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The 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia's first 10 years

From Stephen Colbert and Rush Limbaugh to Adolf Hitler: a history of Wikipedia hoaxes

By , Network World
January 14, 2011 10:54 AM ET

Network World - Wikipedia will celebrate its 10th birthday on Saturday, with founder Jimmy Wales having built the site from nothing to one of the most influential destinations on the Internet. Wikipedia's goal may be to compile the sum total of all human knowledge, but it's also, perhaps, the best tool in existence for perpetuating Internet hoaxes. Let's take a look at the 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia's history. (Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments).

IN DEPTH: Wikipedia celebrates a decade of edit wars, controversy and Internet dominance

IN PICTURES: Web sites for the apocalypse

The Essjay controversy

This one's so big it has its own Wikipedia page. In February 2007 a Wikipedia administrator who went by the name Essjay "was found to have made false claims about his academic qualifications and professional experiences on his Wikipedia user page and to journalist Stacy Schiff during an interview for The New Yorker, and to have exploited his supposed qualifications as leverage in internal disputes over Wikipedia content." Essjay had been contributing to Wikipedia since 2005, claiming that he "teaches graduate theology, with doctorates in Theology and Canon Law." He also gained a job with Wikipedia sister company Wikia. "Jimmy Wales proposed a credential verification system on Wikipedia following the Essjay controversy, but the proposal was rejected," according to the Wikipedia article.

Edward Owens

Another hoax worthy of its own Wikipedia page, "Edward Owens" was a "fictional character, part of a historical hoax created by students at George Mason University on Dec. 3, 2008 as a project in a class dealing with historical hoaxes called "Lying About the Past." One tactic was creating a Wikipedia article about Owens, "who supposedly lived from 1852 to 1938 in Virginia ... fell on hard times during the Long Depression that began in 1873 and took up pirating in Chesapeake Bay to survive the economic downturn." After media outlets including USA Today were fooled, the class professor decided in December 2008 to reveal the hoax.

Stephen Colbert inflates the population of African elephants

Oh, Stephen Colbert. What would we do without you? Colbert's brilliant media satire show, the Colbert Report, took on Wikipedia in July 2006, urging viewers to edit the encyclopedia to indicate that the population of African elephants had tripled in the previous six months. Known for inventing the word "truthiness," Colbert also gave us "wikiality," the concept that "together we can create a reality that we all agree on — the reality we just agreed on."

Sinbad dead? No, that was just his career ... hey-ohh!

This bit of wiki-vandalism brought Wikipedia down (or up?) to the level of newspapers, which have been known for publishing quite a few premature obituaries. In this case, Wikipedia falsely reported the death of the 50-year-old Sinbad, who even received a telephone call from his daughter and calls, texts and e-mails from hundreds of others after the hoax spread. The Sinbad Wikipedia page was temporarily protected from editing to prevent further vandalism. But numerous others have been falsely listed as dead on Wikipedia, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (months before his actual death), Miley Cyrus, Sergey Brin and Paul Reiser.

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