In 2010, Chinese Wikipedia user Zhemao made a contribution to Wikipedia, in an article about Chinese history. Over the next two years, she trained her hand on several articles and then, in 2012, moved to create articles about Russian history. Over the course of a decade, Zhemao would go on to create 200 interconnected articles about medieval Russian history, receiving plenty of praise for her contribution. There was only one problem: it was all fake.
The Great Tartar Uprising
Wikipedia is arguably the best resource on the internet. Used by billions regularly, Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia written and edited by users. Despite this, it’s surprisingly accurate most of the time (one study found its accuracy to be 99.5%, better than many textbooks). But this isn’t most of the time.
Zhemao’s forged articles seemed to exhibit scholar-like accuracy (and a knack for storytelling as well). She would describe events in medieval Russia in so much detail that it even put English or Russian Wikipedia to shame. But it all started to fall apart when one Chinese novelist by the name of Yifan came across one article.
Yifan was documenting material for an upcoming book when he came across the Wikipedia entry for the Kashin silver mine in Russia. The mine, allegedly, was discovered by Russian peasants in 1344. At its peak, it engaged 40,000 slaves and freedmen and provided great wealth to the Russian principality of Tver. The entry would go on to describe the geology of the area and the functioning of the mine over the years. But here’s the thing: Tver exists — but the Kashin silver mine never did.
Yifan started to figure out that something was wrong when he tried to cross-check the articles with other references and couldn’t find anything. But the articles were so detailed, it wasn’t clear what was going on at first.
To add credibility, Zhemao described herself as the daughter of a Chinese diplomat stationed in Russia. She claimed to have a PhD in world history from the Moscow State University and be married to a Russian man — even publishing a letter against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a letter also signed by her alleged husband.
Initially, she published a few articles but then, it started to escalate, as she created more and more details to fill in her initial pages. She even detailed the (fictional) Tartar Uprisings of the 17th century, detailing them with a map of the country during that period and sprinkling in real archaeological photos. All of this created a compelling picture of a seemingly knowledgeable and involved Wikipedia user.
Her articles were praised by several other Wikipedia contributors and when she was eventually caught, it came as a shock to many. But perhaps the weirdest thing of all is why and how she did it.
Out of boredom and loneliness
Zhemao came clean in an apology letter issued on her Wikipedia account. She explained she only has a high school degree and speaks neither English nor Russian. She also said she’s a housewife and her husband is actually Chinese. He spends most time away, which made her feel very lonely. “Because I don’t have friends, my husband has been away for a long time, and I’m empty and lonely. I just fantasize about some friends,” she added in the letter.
Loneliness also prompted her to create a couple of fake accounts that supported her main account, lending more credibility. The emotional letter goes into great detail about how this all started. She explained that she was unable to comprehend scholarly articles in Russian or English (though, as she mentions, if she put in the effort she put into forging into learning languages, she’d probably know both by now). So she used machine translation to piece together different sources from Russian and English, using her imagination to fill in the blanks or the bits where the translation was rusty. Then, gradually, the imagination part started filling more and more space, and ultimately, she started putting the stories in writing on Wikipedia. It all escalated — “as the saying goes, in order to defend a lie, you must tell more lies,” she wrote.
She also claimed to have found errors in the scientific literature she was using.
“Some of my articles are directly plagiarized from Russian-Vietnamese, and I found that there are actually problems with literature citations. That is to say, there are also false entries in the Russian-Vietnamese part,” Zhemao adds.
A squad of Wikipedia volunteers teamed up to review Zhemao’s articles and edits. Most were edited, and her accounts were permanently blocked. The effort to weed out her articles is still ongoing. But this is still one of the greatest Wikipedia hoaxes in history, and the fact that she managed to elude detection for a decade is striking.
It’s also striking that an innocuous attempt to understand writings from different languages could turn into something like this. It’s hard to say without being a native Chinese speaker, but maybe her articles were actually good. Perhaps she could even write a novel set in medieval Russia, and based on how Yifan and other editors praised her detailed writing, it could have been pretty good. That would be something people would probably pay money to read. But for an encyclopedia like Wikipedia, that’s not the way to go.
As for Zhemao, we’re not exactly sure what she’s up to these days. Her account has been blocked and banned, and in her letter, she mentioned staying away from shady wiki things in the future.
“Wrong is wrong, I don’t want to make excuses, I just want to admit my mistakes bravely. I know there will be ridicule and ridicule, I know my actions are stupid and totally deserving of ridicule, I’ve spent too much time on the wiki. In reality, I am about to give birth, and my family is under great financial pressure, so it is impossible for me to have time to compile a wiki. My own family is in debt, and the mortgage pressure is also very high. The above words are from the bottom of my heart and are not false. I accept my eternal ban and will not use the VPN to create any new accounts. My current knowledge is not enough to make a living, so I will learn a craft in the future, work hard, and stop doing these illusory things.”
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.