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The 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia's first 10 years

The 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia's first 10 years

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. Let's take a look at the 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia's history. (Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments).

IN DEPTH: Wikipedia celebrates a decade of edit wars, controversy and Internet dominance

IN PICTURES: Web sites for the apocalypse

The Essjay controversy

This one's so big it has its own Wikipedia page. In February 2007 a Wikipedia administrator who went by the name Essjay "was found to have made false claims about his academic qualifications and professional experiences on his Wikipedia user page and to journalist Stacy Schiff during an interview for The New Yorker, and to have exploited his supposed qualifications as leverage in internal disputes over Wikipedia content." Essjay had been contributing to Wikipedia since 2005, claiming that he "teaches graduate theology, with doctorates in Theology and Canon Law." He also gained a job with Wikipedia sister company Wikia. "Jimmy Wales proposed a credential verification system on Wikipedia following the Essjay controversy, but the proposal was rejected," according to the Wikipedia article.

Edward Owens

Another hoax worthy of its own Wikipedia page, "Edward Owens" was a "fictional character, part of a historical hoax created by students at George Mason University on Dec. 3, 2008 as a project in a class dealing with historical hoaxes called "Lying About the Past." One tactic was creating a Wikipedia article about Owens, "who supposedly lived from 1852 to 1938 in Virginia ... fell on hard times during the Long Depression that began in 1873 and took up pirating in Chesapeake Bay to survive the economic downturn." After media outlets including USA Today were fooled, the class professor decided in December 2008 to reveal the hoax.

Stephen Colbert inflates the population of African elephants

Oh, Stephen Colbert. What would we do without you? Colbert's brilliant media satire show, the Colbert Report, took on Wikipedia in July 2006, urging viewers to edit the encyclopedia to indicate that the population of African elephants had tripled in the previous six months. Known for inventing the word "truthiness," Colbert also gave us "wikiality," the concept that "together we can create a reality that we all agree on — the reality we just agreed on."

Sinbad dead? No, that was just his career ... hey-ohh!

This bit of wiki-vandalism brought Wikipedia down (or up?) to the level of newspapers, which have been known for publishing quite a few premature obituaries. In this case, Wikipedia falsely reported the death of the 50-year-old Sinbad, who even received a telephone call from his daughter and calls, texts and e-mails from hundreds of others after the hoax spread. The Sinbad Wikipedia page was temporarily protected from editing to prevent further vandalism. But numerous others have been falsely listed as dead on Wikipedia, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (months before his actual death), Miley Cyrus, Sergey Brin and Paul Reiser.

Wikipedia biography controversy, or "the Seigenthaler incident"

In May 2005 a Wikipedia editor created a hoax article declaring that 78-year-old American journalist John Seigenthaler "had been a suspect in the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy," and it went uncorrected for more than four months. Seigenthaler ultimately wrote about the incident in a USA Today column. Afterward, Wales "stated that the encyclopedia had barred unregistered users from creating new content," the Wikipedia page on the controversy states. But unregistered users can still edit existing articles.

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

Jeopardy champion and all-around smart guy Ken Jennings apparently discovered this one, blogging in May 2010 about how the Wikipedia article on Orange Julius namesake Julius Freed was "full of all kinds of crazy trivia, like the fact that he invented a shower stall for pigeons." What Jennings calls "the funniest development on this story" is that "Dairy Queen, which now owns Orange Julius, inadvertently used the hoax material as the basis for a 2007 ad campaign!" This was one of the more successful Wikipedia hoaxes, judging by the amount of time it remained on the site, having stayed up there for five years. "How many hundreds (thousands?) of other articles like this are sitting out in the Wiki-ether right now, wreaking havoc and just waiting to be debunked?" Jennings wonders.

College student fools the whole world's media

If you're a journalist, Wikipedia is a great initial source of information. But you should always use primary sources to verify that what Wikipedia says is true before actually running with it (unless you're writing a cheesy top 10 list story like this one). But one student's experiment in 2009 showed that media members are apparently allergic to fact-checking when it comes to lifting material from Wikipedia. A Dublin University student named Shane Fitzgerald inserted a fabricated quote into the Wikipedia article about recently deceased composer Maurice Jarre. The quote wasn't damaging to Jarre himself - it read "One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear." But it was damaging to the credibility of newspapers such as The Guardian, which were fooled into using the quote in obituaries. No one even noticed the hoax until Fitzgerald himself reported it a month later, and said he was "shocked at the results" of his own experiment.

Rush Limbaugh turns out to be just as incompetent as the rest of the media

Last year, Limbaugh spent a while talking about Roger Vinson, a federal judge involved in a legal challenge to the new healthcare law. According to The New York Times, "The conservative radio host informed his listeners that the judge was an avid hunter and amateur taxidermist who once killed three brown bears and mounted their heads over his courtroom door to 'instill the fear of God into the accused.' ... But, in fact, Judge Vinson has never shot anything other than a water moccasin (last Saturday, at his weekend cabin), is not a taxidermist and, as president of the American Camellia Society, is far more familiar with Camellia reticulata than with Ursus arctos." It was all because Rush (or his staffers) read hoax material on a Wikipedia page and repeated it as fact. Limbaugh's staff claimed they found the information in a Pensacola News Journal article, but no such article existed.

Actually, maybe this is how we know Rush Limbaugh is a real journalist. He trusts Wikipedia.

Henryk Batuta hoax

Another hoax worthy of its own Wikipedia page, this one was "perpetrated on the Polish Wikipedia from November 2004 to February 2006," and concerned "an article about Henryk Batuta (born Izaak Apfelbaum), a fictional socialist revolutionary and Polish Communist. The fake biography said Batuta was born in Odessa in 1898, participated in the Russian Civil War", and that "a street in Warsaw was named 'Henryk Batuta Street.'" Several Polish newspapers and magazines wrote about the Wikipedia article, which was deleted. The article was apparently a protest designed to "draw attention to the fact that there are still places in Poland named after former communist officials who do not deserve the honour."

Tony Blair - Hitler worshipper?

We couldn't get through a whole Wikipedia hoax article without mentioning Hitler, now could we? It's Godwin's law. Anyway, the Wikipedia page on former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once said that he kept posters of Adolf Hitler on his bedroom wall during his teenage years. Actually, I couldn't find any proof that those words ever appeared on his Wikipedia page, but it seems to have been reported on enough sites that it must have happened. Plus, it was in a book or something.

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