A Chinese Wikipedia editor spent years writing fake Russian medieval history

Chinese Wikipedia had a solid collection of detailed and authoritative articles on Medieval Russia thanks to a user named Zhemao, who claimed to be the daughter of a diplomat stationed in the country. Zhemao has written 206 articles for the site since 2019, the longest according to Vice World Newsis almost as long as The Great Gatsby. It describes Tatar uprisings in 17th-century Russia and was supported by a map of the country during that period. In another article, the user shared rare images of ancient Russian coins said to come from archaeologists. The articles she contributed were so well written and viewed that it was revealed that she had pulled off one of the biggest hoaxes ever seen on the platform.

Chinese writer Yifan was the one who exposed the scam in a post on a site similar to Quora. Yifan stumbled across one of her articles describing a silver mine that provided a source of wealth for Russia in the 14th and 15th centuries while researching for a new book. The article was reportedly detailed enough to include information on the composition of the soil, the structure of the mine, and the silver’s refining processes. But when Yifan tried to check Zhemao’s references with Russian speakers, it turned out that the pages or versions of the books she cited didn’t even exist.

A group of volunteer editors then combed through her work and found that her citations were inaccurate or that she was fabricating information from legitimate sources that was too obscure for fact-checking by casual users. As a crowdsourced online encyclopedia, Wikipedia relies on its contributors to be self-regulating. In an article about its reliability, Wikipedia said it maintains an inclusion threshold of “verifiability, not truth.”

A volunteer editor who helped clean up articles Zhemao contributed to shared Vice News that they usually only check articles for obvious plagiarism and make sure they are properly cited. Because of this, vandalism is common on the site and its reputation as a legitimate source of knowledge is often questioned. Chinese Wikipedian John Yip narrated Vice that “Zhemao single-handedly invented a new way to subvert Wikipedia.” However, it’s worth noting that she’s far from the first person to pretend to be an expert on the site. In 2007, an editor claiming to be a college professor turned out to be a 24-year-old from Kentucky who did not have a college degree.

Zhemao has admitted to fabricating her entire identity and fabricating information in a post on her profile. She clarified that she does not live in Russia and that her husband is not Russian, but Chinese. She also did not, as claimed, have a doctorate in world history from Moscow State University, but is a housewife with a high school diploma. Vice said, based on her post, that she was frustrated because she couldn’t understand articles in Russian and English. She apparently used online translators to understand articles available online and then used her imagination to fill in the blanks.

Why she didn’t just write a novel set in medieval Russia — which could have been a hit, considering how Yifan and her colleagues praised her contributions for being thorough and well-written — isn’t entirely clear. However, Zhemao and her sock puppets had been permanently banned from the site, so she might end up looking for a new outlet for her writing.

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Russell Falcon

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