Teschler on Topic
Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW_LeeTeschler
Ever heard of the K890 sub-machine gun? A a prototype came out during the 1950s, but there were hardly any made. The reason was its awkwardly shaped stock which made the gun difficult to shoot accurately. It also had a weirdly short barrel which also contributed to the difficulty in aiming. These problems forced the manufacturer to quit making the gun soon after its release.
The real problem with the K890 is that it’s a hoax. You could find a description of it on Wikipedia for more than five years, at which point Wikipedia editors figured out they’d been had. But the Wikipedia page for the K890 was so convincing that the gun was even mentioned in a paperback covering gun technology.
Such are the dangers of relying on publicly maintained knowledge bases for information. Wikipedia now lists some 289 pages which were taken down when editors discovered they were bogus. They also have removed another 63 instances of fake facts from otherwise correct pages. Most of these could be classified as mischief because they concerned relatively silly ruses such as fake rock bands, imaginary movies, and made-up historical events. But you can also find Wikipedia hoaxes in technical areas, ready to trip up unsuspecting researchers doing what they think is due diligence for projects that have potentially meaningful outcomes. Perhaps worse, some hoax Wikipedia articles have been picked up by credible media and treated as gospel.
And it is relatively easy to be fooled by these scams. Reading through notes by Wikipedia editors reveals that a Google search on a bogus expression in Wikipedia often turns up a list of sources that simply contain a verbatim copy of text lifted from the fake Wikipedia article. Those kind of search results may arouse suspicions in skeptical inquirers but may not set off alarm bells for naive users.
Suppose, for example, you were researching acids and came across herzthiolate heptahydrolysic acid. If you didn’t pick up on the fact that its formula doesn’t make sense (NaO2H890-Mg4S2Ci2 Al2Si2He4Fe2CaN2C), you could spend a lot of time chasing your tail. Herzthiolate heptahydrolysic had a Wikipedia page for over 18 months before editors figured out it was a scam. And then there was V-Jay’s Verghjesles, or the V-Jazz, a “microprocessor controlled surround sound amplifier.” The creators of this fake product went so far as to list nonexistent components and specifications. What gave the entry some authenticity was that the suppliers mentioned–Texas Instruments, Sylvania, and others—were real though the parts they were have supposed to supply were nonsense. The Wikipedia page was up for over four and half years.
There are other problems with fictitious claims in articles that are otherwise accurate. For over two years, you could have found a statement that the PC Card, once called PCMCIA, was invented by Jacob D. Holm in 1986. In reality, the PCMCIA format arose 1989, instigated by Poqet Computer Corp. with help from Fujitsu, Intel, and other companies. And for seven years, Wikipedia would have told you that the history of Windows involves Chase Bishop, a computer scientist, who designed “the first model of an electronic device and project Interface Manager was started” in 1981. In reality, there was apparently no computer scientist by that name nor an “electronic device,” though Microsoft began working on software called Interface Manager that year. Most historians attribute the graphical user interface of Windows and the Macintosh to ideas conceived at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
All in all, it’s reader beware when it comes to Wikipedia pages. Most hoaxes get taken down quickly, but those that survive have good odds of staying in Wikipedia for a long time. DW