Posing as a scholar, a Chinese woman spent years writing alternative accounts of medieval Russian history on Chinese Wikipedia, conjuring imaginary states, battles, and aristocrats in one of the largest hoaxes on the open-source platform.
The scam was exposed last month by Chinese novelist Yifan, who was researching for a book when he came upon an article on the Kashin silver mine.
Discovered by Russian peasants in 1344, the Wikipedia entry goes, the mine engaged more than 40,000 slaves and freedmen, providing a remarkable source of wealth for the Russian principality of Tver in the 14th and 15th centuries as well as subsequent regimes. The geological composition of the soil, the structure of the mine, and even the refining process were fleshed out in detail in the entry.
Yifan thought he’d found interesting material for a novel. Little did he know he’d stumbled upon an entire fictitious world constructed by a user known as Zhemao. It was one of 206 articles she has written on Chinese Wikipedia since 2019, weaving facts into fiction in an elaborate scheme that went uncaught for years and tested the limits of crowdsourced platforms’ ability to verify information and fend off bad actors.
“The content she wrote is of high quality and the entries were interconnected, creating a system that can exist on its own,” veteran Chinese Wikipedian John Yip told VICE World News. “Zhemao single-handedly invented a new way to undermine Wikipedia.”
Yifan was tipped off when he ran the silver mine story by Russian speakers and fact-checked Zhemao’s references, only to find that the pages or versions of the books she cited did not exist. People he consulted also called out her lengthy entries on ancient conflicts between Slavic states, which could not be found in Russian historical records. “They were so rich in details they put English and Russian Wikipedia to shame,” Yifan wrote on Zhihu, a Chinese site similar to Quora, where he shared his discovery last month and caused a stir.
The scale of the scam came to light after a group of volunteer editors and other Wikipedians, such as Yip, combed through her past contributions to nearly 300 articles.
One of her longest articles was almost the length of “The Great Gatsby.” With the formal, authoritative tone of an encyclopedia, it detailed three Tartar uprisings in the 17th century that left a lasting impact on Russia, complete with a map she made. In another entry, she shared rare images of ancient coins, which she claimed to have obtained from a Russian archaeological team.
One article she tampered heavily with was on the deportation of Chinese in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ’30s. It was so well-written it was selected as a featured article and translated into other languages, including English, Arabic, and Russian, spreading the damage to other language editions of Wikipedia.
Among the first users to interact with her, Yip almost couldn’t believe himself when he learnt how she’d tricked the system. Like many others, he was previously impressed with Zhemao’s knowledge on the obscure topic and her dedication, as she made edits almost every other day.
“Her entries appeared comprehensive, with proper citations, but some were made up, while others had page numbers that did not add up,” Yip said. For instance, she frequently quoted from “History of Russia From Earliest Times”, a colossal work with 29 volumes by well-known Russian historian Sergei M. Soloviev. But the Chinese translation she cited turned out to be bogus.
Editors normally presume writers are contributing in good faith, said Yeh Youchia, a volunteer editor who plays the roles of a patroller and a rollbacker, and who helped contain the fallout.
“When surveying new content, we only check whether it is blatant plagiarism and if it has proper sources. She understood the format of Wikipedia very well and provided sources that were very difficult to verify,” Yeh said.
The content is only one aspect of her invention.
To create an air of credibility, Zhemao described herself as the daughter of a Chinese diplomat stationed in Russia who married a Russian man and listed her academic credentials on her user profile, including a doctoral degree in world history from the Moscow State University. Recently, she added that she was a pacifist and attached a petition her husband supposedly signed in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Though Zhemao occasionally feigned humility and expressed disgust with “online circle-jerking,” the investigation also found that she controlled at least four sock puppets, alternative accounts she used to create an illusion of support. “Please don’t call me boss, I am just an ordinary student,” Zhemao wrote in reply to one of them.
With another sock puppet, she posed as a doctoral student in world history at Peking University who had studied in Russia, and claimed to know Zhemao in real life. Though one account, the Inquisitive Amateur, was active since 2010, the investigation suggested she only seized control of it in 2019.
Zhemao’s convincing persona as a modest scholar won her the trust of the community.
“I thought she was a rare talent, as the site lacked writers knowledgeable in medieval Russia,” Eric Liu, a history student involved with Wikipedia since 2015, told VICE World News. He awarded her with a Wikipedia barnstar earlier this year to thank her for her contributions.
“I deeply regret not realizing her nonsense and even gave her support. It feels like I was an accomplice to her scheme,” Liu said. The incident dealt a heavy blow to the site’s dwindling credibility and many users are now paranoid about potential fraud, he added.
As a punishment, Zhemao and her affiliated accounts were suspended permanently. Most of her articles were deleted based on community consensus. Some Wikipedians even wrote to experts, seeking help to separate the wheat from the chaff.
“Volunteers are continuing to review additional articles that may have been affected,” a spokesperson of the Wikimedia Foundation told VICE World News in an email.
“Vandalism or other negative behavior can happen from time to time on Wikipedia, as is expected with any open, online platform that is available for everyone to contribute to. With that said, this specific type of behavior on Wikipedia is not common,” they added.
So who is Zhemao in real life? She came clean in an apology letter issued on her Wikipedia account last month. She speaks neither English nor Russian and is a housewife with only a high school degree.
The hoax started with an innocuous intention. Unable to comprehend scholarly articles in their original language, she pieced sentences together with a translation tool and filled in the blanks with her own imagination. “As the saying goes, in order to defend a lie, you must tell more lies,” she wrote. Before long, they had accumulated into tens of thousands of characters, which she was reluctant to delete.
The alternative accounts were imaginary friends she “cosplayed” as she was bored and alone, given her husband was away most of the time and she didn’t have any friends. She also apologized to actual experts on Russia, whom she had attempted to cozy up to and later impersonated.
“The knowledge I have right now is not enough to make a living. In the future I will learn a craft, work conscientiously, and not do pointless things like this any more,” she added.