Posing as a scholar, a Chinese woman spent years writing alternative accounts of medieval Russian history on Chinese Wikipedia, conjuring imaginary states, battles, and aristocrats in one of the largest hoaxes on the open-source platform.
The scam was exposed last month by Chinese novelist Yifan, who was researching for a book when he came upon an article on the Kashin silver mine.
Discovered by Russian peasants in 1344, the Wikipedia entry goes, the mine engaged more than 40,000 slaves and freedmen, providing a remarkable source of wealth for the Russian principality of Tver in the 14th and 15th centuries as well as subsequent regimes. The geological composition of the soil, the structure of the mine, and even the refining process were fleshed out in detail in the entry.
Yifan thought he’d found interesting material for a novel. Little did he know he’d stumbled upon an entire fictitious world constructed by a user known as Zhemao. It was one of 206 articles she has written on Chinese Wikipedia since 2019, weaving facts into fiction in an elaborate scheme that went uncaught for years and tested the limits of crowdsourced platforms’ ability to verify information and fend off bad actors.
Yifan was tipped off when he ran the silver mine story by Russian speakers and fact-checked Zhemao’s references, only to find that the pages or versions of the books she cited did not exist. People he consulted also called out her lengthy entries on ancient conflicts between Slavic states, which could not be found in Russian historical records. “They were so rich in details they put English and Russian Wikipedia to shame,” Yifan wrote on Zhihu, a Chinese site similar to Quora, where he shared his discovery last month and caused a stir.
The scale of the scam came to light after a group of volunteer editors and other Wikipedians, such as Yip, combed through her past contributions to nearly 300 articles.
One of her longest articles was almost the length of “The Great Gatsby.” With the formal, authoritative tone of an encyclopedia, it detailed three Tartar uprisings in the 17th century that left a lasting impact on Russia, complete with a map she made. In another entry, she shared rare images of ancient coins, which she claimed to have obtained from a Russian archaeological team.
Brilliant – and she’s not the only one!