10 Most Notorious Wikipedia Editing Scandals

by Nicole July 17th, 2012 

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Wikipedia is a fantastic resource, relied upon by students and researchers across the world for an endless stream of facts and information on everything from banana slugs to complex philosophical concepts.

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Yet as much as we appreciate the existence of this free, online encyclopaedia, errors – and even outright falsehoods – can sometimes creep in, reminding us that good old Wiki is often worth taking with a pinch of salt. These scandalous editing examples show just how wary you should be. Beware the ominous words, "Citation Needed."

10. The Obituary Hoax

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Multiple newspapers had egg on their faces when they relied on Wikipedia for facts to include in the obituary of Oscar-winning French composer Maurice Jarre.

Shortly after Jarre's death in 2009, an Irish university student, Shane Fitzgerald, edited his Wiki page to include a heart-warming – but totally made-up – quote falsely attributed to the late composer: "When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head."

The student didn't think that the inaccuracy would go far before being outed as unsubstantiated, but multiple prestigious newspapers across the world, including the UK's Guardian, included the quote in their publications, prompting more than a few embarrassing retractions.

9. The Fake Professor

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Wikipedia relies on the expertise and integrity of its editors. So, when it turned out that an editor known as Essjay was not a university professor but was, in fact, a 24-year-old community college dropout with nothing more than a high school diploma, things got awkward – particularly as he had also become a Wikia employee.

Wikipedia users combed his history on the website and found that the man, real name Ryan Jordan, had been using his fake "expertise" to back up his arguments.

He was, eventually, deprived of his editing privileges, but not before the media and academics noted the serious damage to Wikipedia's credibility.

8. Jimmy Wales Helps His Girlfriend

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Jimmy Wales, boss of Wikipedia, allegedly got a little too "hands-on" with a girlfriend's Wiki page.

Rachel Marsden is a sometimes-controversial radio commentator, and when she asked for her page to be deleted back in 2006, Wales took charge of the assignment himself. He then got up close and personal with Marsden herself.

According to Wales, he did not edit the page while they were involved, but IM conversations released by Marsden cast doubt on this.

What's more, according to Marsden, she only learned of their breakup after reading about it on Wikipedia. Ouch! In retaliation, she sold Wales's T-shirt and sweater on eBay. Touch.

7. Hire A PR Firm

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In 2011 it came out that a well-known British PR firm used Wikipedia editing to give its clients an edge. The company, Bell Pottinger, routinely deleted negative information and added positive facts to clients' pages, and a full ten editing accounts used by the firm were suspended after the news broke, including that of "Biggleswiki" .

All this despite the fact that Wikipedia editors are supposed to stay away from pages where they may have a conflict of interest. This wasn't just harmless positive spin, either; in some cases criminal convictions were edited out of the pages. Not good.

6. Jimmy Wales Takes Cash For Edits (Allegedly…)

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According to his own account in 2008, Jeffrey Vernon Merkey, a former Novell scientist, contributed $5,000 to Wikipedia. In exchange, he says, Jimmy Wales agreed to edit Merkey's Wiki page to remove some text that Merkey found libelous.

While Wales has denied these allegations, at the time the page did show a record of Wales personally editing and locking the page. The page has now mysteriously vanished from Wikipedia. Draw your own conclusions.

5. Johann Hari, a.k.a. David Rose

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After already suffering the indignity of having his Orwell prize withdrawn due to plagiarism, British journalist Johann Hari had his secret life as a Wikipedia editor exposed.

Acting under the pseudonym David Rose, Hari attacked other journalists who criticized him and his work as well as editing his own page in order to magnify his importance.

Despite the IP address being traced to the Independent Newspaper offices where Hari worked in January 2005, it was only in September 2011 that David Rose was unmasked as Johann Hari himself. He apologized and promised to take some (much needed) journalism ethics classes.

4. Political Pursuits

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In 2007, eagle-eyed politics junkies noticed that senior UK political figures David Miliband and then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown had had untrue "facts" about drug abuse and criminal convictions added to their Wiki pages. While this is not very nice generally, what made the situation truly scandalous was that the IP addresses from which the edits were made were traced back to British government buildings. Talk about awkward.

3. Government Expenses Scandal

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It seems that those mischievous UK government editors didn't stop in 2007.

Three years after the parliamentary expenses scandal that rocked British politics in 2009, a recent report has shown that over 10,000 edits were made to Wikipedia pages from UK government buildings, with a shocking one in six Members of Parliament's pages edited.

One MP managed to scrub her page of any mention of her expenses – after editing the page ten times.

The report unearthed a rather more bizarre edit coming from within the seat of government, too. Someone had also decided to modify the page for Pringles, making amendments over the important issue of the snack's status as cake or crisps.

2. The Aussie Prime Minister's Office

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Not to be outdone by the Brits, the Aussies edited Wikipedia from none other than their Prime Minister's Office. Now that's slick.

Carefully sanitizing mentions of their government, they deleted "Captain Smirk" as a nickname of the Treasurer, Peter Costello, as well as making pages about mandatory detention more positive.

Of course, some puerile fun was had as well, with the entry for the medieval martial arts book Bubishi graced – somewhat bafflingly – with the phrase "poo bum dicky wee wee."

1. Paul Revere and Sarah Palin

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Paul Revere's famous ride to warn Americans of the British advance was given a new twist in 2011 when Sarah Palin maintained that Revere had in fact been warning the British.

Palin's supporters, believing that she could do no wrong, set out to edit history by editing Paul Revere's Wikipedia page. At the same time, some edits were made to the page with the obvious intention of mocking Palin.

As a result of the saga, the legendary American patriot's (not Palin's) page went from receiving 2,000 views a day to over 50,000.

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Perhaps not since Stephen Colbert asked fans to vandalize the "Elephant" entry live on air in 2006 had a single Wiki page been the focus of so many edits. Colbert himself also urged viewers to edit the Wiki page on bells to "support" Palin's erroneous assertion that the percussion instruments were used in the revered revolutionary's midnight ride.

Who would have thought Wikipedia would set the stage for such scandal?

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2 Responses to “10 Most Notorious Wikipedia Editing Scandals”

  1. Marlon says:

    Amazing stuff! The only one that I seem to remember reading about (it got a lot of publicity where I live) is the fake professor/college dropout story. Wikipedia is pretty cool when it comes to information, but I make it a point to never trust information on Wikipedia or use it as my sole source of information since it is extremely easy to manipulate and add information on a lot of the pages.

  2. Vaughn says:

    What? No mention of the Scientology Wikipedia scandal that resulted in Scientologists being banned from editing their page? That was certainly a lot more interesting than some on this list.