Why Is This Flower on Wikipedia Suddenly Getting 90 Million Hits Per Day?

After India banned TikTok, Wikipedia's servers were hammered for requests to look at this specific flower.
February 9, 2021, 5:07pm
Michaelmas daisy
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The Michaelmas daisy is an innocuous purple flower that grows in fields in the American northeast, and for some reason, an image of it is suddenly getting millions of hits a day. A picture of this perfectly normal flower hosted on Wikipedia is currently responsible for 20 percent of the traffic on one of Wikiemdia’s data centers.

“We've noticed today that we get about 90M hits per day from various ISPs in India,” a post on Phabricator—Wikimedia’s collaboration platform—said. “These are very strange, as they come from wildly different IPs, follow a daily traffic pattern, so we are hypothesizing there is some mobile app predominantly used in india that hotlinks the above image for e.g. a splash screen. We need to investigate this further as this kind of request constitutes about 20 percent of all requests we get in EQSIN for media.”

EQSIN is the name of a Wikimedia data cluster in Singapore. For more than six months, 20 percent of the traffic to that server were requests to look at the daisy. Wikimedia’s data is public and a chart showing daily requests to access the picture of the flower show a clear trend. Before June 8, the flower had pretty low numbers. On average, the flower gets a few hundred views. On June 9, the number jumps to 2,154. On June 10, it hit 15,037. By June 30, it had more than 15 million daily hits.

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Chris Albon, director of Machine Learning at Wikimedia, pointed out that weird trend on Twitter. One reply pointed out that the huge upsurge in requests to see the flower coincided with India banning TikTok and several other Chinese apps. India banned TikTok on June 29, 2020. The flower was already getting more views than normal before then, but it did experience a huge surge in popularity after the ban.

After the TikTok ban, clones of the app flourished in India and some of the people investigating the mystery are speculating that one of these new apps is accessing the flower picture. “It is most likely an app, given the header information above and also based on some other connection attributes,” one investigator said. “The question is which app though as some of us have gone through the popular apps in India but haven't been able to identify which app it is. It is also possible that the code was embedded in some app and that it requests the image but does not display it.”

After several days of investigation, the Wikimedia team tracked down the app and confirmed that it was, indeed, a mobile app. “ I just wanted to share that we have identified the app and will update this task tomorrow,” an investigator said. “And yes, it was a mobile app.”

Wikimedia hasn’t yet revealed the name of the app and, according to its data reports, EQSIN is still getting hammered for requests to see the pretty purple daisy.

Wikimedia did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.