Chinese novelist Yifan was searching for a new book when he stumbled upon one of Wikipedia’s biggest and most elaborate scams.
Yifan was interested in the history of Russia and came across a detailed entry in the Chinese Wikipedia about the Kachin silver mine. The article covered everything from the alleged discovery of a peasant warehouse in 1344, to the number of slaves who worked there, to the beneficial impact of the mine on the prosperity of the Grand Duchy of Tver in the 14th and 15th centuries. Even the geological structure of the soil, the structure of the mine and the refining process are detailed in the entry.
Yifan thinks he has discovered interesting material for his novel. What he didn’t know at the time: He had just landed in the fictional world of Wikipedia user Zhemao. Since 2019, I’ve written 206 articles on Chinese Wikipedia, masterfully blending fact and fiction. For years no one noticed.
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“Her posts were high quality and relevant. She created a cohesive system,” says veteran Chinese Wikipedia writer Jun Yip. “Zhemao invented a new way to deceive Wikipedia.”
Yifan learned of the fraud when he showed the story of the silver mine to Russian speakers and consulted Zhemao’s sources. Thus, he discovered that the given page numbers did not match, or that the copies of the books I mentioned did not exist at all.
Its lengthy interventions on historical disputes between Slavic states were also subject to scrutiny. As it turned out, they are not mentioned in any Russian history book. “The posts were so detailed that they overshadowed the English and Russian Wikipedia articles,” Yifan wrote on Zhihu, a Chinese platform similar to Quora. There he announced his discovery in June and caused an uproar.
The true extent of the issue was revealed when a group of Wikipedia contributors examined Zhemao’s contributions to nearly 300 articles.
It was one of her longest articles almost in length The great Gatsby. In the official tone of the encyclopedia, he described three Tatar uprisings of the 17th century. Zhemao even made a card for this. In another article, Zhemao uploaded photos of ancient coins she allegedly received from Russian archaeologists.
Zhemao also took great artistic liberties in an article about the deportation of Chinese in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Her entry was so persuasive that she received an award of Excellence – a little star – and was translated into other languages such as English, Arabic and Russian. With that, Zhemao’s fairy tales spread to other countries as well.
Wikipedia author Yip was among the first to interact with the prolific writer in the community. When he learned of her infidelity, he did not believe her at first. Like many others, he was influenced by Zhemao’s extensive knowledge of very specific subject areas and her dedication. She reviewed Wikipedia entries about every two days.
“Your contributions seemed comprehensive and well-sourced, but some of those sources were fictitious, while others were wrong in number,” Yip says. For example, Zhemao regularly quoted or referred to the massive 29-volume work Russian history from antiquity Russian historian Sergei M. Solovyov. Turns out the Chinese translations I used were completely fabricated.
Yeh Youchia is one of the volunteer Wikipedia editors who helped remove the damage Zhemao had done to the online encyclopedia. It regularly checks entries for correctness and, if necessary, restores previous versions. However, she and her colleagues generally assume that the authors write their articles in good faith, she said.
“When we check for new entries, we only check if they are obvious plagiarism and if they are supported by proper sources. Zhemao understood the Wikipedia format very well and provided sources that were very difficult to verify,” he says yes
But Zhemao’s creativity did not end with her contributions.
To gain credibility, Zhemao posed as the daughter of a Chinese diplomat who had long been stationed in Russia. She herself married a Russian man. In her user profile, she has listed her academic life, including a PhD in World History from Moscow State University. On the occasion of the Ukraine war, she described herself as a pacifist in her profile and attached a petition against the Russian attack, which was said to have been signed by her husband.
Otherwise, Zhemao had always been humble. However, at the same time, it took control of at least four other accounts through which it maintained the illusion of academic support. With one of them, she pretended to be a graduate student in history at Peking University who had studied in Russia and pretended to know Zhemao.
Thanks to her image as a humble academic, Zhemao quickly gained the trust of the community. “I thought she was one of those rare geniuses,” says Eric Liu, a history student who has been active on Wikipedia since 2015. “The site lacked authors familiar with medieval Russia.” Just a few months ago, Zhemao was honored for her contributions to Wikipedia.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t realize her nonsense and even support her,” Liu says. “I feel like I’m her complicit.” The incident dealt a serious blow to the site’s credibility, and many users are now paranoid about potential scams, he said.
Meanwhile, Zhemao’s accounts have been suspended and most of her articles have been deleted.
But who is actually Zhemao? Before closing her account, she issued an apology in June. As you write, she speaks neither Russian nor English. She is a simple housewife.
It all started without damage. Since she did not understand the scientific articles in their original language, she compiled the sentences with a translation tool and filled in the gaps with her own imagination. “As the saying goes, to lie, you have to lie more,” she wrote. At some point, I wrote tens of thousands of characters that you no longer really want to erase.
The second accounts were imaginary friends with whom she played the cosplayer. Since her husband travels a lot and she has no friends, she was often lonely and bored. She also apologized to the real experts in Russia, whom she initially sought and later claimed to be.
“The knowledge I have now is not enough to make a living from it. I will now learn a skill, work regularly, and stop doing pointless things,” she wrote.
Which of Zhemao’s statements is true in turn cannot be verified.
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