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The Biggest Hoaxes In Wikipedia's First Decade 219

jbrodkin writes "Wikipedia will celebrate its 10th birthday on Saturday, with founder Jimmy Wales having built the site from nothing to one of the most influential destinations on the Internet. Wikipedia's goal may be to compile the sum total of all human knowledge, but it's also, perhaps, the best tool in existence for perpetuating Internet hoaxes. Top hoaxes include a student who fooled the entire world's media with a fake obituary quote, Rush Limbaugh spouting inaccurate facts lifted from Wikipedia, the incorrect declaration of Sinbad's death, Stephen Colbert's African elephant prank, Hitler posters on the bedroom wall of a teenage Tony Blair, and several fake historical figures invented out of thin air. Wales has taken steps to head off vandalism including preventing unregistered editors from creating new pages and temporarily protecting controversial articles, but Wikipedia's very nature makes it susceptible to the hoaxes described in this story."
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The Biggest Hoaxes In Wikipedia's First Decade

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  • Founder Hoax (Score:5, Informative)

    by TaoPhoenix ( 980487 ) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:03PM (#34882008) Journal

    Let's try the hoax in the summary that Jimmy did it all. The correct answer is:

    The earliest known proposal for an online encyclopedia was made by Rick Gates in 1993,[1] but the concept of an open source web-based online encyclopedia was proposed a little later by Richard Stallman around 1999. Wikipedia was formally launched on 15 January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger using the concept and technology of a wiki pioneered by Ward Cunningham.

    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/History_of_wikipedia [wikimedia.org]

    • by thue ( 121682 )

      I don't think anybody would deny that other people had the same idea. But Jimmy Wales wins heavily on points for actually making it work (and for donating the initial resources!).

      • What happened to Larry Sanger so that he does not even get mentioned anymore?

        • by Surt ( 22457 )

          It's the same thing that happened to that other guy who made the discovery of 'Watson's Double Helix of DNA'.
          Eventually, history just decides that having more than one person be responsible for any given thing is too complicated for kids to remember.

          • It's the same thing that happened to that other guy who made the discovery of 'Watson's Double Helix of DNA'.
            Eventually, history just decides that having more than one person be responsible for any given thing is too complicated for kids to remember.

            Nice attempt at ... well, pulling something out of your rear end. People remember "Crick and Watson" - and probably always in that order - if they remember either of them at all.

          • Re:Jimmy Wins (Score:5, Informative)

            by Vainglorious Coward ( 267452 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:49PM (#34882648) Journal

            It's the same thing that happened to that other guy who made the discovery of 'Watson's Double Helix of DNA'

            I dunno, the pair of names "Watson and Crick" are often associated with the double helix; the real scandal is the lack of credit given to Rosalind Franklin [wikipedia.org].

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              The problem here is that Rosalind, at that time, was a technician. Though her x-ray techique was extraordinary, it's not a scandal but just a common problem with scientific credit attribution.
          • by spun ( 1352 )

            I think Francis Crick is far more well known than Sanger. In fact, wikipedia has a page for the phrase Watson and Crick [wikipedia.org], and if you type "Watson and" into Google, the first suggestion is "Watson and Crick."

            • by Surt ( 22457 )

              I'm just saying the trend is there, not that it has reached its culmination. History gradually reduces all events to accomplishments by one person. In a hundred years or so, it will take effort to find out that there was a person named Crick involved.

              • by spun ( 1352 )

                I doubt it, Watson and Crick are nice short names. Placed side by side, they have a nice sound to them. If it were something like Dubrovnik and Rutherford you might have a point, but I think we can remember "Watson and Crick."

          • It's the same thing that happened to that other guy who made the discovery of 'Watson's Double Helix of DNA'.
            Eventually, history just decides that having more than one person be responsible for any given thing is too complicated for kids to remember.

            What you're talking about is fame, not history. Watson may be the most famous (partially owing to his ill-advised comments regarding race and intelligence), but history does remember Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin. Just look at, what else, the wiki page.

            One could argue that history will somewhat balance out the fame situation, which seems unfair. Franklin, having died at 37, wasn't given much credit at the time and also didn't get a Nobel. She seems saintly compared to the other three, du

            • by Surt ( 22457 )

              I'm actually talking about history and what winds up in the history books. This may be about to undergo a sea change because the internet allows deep references to be maintained at low cost, but if it doesn't, there is a tendency for events to be simplified down the further in the past they are.

              History isn't what happened. It's a story about what happened, invariably significantly fictional. Humans simply aren't capable of absorbing enough information for it to be anything else.

        • Larry Sanger is obviously a hoax made to make Jimmy look bad. The man does not exist!

        • by thue ( 121682 )

          Larry Sanger was employed by Jimmy Wales, and has spend every waking moment dissing Wikipedia since he was kicked out of the project. So Jimmy was the main guy to my mind.

    • But since it's in Wikipedia, how do you know it's accurate?
    • Fair enough, but let's put that in perspective, too. First, Larry left Wikipedia after about one year. Second, after about three years, Larry's new project Citizendium has about 15,000 articles; at the same point in Wikipedia's lifecycle, it had about 200,000, and today it's up to about 3,500,000. (And then there's non-English material, but you get the point.) Citizendium has its benefits, but breadth of coverage is not one of them, and breadth of coverage (with generally-good-enough accuracy) is eviden
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I would contend that Wikipedia's biggest hoax of the decade hasn't been revealed yet.
      I know of several hoaxes that still exist on prominent pages.

      My son tells stories of the days he was in high school (2005-2006 or so), where they would have competitions to insert random "facts" into articles and see how long they would last. It was a game they played.

      He told me that he happened to go to school with a baseball player's son, and in July 2006, someone had inserted that "Johnny Bench is the only major league [wikipedia.org]

  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:05PM (#34882036) Homepage Journal

    ... to see a list of the top ten errors in Britannica (or any other respected paper encyclopedia) corrected in Wikipedia. I suspect that it wouldn't be hard to make at all; the only challenge would be choosing the ten best from a very long list. But of course that wouldn't play to the article's message.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Brett Buck ( 811747 )

      It's more than a message. The problem with Wikipedia has been discussed many times - it's not about getting the most accurate information, it's about getting the information from people who have a lot of time on their hands.

      Everybody says, "well if you see something incorrect, you can fix it". Well, true, and then someone else can "unfix" it,by claiming NPOV, original research, etc, or just by having the free time to undo it with no particular justification. It doesnt matter if someone

      • by Dishevel ( 1105119 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:29PM (#34882362)
        Pay no attention to how well overall Wikipedia actually works.
        • by Brett Buck ( 811747 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:36PM (#34882466)

          Problem is there is no way to know whether any particular page is a function of the "working" portion, or the bullshit portion.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            and how is this different from a published book again? (Absolutely anyone) can create a publishing house and print whatever the hell they want. The fact that wiki makes it much faster and easier for (Absolutely anyone) to publish information to a global audience does not make it any more or less useful or accurate.

            The fact that (Absolutely everyone) can review, edit, and contest, anything published on wikipedia makes it infinitely more useful.

          • On the contrary: just look at the size of the discussion page.
        • by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:44PM (#34882564) Journal

          Pay no attention to how well overall Wikipedia is erroneously perceived to actually work.

          FTFY. Wikipedia's over the hump. Its accuracy is irrelevant to its popularity and mindshare in the web info market. It would take a continuous train of grievous and gratuitous contrafactuality, plus the unlikely genesis of a viable alternative, to make it less popular. And after all, modern culture is always about popularity.

        • by tgd ( 2822 )

          Do you have any emprical data to prove how well Wikipedia works?

          I find it useful as a quick reference, but on subjects others would consider me an expert on (as explicitly different from areas I think I'd be an expert in), its rife with inaccuracies.

          With that as a filter (the gut sense of the accuracy of the stuff I do know about), I can reasonably look up information in areas I'm not, but anyone who uses it as a primary source (or uses anything in it as a verification of a source) is just nuts.

          • That has been my experience as well. Looking at pages I could (in other circumstances) contribute to as an expert certainly suggests a pretty significant error rate. Far or vastly higher than traditional written reference books. the primary difference - the written reference books were written by established experts and edited by competent editors. The big difference is that the up-front cost of publishing the book is so high that mistakes are exceedingly costly - either you have to correct it or it gets a

      • If you have a beef with an editor, you can resort to mediation or contacting an admin. If someone is engaging in a edit war to remove someone else's edits, their disruptive behavior should be reported so it will stop.

        In any case, established experts should not use their own expertise as the basis for making edits -- they need to cite reliable sources. After all, why simply take someone's word that information is correct? The so-called expert may be wrong!

      • by grumbel ( 592662 )

        It doesnt matter if someone is the established expert, as long as some weenie is sitting in his mom's basement and has a hard-on about some topic, he wins.

        While certainly annoying, one can always use the Talk page to point out where the article is wrong and why. If the claim has any merit, somebody else might pick it up and integrate it into the article sooner or later.

        The Encyclopedia Brittanica certainly has it's flaws but they generally seek out expertise, not bar it.

        The biggest flaw of an encyclopedia isn't really some lone error here and there, but not covering the topic you are looking up in the first place. Even in Wikipedia I consider lack of information a few bigger problem then the few errors.

    • by molo ( 94384 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:49PM (#34882646) Journal

      Wikipedia:Errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]

      It looks like about 50 errors were recorded.


  • If not, how long will it be before one is created to document Wikispoofs?
  • by tom17 ( 659054 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:13PM (#34882134) Homepage
    this [wikipedia.org] always made me chuckle...

    No, I don't think the act was funny or it should be joked about, before you start.
    • this [wikipedia.org] always made me chuckle...

      No, I don't think the act was funny or it should be joked about, before you start.

      Wait for it... Wait for it...

      Baaaahahahahahahahah. But, does it not fit in the "hoax" category since it is outlandishly false?

  • by orphiuchus ( 1146483 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:16PM (#34882176)

    The founder of Orange Julius did not invent a shower stall for pigeons

    Uhh, BULLSHIT. I spent the better part of my 50s grappling with the feather-matrix. -Harold Julius.

  • Bloomberg Businessweek has a great story about Wikipedia [businessweek.com].
    FTA: A 2005 study in the journal Nature found that in a sample of articles, there were an average of 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia. (Britannica objected to the Nature study, calling the methodology "fatally flawed.") Wikipedia, however, has problems Brittanica doesn't. An error corrected in Britannica stays corrected; in Wikipedia, it may not. (By the same token, rapidly changing events can be covered in pace by Wik
  • by orphiuchus ( 1146483 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:25PM (#34882298)
    I can't miss the opportunity to relate this little story: At my last command before I got out of the Marine Corps I was wasting time on Wikipedia one day and I decided to look up the new General who had taken command the week before, I was shocked to find out that he is in fact a "world renowned necromance, responsible for the de-vaginization of Ma Jaya", and that his death had been "fortold by Ma Jaya using the razor leaf technique". After I laughed until I had nearly pissed myself, I had to report it to our security manager as a possible threat against the general. Which was also hilarious.
    • by cptdondo ( 59460 )

      So was he a good officer or bad?

      Did he think it was hilarious, and relate it at Commander's Call, or did he try to find "the culprit" and make an ass of himself?

      • He is a very good general nearest I can tell, every time I've been to a meeting with him he seemed very competent, the only problem being that his meetings took a good 7-10 hours because of his attention to detail. He never mentioned the wikipedia thing that I heard, its possible that they just fixed it and didn't tell him.
    • Who on earth modded this "Troll'? I'm sure I'm not supposed to post about this, but WTF dude? Its a true story, its non-offensive, I'm not trying to get anyone riled up... so WTF?
  • by clyde_cadiddlehopper ( 1052112 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:30PM (#34882374)
    Every chemist knows that pure ethanol is odorless and every reputable reference book describes it that way. And yet the wikipedia article on ethanoI [wikipedia.org] to this day describes ethanol as having "a strong characteristic odor." I have tried to correct this obvious error but my edits are quickly reversed. Perhaps this is a small internet hoax that is being perpetuated so police can continue to attest that the "smell of alcohol" was on drunk drivers' breath? (That smell actually is from aldehydes and esters produced when ethanol is broken down in the liver.)
    • by Surt ( 22457 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:37PM (#34882480) Homepage Journal

      You should go argue in the discussion, which currently states:

      Distinctive odor of ethanol?

      As students we did class experiments on this. Statistically, the smeller could not distinguish between ethanol, methanol and isopropyl alcohol. Nor could they distinguish the breath smell of persons who had been given a glass of alcohol-free beer or ordinary alcoholic beer. The ketotic diabetic is often described as having the "odour of alcohol" (ketones). So from where the "distinctive odor"? Is there a reference? It seems to me to be a general sort of "alcohol-ish smell sensation", not distinctive of ethanol at all. --Seejyb 10:15, 30 July 2006 (UTC)

              what? no way. EtOH absolutely has a distinctive odor. maybe the students in your class were not accustomed to the specific odor of alcohol solvents but it is certainly different than isoprop. and MeOH. I often work with these three chemicals (and acetone) and the difference in odor between all of them is very VERY readily detectable. --Deglr6328 19:49, 10 September 2006 (UTC)

      agreed, isopropyl alcholol and ethanol are entirely different odors. Ethanol is a less pungent sweet odor where as a isopropyl (rubbing alcohol) has a much more prominent harsh pungent odor. Kyanite 06:18, 7 February 2007 (UTC)

    • by bunratty ( 545641 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:37PM (#34882484)
      Did you cite a reliable source when you made your edits?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Then why does this Material Safety Data Sheet for 200 proof ethanol state that it has an "alcohol odor"?

      http://www.deconlabs.com/msds/200%20Proof%20Ethanol.pdf [deconlabs.com]

    • It has a [citation needed] sign near that statement, so people are at least warned. Have you actually provided sources what was posted in the Discussion page?

    • uh... you're kidding, right?
      The jar of 99.9% ethanol from Merck that we had in the lab sure let out an odor when we opened it... The question is whether that smell is *distinctive* of ethanol.

  • In the German Wikipedia, someone added yet another name [bildblog.de] [link target in German] to the long list of names of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg [wikipedia.org], a German politician. Afterwards, some newspapers copied the changed name from Wikipedia (without giving the source). Then someone at Wikipedia reverted that change, only to get the revert reverted again, citing one of those newspapers as source.

    • Errors in sources is why it's a good idea to use multiple independent sources [wikipedia.org] when doing important research. This applies whether using Wikipedia or traditional written material. If everyone used one source of information, errors would simply be copied and copied again.
  • by kenrblan ( 1388237 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @04:40PM (#34882520)
    In fairness to Stephen Colbert on the African Elephant prank, the scientific data release a couple of months later did vindicate his claim that the elephant population had significantly increased. Oddly enough it created an element of truth for his concept of wikiality [wikipedia.org] true as well.
  • Counterpoint (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wjousts ( 1529427 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @05:06PM (#34882880)
    Couple of days ago I heard somebody on the radio make, what I thought, was a good point. The very fact that Wikipedia is well known to be [somewhat] unreliable had the positive effect of making people question all their sources, not just Wikipedia. If you get burned a couple of times while citing from Wikipedia, maybe you'll be a bit more careful overall with what you cite. It's an optimistic view to be sure, but I liked it.
  • This reminds me of the Great Webcomic quelling a few years back on wikipedia, where editors considered anything that wasn't in print form as "not notable" and thus deleted them almost without question, as such nearly all webcomics, except for perhaps Penny Arcade were deleted. As an experiment, Kris Straub made several fake accounts, and used all of them to lobby deletion requests on his own comics (Starslip, formerly Starsip Crisis) using entirely bogus information. The editors listened, and deleted his ow
  • Articles which celebrate Wikipedia hoaxes will only fan the flames, inspiring more insipid vandalism of Wikipedia. Messing stuff up is easy - even a baby knows how to mess up perfectly clean diapers. Creating a consistent, accurate and useful body of knowledge is hard. Having people actively tearing down something you're trying to build makes it doubly hard.
    • Ahh, but good hoaxes are like good street graffiti. They can be considered art, even if there are other social issues (such as not wanting them on YOUR building or YOUR webpage). Wikipedia is as much about our culture (ALL of ours) as it is about just raw knowledge.
  • At an old job, some of my coworkers made a wikipedia page about one of themselves, only they changed his past to be an industrialist from the late 1800s, complete with photoshopped images from his facebook, and a few citations from websites that they made themselves. This was all just a prank to see if it would last a week or so. It did, and they had their laugh, and forgot about it.

    Four months later...

    "Hey, remember that time we made a fake wikipage about so-and-so? Yeah that was hilarious! I wonder
  • Those hoaxes are just people have a bit of fun.

    It's not like the paper encyclopedia guys have never done it. Heck, there's a volume of an encyclopedia floating around that covers everything from Menage-Ottawa. Surely that wasn't accidental.

  • I've actually used Wikipedia for my own little hoax that I used to use in bars. I changed the wikipedia page for a Boy Band that a lot of people have heard of but not many are huge fans of (5ive, if you're wondering). I did this for two reasons, 1. No one knows the member's real names, and 2. not many people are going in to edit the page. Anyway, I put my name in as one of the members. I would talk to random people while out, and casually mention that I used to be in a boy band. I'd show the wikipedia page,

It seems that more and more mathematicians are using a new, high level language named "research student".