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Woman wrote fake Russian history on Wikipedia for years

A woman in China has been caught after spending years fabricating events in medieval Russian history on Chinese Wikipedia. Vice reports that she was exposed last month by Chinese novelist Yifan, who had read her articles while researching for a book. The hoax is one of the most elaborate ever experienced by the collaborative encyclopedia platform.

The woman, who posted under the username Zhemao, claimed to be a scholar with a doctoral degree from Moscow State University. To strengthen her ties with Russia, she also said she was married to a Russian man and that her father was a Chinese diplomat in Russia. Since 2019, Zhemao has made a plethora of entries and edits to 206 articles on Wikipedia, adding fictitious states, battles, and aristocrats alongside factual details. The sources she cited were regarded as credible by other Wikipedia editors but were later found to be entirely fabricated or pages of real books that either don’t exist or don’t feature the events she cited.

The Wikipedia article that first aroused suspicion concerned the Kashin silver mine, which Russian peasants apparently discovered in 1344. The article outlined everything about the mine’s existence, going into great detail about the 40,000 enslaved people and freedmen who allegedly worked in it and even the geological composition of its soil. When Yifan shared the article with Russian-speaking friends to fact-check its sources, they found that the mine never existed.

Zhemao got away with it for so long because Wikipedia editors generally presume writers are contributing in good faith. According to volunteer editor Yeh Youchia, editors typically only check new entries for proper sources and blatant plagiarism. Zhemao worked the system by providing sources that were very difficult to verify. A spokesperson of the Wikimedia Foundation told Vice News that while vandalism and negative behavior often occur on open-source platforms like Wikipedia, actions on the scale of Zhemao’s are not as common. 

Speaking about Zhemao’s Wikipedia entries on a Chinese site called Zhihu, Yifan said, “They were so rich in details they put English and Russian Wikipedia to shame.” One article about Chinese deportation in the 1920s and ’30s that she tampered with extensively was so well regarded that it was translated into other languages like Russian and English, spreading the misinformation outside Chinese Wikipedia. Zhemao even won a Wikipedia barnstar earlier this year for her contributions.

Once exposed, Zhemao came clean about her real identity in a letter on her Wikipedia account. She revealed she’s not a scholar with Russian connections but a bored housewife with a high-school education. Her fabrications began when she could not fully understand scholarly articles written in foreign languages using a translation tool. So she began filling in the gaps with her imagination. She apologized to other users and scholars and has since been banned from the site. 

In other news

Graeme Yule/National Galleries of Scotland
  • X-ray reveals Van Gogh self-portrait. The BBC reports that the National Galleries of Scotland have discovered a hidden self-portrait of the celebrated Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh on the back of another painting. A portrait entitled ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’ was donated to the National Gallery of Scotland in 1960 by a leading Edinburgh lawyer. When it was recently X-rayed before an exhibition, the painting of the artist was revealed. The self-portrait was obscured when the canvas was stuck to cardboard, probably because the museum that acquired the painting considered it to be less finished than the ‘Peasant Woman’ painting. Now, visitors to the gallery in Edinburgh can view the X-ray image of the famous artist on a lightbox.    
  • Astronomers detect ‘heartbeat’ signals in space. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found radio waves in a galaxy billions of light-years from Earth, according to NPR. The radio waves occur in bursts every 0.2 seconds, and they last up to 3 seconds. Researchers say this is unusual because most fast radio bursts (FSBs) last for only a few milliseconds. In this case, the waves have precise periodic peaks that are similar to a heartbeat. Scientists think the source may be neutron stars, but they do not yet know the exact location of the radio signals. More data on the radio signals could help scientists learn more about the way the university is expanding.   
  • Web3 projects lost over $2 billion to hacks. According to The Verge, cyberattacks cost Web3 projects more than $2 billion in the first half of 2022, which is more than all of 2021. Research from CertiK, a blockchain auditing and security firm, released a Web3 security report for the second quarter of 2022 that showed a high level of cybercrime in the year to date. In Q2, a total of $308 million was lost in 27 flash loan attacks, which are an abuse of short-term crypto loans. Phishing attacks increased almost three times in the previous quarter, though “rug pulls” were down 16.5%. This is when founders of crypto projects suddenly close them and take all the invested funds.     
  • Is Meta hiding its impact on human rights in India? In response to criticisms of Facebook’s handling of hate speech and human rights in India, the company commissioned a report on the topic in 2020. As reported in Time, an independent law firm, Foley Hoag, conducted the research, which involved interviews with activists, journalists, and other civil society stakeholders. But when Meta, Facebook’s parent company, released its summary, it was extremely brief, angering civil society organizations. According to Indian academic Ritumbra Manuvie, who was interviewed for the report, the summary demonstrated that Meta’s  “commitment to human rights is rather limited.” An organization critical of Facebook called ‘The Real Facebook Oversight Board’ claimed that the summary represented a “whitewashing [of] the religious violence fomented in India” by Meta’s platforms. Meanwhile, Meta issued a statement saying, “While we don’t agree with every finding, we do believe these reports guide Meta to identify and address the most salient platform-related issues.”
  • Amazon cracks down on fake review groups. In other unhappy Facebook news, this week Amazon filed a lawsuit against the administrators of over 10,000 Facebook groups. As reported in TechCrunch, the lawsuit claims that these groups offer payment or goods in exchange for fake product reviews on the Amazon storefronts in the US, UK, France, Spain, Japan, and Italy. Using the legal discovery process, Amazon hopes to be able to identify and remove fake reviews from the site as well as users who created them. 
  • Ring video footage was provided to police without permission. In Amazon’s turn in the hot seat, the company admitted to providing footage from its Ring video doorbell cameras without the owner’s permission at least 11 times in 2022. This information came to light after Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sought clarification on the company’s surveillance practices and received a letter from Amazon detailing these instances. Although the terms state that Ring information can be shared without a user’s consent, In the past, Amazon has claimed that short of an emergency or court order, police can’t access videos unless the owner shares them publicly or gives them to the police. 
  • FCC orders robocallers to stand down. The US Federal Communications Commission recently took steps to shut down the majority of spam robocallers (like the ones warning you your car warranty is about to expire). According to Consumer Reports, US consumers are on track to receive nearly 50 billion robocalls. However, with the FCC’s latest action, the small companies that route these calls to major networks like AT&T and Verizon must stop sending them through. Furthermore, the FCC is working with attorneys general in 36 states to strengthen anti-robocall enforcement. Between these two efforts, robocalls in the US could soon be a thing of the past.

Tip of the Week

The Wikipedia story, as well as the news about fake reviews, poses a significant question for all of us: how can we tell if online information is accurate? 

The web is full of crowd-sourced information on every topic imaginable, as well as companies that seek to mislead. With so much potentially inaccurate information, how can we know if what we’re reading is true?

Here are a few tips:

  • Check the source. Is the website reputable? In the case of medical advice, is the information coming from a known source like WebMD, a familiar hospital, or a similar source, or is it a random person on the Internet? 
  • Double check the information. Don’t stop with one source. Try to find a few different sites and compare. Do all sites agree on the best time to plant tomatoes or give a similar rundown of a recent event? If they don’t, keep researching. 
  • Shop around. If you’re planning to make a big purchase like a mattress, major appliance, or new car, read reviews from a number of sites. You might be planning to get a washing machine from one company, but check the reviews of the same model on competitors’ sites as well, as well as at least one independent review site. This is especially true when making appliance or other major purchases on Amazon. 
  • Research the company or site itself. If you get an ad for a cool product or beautiful outfit on Facebook, try searching “company name + reviews” on Google. See if people received what they ordered in a timely manner and if they were happy with it. 

In the end, go with your gut. If something seems fishy or reviews are conflicted, keep researching or go with something else. 

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Jackie Dana avatar

Jackie Dana

Jackie has been writing since childhood. As the Namecheap blog’s content manager and regular contributor, she loves bringing helpful information about technology and business to our customers. In her free time, she enjoys drinking copious amounts of black tea, writing novels, and wrangling a gang of four-legged miscreants. More articles written by Jackie.

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