A “lonely” woman in China has been found making up fictional accounts of Russian history, writing over 200 articles on Wikipedia. She also contributed to hundreds of other articles in a period of 10 years, according to a report in Vice News. The woman goes by an alias “Zhemao”, the outlet further said in its report. The scam was exposed last month by Chinese novelist Yifan while researching for a book. Wikipedia editors launched an investigation after receiving complaints and banned the woman after finding that the charges against her were true.
The woman posed as a scholar and wrote alternative accounts of medieval Russian history, adding imaginary states and battles, said Vice News.
Yifan came across one such entry about on the Kashin silver mine. The Wikepedia entry had great details about the place – its year of discovery, the number of slaves it employed and that it provided a “remarkable source of wealth for the Russian principality of Tver in the 14th and 15th centuries as well as subsequent regimes.”
Fascinated by the details, the author tried to go deeper and found that something was off. He came across Russian-language versions of articles, in which there was no mention of battles in the said time period. Eventually, Yifan realised that there was no such thing as the “great silver mine of Kashin”, thereby uncovering one of the largest hoaxes in Wikipedia’s history.
“Chinese Wikipedia entries that are more detailed than English Wikipedia and even Russian Wikipedia are all over the place,” he wrote on Zhihu, a Quota-like platform in China. “Characters that don’t exist in the English-Russian Wiki appear in the Chinese Wiki, and these characters are mixed together with real historical figures so that there’s no telling the real from the fake. Even a lengthy Moscow-Tver war revolves around the non-existent Kashin silver mine,” he further said in the entry which stunned the online community.
Vice News said that “Zhemao” wrote 206 articles on the online encyclopedia since 2019. The outlet spoke to veteran Chinese Wikipedian John Yip who said, “Zhemao single-handedly invented a new way to undermine Wikipedia.”
He was among a group of volunteer editors who combed through the woman’s past contributions.
Sixth Tone, an English-language publication in China, said that Zhemao described herself in the now-deleted profile as the daughter of a diplomat stationed in Russia. The woman further claimed that she has a degree in Russian history, and became a Russian citizen after marrying a Russian.
Wikipedia published a page giving details about the fabricated articles and hoaxes on Russia. “The English Wikipedia was also affected by this incident. One of the articles was translated from Chinese into English, and then from English into Arabic, Russian and Romanian by other Wikipedians, and finally from Russian into Ukrainian. These contributions have resulted in far-reaching misinformation and cross-wiki damage across multiple Wikipedia language projects,”
The woman too published an apology letter on Wikipedia, saying that her intention was to learn about history. She also wrote that she is in fact a full-time housewife with only a high-school degree.
“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 nebulous things like this anymore,” she said in her apology letter.
“Zhemao” also said that alternative accounts were imaginary friends who she “fantasised about”, given her husband was away most of the time, leaving her empty and lonely.