Washington – Jar’Edo Wens is an Australian Aboriginal deity, the god of “physical might” and “earthly knowledge”. He’s been name-dropped in books. Carved into rocks. And now conclusively debunked.
There is no such figure, it turns out, in Aboriginal mythology; instead, Jar’Edo Wens was a prank dropped into Wikipedia nine years ago by an anonymous Australian.
By the time editors found it, he had leaked off Wikipedia and on to the wider internet.
At nine years, nine months and three days he had also broken every other Wikipedia hoaxing record.
Ask any diehard Wikipedian about hoaxes, and they’ll call them a natural byproduct of the Wikipedia project: since the open-sourced encyclopedia opened in 2001, pranksters, vandals and saboteurs have done their best to disrupt it.
But in the past year, Wikipedia hoaxes appear to have grown more frequent – or at least more visible. Editors have uncovered 33 major hoaxes since January, including several about fake bands and fake political parties. Of Wikipedia’s 16 most egregious hoaxes, 15 were discovered in the past six months. There’s no telling, of course, how many hoaxes haven’t yet been dug up.
To understand how misinformation spreads on Wikipedia, you must first understand how the site works. Anyone can edit Wikipedia: more than 130 000 readers have done so in the past 30 days. But because open editing is an obvious recipe for disaster, the site is undergirded by a vast volunteer bureaucracy. These editors and administrators aren’t technically affiliated with Wikipedia or Wikimedia, the nonprofit that oversees the site. But they spend hours policing the site’s new changes.
Their success rate, by all accounts, is pretty high; in a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales said he no longer saw vandalism as much of a problem.
And yet, critics like Gregory Kohs, a former editor, and his colleagues at the Wikipedia watchdog Wikipediocracy maintain that there are untold errors that editors don’t even know about, let alone fix.
On Monday Kohs wrapped up an experiment in which he inserted outlandish errors into 31 articles and tracked whether editors ever found them. After more than two months, half still had not been found – and those included errors on high-profile pages, like “inflammation”. (By his estimate, more than 100 000 people have seen the claim that volcanic rock produced by the human body causes inflammation pain.)
Editors recently caught a 6-year-old article about the “Pax Romana”, a fictitious Nazi programme. Likewise “Elaine de Francias”, the invented illegitimate daughter of Henry II of France.
“I think this has proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it’s not fair to say Wikipedia is ‘self-correcting’,” Kohs said.
There is not much data to conclusively confirm or deny this. While Wikipedia’s accuracy has been a favourite subject of study for internet-minded academics, the usual methodology compares articles from an authoritative reference work with their Wikipedia equivalents. Since the Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t have articles on Jar’Edo Wens or Elaine de Francias, most studies that have trumpeted Wikipedia’s accuracy haven’t accounted for intentional hoaxes.
Wikipedia logs every change to every article page on a tab called “history”, just as it logs discussion of every article on the so-called “talk” page. Editors didn’t stop by Jar’Edo Wens’s page too frequently, but someone made a grammar fix in 2006, and someone flagged the page for lacking sources three years later.
In November last year, an anonymous user tagged the page as a possible hoax: “Not found in several (reliable sources) on Aboriginal religion,” the user noted. The page still wasn’t immediately taken down; it’s Wikipedia policy to debate articles, sometimes at great length, before deleting them.
On March 3, veteran Wikipedia administrator Ira Matetsky deleted the “blatant and indisputable hoax”, calling it an “embarrassment”.
“Wikipedia is uniquely vulnerable to deliberate mistakes,” Matetsky said. “But Wikipedia is also uniquely gifted at its ability to fix misinformation.”
As of this writing, there were 5 476 unreviewed pages in the English Wikipedia, the oldest of which had been around 111 days.
It’s not perfect, exactly. But Matetsky points out that newspapers, books and GPS systems also make minor errors every day.
“The question is not whether Wikipedia is more or less reliable than a day at the New York Public Library,” Matetsky said. “The question is whether Wikipedia is more or less reliable than whatever other results top Google search.”
When there are no other Google results, of course, it’s hard to call either way.
But even given the growing awareness of hoaxes, what’s a Wikipedian to do? There are 4.8 million pages on the site’s English version, but only 12 000 veteran editors. That works out to roughly 400 pages a volunteer. You hear frequent references to a feature called “pending changes” promised by Wikimedia in 2010 and again in 2012. The feature would hold new edits in a queue until an experienced editor could review them. On German Wikipedia, this feature has long been the norm.
Still, this doesn’t change the numbers problem at the core of Wikipedia. Today’s editors are largely young, white, Western men. It’s no coincidence that, in Kohs’s vandalism experiment, an error on an obscure New York canal was corrected, while lies about Ecuadorian customs, Indian legends and Japanese history were not.