A Chinese Wikipedia editor spent years writing fake Russian medieval history

·Contributing Reporter
·3 min read
d3sign via Getty Images

Chinese Wikipedia had a robust collection of detailed and authoritative articles on medieval Russia, thanks to a user called Zhemao who claimed to be the daughter of a diplomat assigned in the country. Zhemao wrote 206 articles for the website since 2019, the longest of which, according to Vice World News, is almost as long as The Great Gatsby. It detailed Tartar uprisings in 17th century Russia and was supported by a map of the country during that era. In another article, the user shared rare images of ancient Russian coins that were purportedly obtained from archeologists. The articles she contributed were so well-written and well-regarded, until it was revealed that she'd pulled off one of the largest hoaxes ever seen on the platform.

Chinese novelist Yifan was the one who brought the hoax to light in a post on a website similar to Quora. Yifan stumbled upon one of her articles describing a silver mine that provided a source of wealth for Russia in the 14th and 15th centuries while researching for a new book. The article was reportedly so detailed, it included information on the composition of the soil, the structure of the mine and the refining processes used on the silver. But when Yifan tried to fact check Zhemao's references with Russian speakers, it was revealed that the pages or the versions of the books she cited didn't even exist.

A group of volunteer editors combed through her work as a response and found that her citations didn't add up or that she fabricated information from legitimate sources that were too obscure to be fact-checked by casual users. As a crowd—sourced online encyclopedia, Wikipedia trusts its contributors to self-regulate. In an article about its reliability, Wikipedia said it maintains an inclusion threshold of "verifiability, not truth."

A volunteer editor who's been helping clean up articles Zhemao contributed to told Vice News that they only typically check articles for blatant plagiarism and to ensure that they're properly cited. That is why vandalism is a common occurrence on the website and why its reputation as a legitimate source of knowledge is frequently challenged. Chinese Wikipedian John Yip told Vice that "Zhemao single-handedly invented a new way to undermine Wikipedia." It's worth noting, however, that she's far from the first person to pretend to be an expert on the website. Back in 2007, an editor who claimed to be a university professor was revealed to be a 24-year-old from Kentucky who had no higher-education credentials.

Zhemao, in a post on her profile, has admitted to making up her whole identity and to fabricating information. She came clean that she's not based in Russia and that her husband is not Russian but Chinese. She also doesn't have a doctoral degree in world history from the Moscow State University like she claimed, but is instead a housewife with a high school diploma. Vice said, based on her post, that she got frustrated about not being able to understand articles in Russian and in English. She apparently used online translators to understand articles available online and then used her imagination to fill in the gaps.

Why she didn't just write a novel set in medieval Russia — and it could've been a hit, based on how Yifan and her fellow editors praised her contributions for being thorough and well-written — is not quite clear. Zhemao and her sock puppets had been banned permanently from the website, though, so she might end up looking for a new outlet for her writing.