it to spending from 1971 to 2009, and next, take the public debt in 1980 and compare it to the public debt in 1988. In that order. Zakaria's article presents the exact same idea in a very similar presentation. That's subtle, but nevertheless textbook, plagiarism.

Two days later, they followed that up with further allegations that passages in Zakaria's 2011 book The Post-American World 2.0 were plagiarized from the work of Professor Fawaz Gerges and journalist Karl E. Meyer. Zakaria's book does not cite Gerges, though Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, told Talking Points Memo that he has had a 13 year professional relationship with Zakaria and that "I feel delighted that he has borrowed heavily from my work."

Wikipedia and the US Congress

Transparency Time: Wikipedia Editing for Congress, featuring (left to right) John Maniscalco, Jim Harper (User:JimHarperDC), Jim Hayes (User:Slowking4), and Michelle Newby (User:HistoricMN44)

The Washington Post was among the media outlets that reported on an August 18 Cato Institute panel in the Rayburn House Office Building called Transparency Time: Wikipedia Editing for Congress, including two members of Cato who are active Wikipedia editors, Jim Harper (User:JimHarperDC) and Michelle Newby (User:HistoricMN44), and Jim Hayes (User:Slowking4), from the Wikimedia DC Public Policy Committee. The panel urged Congressional staffers to create and edit Wikipedia articles on pending bills in the US Congress as a means to "deliver government transparency on a grand scale". Vice responded by pleading "Let's please not encourage congress to actively edit Wikipedia", pointing to previous incidents where Congressional staffers removed potentially scandalous information from Wikipedia articles.

While the Cato panel encouraged Congressional staffers to edit Wikipedia in a positive way, Wikipedia vandalism originating from the US House of Representatives made news again. User:, an IP address assigned to the House, made headlines in July when a series of edits, mostly focused on conspiracy theories but also on more mundane topics like the Choco Taco, were noticed by the media after they were tweeted by the Twitter bot CongressEdits. The address was blocked for ten days for disruptive editing, leading to more headlines about the blocking (see previous Signpost coverage).

In August, more edits from that IP address prompted coverage in Mediaite, Ars Technica, Business Insider, The Hill and other media outlets. A series of transphobic edits and comments, including an edit to the article for the television show Orange is the New Black calling transgender actress Laverne Cox a "man pretending to be a woman", prompted a one-month block by User:Fran Rogers.

Outraged editors called for a permanent block on the IP address, while the IP editor shot back "Blocked because I disagreed with the trans-lobby? These days, If I complain about a man using the womyn's restroom then I'm cosidered [sic] transphobic...This has been happening a lot lately here in the halls of Congerss [sic] ... People need to understand that transgenderism is being promoted by the Patriarchy to diminish the experiences of real womyn." The Hill reports that the Human Rights Campaign has asked House Speaker John Boehner to investigate and identify the user responsible for the Wikipedia edits.

People and their Wikipedia articles


During an August 29 interview with Yahoo! TV, American actress Kristen Connolly (House of Cards, Houdini) complained about a long-standing, inaccurate, unsourced claim in her Wikipedia article that she was a former professional tennis player. She said: "I'm not even a good tennis player, let alone a former professional one. And I don't know how to take it off, because it's very hard to change a Wikipedia entry ... they won't let you change your own." The claim was inserted into the article in June 2012 in the first and only edit of a new account and it appears to have remained in the article until shortly after the publication of the interview. An editor added a citation needed tag in December 2012, but the tag was removed by an IP editor in February 2013.

Pitchfork and other music websites reported on an August 17 Tumblr post by the Canadian musician Claire Elise Boucher, who performs under the stage name Grimes. Grimes complained about a quote in her Wikipedia article taken from a 2012 interview with CMJ. Describing the creation of her 2012 album Visions, she told the interviewer "I blacked out the windows and did tons of amphetamines and stayed up for three weeks and didn't eat anything." The quote appears to have been first added to the article in October 2013, and has been removed and re-added by different editors several times since then.

Grimes objected to the inclusion of her quote because she has lost people to drugs and alcohol, and fears the statement conveys a pro-drug message. She wrote: "Editing a website that people take seriously and reference all the time so that it looks like i think amphetamines are cool is incredibly irresponsible, people might read that and think its a cool thing to emulate. I hope you know you are doing the world a disservice."

On August 15, the Washington City Paper suggested that User:Evansjack1 is Washington DC councilman Jack Evans. The user of the account, which has only edited the Evans article and various talk pages, has referred to himself as Evans, including an edit summary which complained "I have been on the city council for 23 years. I am the longest serving Council member in dc history. I have been a leader in revitalizing our city and have great accomplishment [sic], none of which are mentioned. Just a lot of inaccurate accusations." The account also posted Evans' real phone number in a comment to another editor and requested that editor call Evans.

However, according to Washington City Paper, Evans' spokesperson refuses to confirm or deny that the account belongs to Evans himself. The account is less than a month old and has already been blocked twice for edit warring while attempting to remove sections of the article unfavorable to Evans, including material about a 2013 Office of Campaign Finance probe, political action committee spending, conflicts with a journalist, and his vote against a censure of former DC mayor Marion Barry. The account continued to edit the article and its talk page after the publication of the story.

Channel 4 News reports (August 13) on an edit war from July 2013 at the Wikipedia article for Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist who has been called a "master of the dark political arts", "the Australian Karl Rove", and "one of the most powerful and influential figures in the nation". IP addresses belonging to the Crosby Textor Group, a consultancy firm co-founded by Crosby, removed material involving Crosby's political tactics, a political controversy involving cigarette packaging, and a call from an MP to sack Crosby. The edit war was continued by a number of accounts that were permanently blocked following a sockpuppet investigation.

Crowdsourcing pre-teen aircraft construction

Daniel Levitin

On August 27, neuroscientist and author Daniel Levitin, a professor at McGill University, was interviewed about his 2014 book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload on WBEZ. Levitin was asked about an analogy in his book where he compared Wikipedia to a group of children attempting to build a plane via crowdsourcing. Levitin replied:

Well, to begin with, Wikipedia has done amazing things. It has become the de facto information source for most of us and it's changed the world dramatically for the better in that research that used to take anywhere from minutes to months and phone calls and trips to libraries or far-flung archives, all of that is now available in a second. The problem is that the Wikipedia model, as it was stated by its founders, is that they don't consider that expertise exists, effectively. Anybody can edit. And an expert has no greater standing on Wikipedia than a non-expert. So, the problem is for any given entry, an 11-year-old can go in and change it, and it could be about something really important, like aircraft design, or a particular medication. I know that formulas that some engineers use have been defaced and it took a couple of weeks for them to be fixed. Now Wikipedia says, "sooner or later, somebody will set it right," but that's not always true. The idea is the 11-year old, maybe not maliciously, but just because he or she has an imperfect understanding of something, they may change the article to reflect their non-expert understanding. Eventually, an expert might come along and fix it, but if the 11-year-old is relentless enough with the edit key, the 11-year-old is going to win the battle of attrition because the expert will just give up, the expert's got more important things to do. So, the problem with Wikipedia is that the information can be quite unreliable, and there's no way for the average user to know. You don't know by looking at it whether you're reading an entry from an expert or a non-expert.

Jimmy Wales responded to Levitin's comments on his user talk page "I will try to contact Prof. Levitin to correct his misunderstanding. It is simply not true that I believe that expertise does not exist. And it is obvious that in Wikipedia that the model he describes of the editing process is wrong."

In brief

J. R. Smith
Altgeld Hall and Still Hall at Northern Illinois University
Nitish Kumar
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Seeing myself quoted in the story on the Lynton Crosby was a bit scary, though the story was generally accurate (I don't think that it's accurate to say that "entire Crosby Textor computer networks" were blocked though, and when commenting on and subsequently blocking accounts involved in this matter I was at pains to stress that the conflict of interest was apparent given that I had, and have, no way of confirming whether or not it actually was linked to the firm). The journalist did a pretty solid job of digging through article histories, talk page histories and the SPI report when compiling the story - it's a very Wikipedia-literate piece. Nick-D (talk) 10:51, 31 August 2014 (UTC)[reply]

Journalists often make overly broad or outright incorrect claims about blocks, even in otherwise good articles about Wikipedia. In shorter pieces I just ignore those claims, sometimes I try to correct journalistic misconceptions in longer ones. Gamaliel (talk) 18:25, 31 August 2014 (UTC)[reply]

Since womyn is an actual word, are we sure the [sic] is warranted? Nikkimaria (talk) 14:51, 31 August 2014 (UTC)[reply]

  • I removed it, but I don't think it will last --Guerillero | My Talk 17:05, 31 August 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • The purpose of "sic" is to point out that the word was really the one used - it does not distinguish between unusual words, unusual usage and typographical errors. However on Wikipedia we often have the option of using a link, as Nikkimaria did, which indicates an unusual, but correctly spelled word. All the best: Rich Farmbrough17:16, 31 August 2014 (UTC).
  • My intent was to highlight the editor's obviously sarcastic use of the word, but it's now clear that it seemed I was implying it was not an actual word. Rich has the right idea, and I see someone's already implemented it. Gamaliel (talk) 18:25, 31 August 2014 (UTC)[reply]
    • It is not possible (in an inversion of Poe's law) to presume that the editor was being sarcastic. There exists within the feminist movement some rejection of transgender people - to the extent that a term has been created to describe certain people holding these views, and of course a controversy over the use of the term. See Radical feminism#Radical feminism and transgenderism. All the best: Rich Farmbrough02:33, 1 September 2014 (UTC).
  • Plagarism Appendix E: Historical Budget Data (PDF). p. 143. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help) - the cited source, in table E11, Deficits, Surpluses, Debt, and Related Series, 1971 to 2010, refers to "Debt held by the public." There are many ways of counting governmental debt, for different purposes (and not just depending whether you are in government or not!) - but "debt held by the public" is defined by the US treasury as all federal debt held by individuals, corporations, state or local governments, Federal Reserve Banks, foreign governments, and other entities outside the United States Government less Federal Financing Bank securities. - equivalent to most definitions of "public debt" The only other top-level government debt figures I am aware of are internal and external debt, and total debt or "total public debt", which includes intra-governmental debt - this is sometimes known as "national debt" (See for example Economicshelo.or). Therefore Zakaria would appear to be wrong, both in his original article, and certainly in his criticism of Wikipedia. All the best: Rich Farmbrough17:10, 31 August 2014 (UTC).


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