Wikipedia can be a great site for students who need a quick reference on history, pop culture or even politics. But its reputation as an authoritative research resource is doubted by college professors and other experts who deter students from quoting Wikipedia in their papers. One reason is that a lot of the information on Wikipedia is either incomplete or downright false. Because anyone can technically edit or contribute to Wikipedia, the site is vulnerable to hackers and vandalism. Sometimes, the blunders are serious libel cases which result in lawsuits; and sometimes, they’re just funny.
False Death Reports
These high-profile personalities, politicians and celebrities were falsely reported dead by Wikipedia users.
- Ted Kennedy’s death: A very high profile Wikipedia blunder falsely reported the “death” of Sen. Edward Kennedy after he actually did suffer a seizure during the post-inaugural luncheon for Barack Obama in January 2009. The Washington Post reports that Kennedy’s Wikipedia entry was edited at 2:59p.m. ET “to say that he had died” by someone who registered on the site under the name “Gfdjklsdgiojksdkf.”
- Senator Byrd: Senator Robert Byrd was also included in the Sen. Kennedy death hoax after he (actually did) leave the same luncheon shortly after Kennedy had the seizure. At 3:08p.m. ET, according to the Washington Post, Sen. Byrd was also reported dead by a Wikipedia user.
- Vernon Kay: British TV presenter Vernon Kay was reported dead on Wikipedia, saying that “he’d drowned in a tragic yachting accident and Greece,” according to Brand Republic. The entry even had specific information about his funeral.
- Sinbad’s Death: The actor Sinbad was falsely reported dead by a Wikipedia entry in 2007. MSNBC reports that Sinbad found out about the hoax when his daughter called him. The Wikipedia entry claimed he had died of a heart attack and “had been forwarded to hundreds of people” before it was corrected.
- Miley Cyrus’ death: Miley Cyrus is arguably one of the biggest teen stars in the entire world, and fans were shocked when a hoax involving social media site Digg and Wikipedia falsely reported her death in September 2008. The sites claimed that Miley Cyrus was killed in a car crash on her way to the Hannah Montana set, but it never happened.
Tony Blair, Robbie Williams and even Nancy Pelosi have been targeted in crude vandalism cases on Wikipedia.
- John Seigenthaler Sr.: This Wikipedia hoax got a lot of attention because it is truly slander, or “Internet character assassination,” as the real John Seigenthaler claims. The real John Seigenthaler is a respected journalist who briefly worked for Robert F. Kennedy. His Wikipedia entry briefly reported, however, that Seigenthaler “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.” Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia, who took the entry down, but only after it had was on the site for 132 days.
- Tony Blair: The Times Online reported that the Wikipedia entry for Tony Blair that appeared one week in February 2006 stated that he hung up “posters of Adolf Hitler on his bedroom wall as a teenager” and that he started “a false war against Saddam Hussein.” Tony Blair’s entry was a platform for political enemies to rant about the Iraq war and his position on civil service neutrality. The threat was taken seriously; however, and Wikipedia even “launched an investigation to see if any of the postings [were] coming from the House of Commons,” since a similar American scandal using the power of Wikipedia was traced back to officials who worked at the Capitol building.
- Robbie Williams eats pet hamsters: According to a mischievous Wikipedia contributor in 2006, Robbie Williams ate pet hamsters for a living “in and around Stoke,” The Independent reports.
- Ritchie de Laet: The Wikipedia entry for Manchester United defender Ritchie De Laet was a surprisingly offensive rant against his acceptance to the team. The Mirror reports that his Wikipedia page featured the following biography: “The Belgian was surprisingly signed on a performance-based contract by Manchester United on January 8. Many thought it was a joke and Andrew Marshall has agreed to shoot himself if he ever makes a Premier League appearance for the Red Devils.”
- Village of Denshaw: Wikipedia blunders aren’t just limited to individuals. The entire village of Denshaw near Greater Manchester was targeted when someone edited their Wikipedia entry and wrote that it was “the home to an obese population of sun-starved, sheep hurling yokels with a brothel for a pub and a lingering tapeworm infection,” according to the Telegraph.
- Nancy Pelosi: U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was correctly described as being of Italian descent in her Wikipedia entry, but a hacker/editor continued his piece by saying that “Italians drink children’s blood.”
- Sergey Brin: Sergey Brin is one of the co-founders of Google and now sits on the Board of Directors. In 2002, however, his Wikipedia page was vandalized with remarks like “is he lucky or smart or both?” and “He is sexy.” One entry even claimed that Brin had “died in Moscow, Russia.” Another vandal wrote that “in July of 2006, Sergey revealed that he is homosexual and dating with Jimmy Wales,” the creator of Wikipedia.
- Bill Gates photo: This vandalized photo of Bill Gates was forwarded around after someone edited his Wikipedia page. It features a perfectly nice photo of Gates, marked up with devil horns and a Hitler mustache.
- University of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher: Someone at the University of Cincinnati had it in for President Nancy Zimpher, big time. Her Wikipedia entry at one time reported that she was a “president/prostitute” and that “critics also claim that she doesn’t care what alumni, boosters or students think. An example of this would be getting rid of midnight madness.” The entry closes with the remark, “Nancy Zimpher is a witch, and flys around on a broom stick.”
- Fuzzy Zoeller: Pro-golfer and former U.S. Open winner Fuzzy Zoeller ended up suing a Miami law firm after his vandalized Wikipedia page was tracked back to an IP address at their location. The page reported that Zoeller had admitted to “polishing off a fifth of Jack after popping a handful of Vicodin pills” and had also beaten his wife and children after drinking and taking drugs, reports The Smoking Gun.
Miscellaneous Hoaxes and Mistakes
For even more blunders and random hoaxes involving David Beckham, Dutch royalty and even the Wikipedia logo, look here.
- David Beckham: Another Wikipedia “joke” from 2006 insisted that David Beckham “was a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century.” This hoax isn’t as defamatory as Robbie Williams’ or Tony Blair’s, but it’s still pretty outrageous.
- Wikipedia logo: Besides letting hoaxes slip through the cracks, Wikipedia is also guilty of designing a logo that includes “meaningless” and fake characters. The logo features the globe designed as a puzzle. Each puzzle piece contains a symbol or character from different languages. The Guardian reports, however, that the logo is wrong, and that one Japanese character and one Devanagari character were designed incorrectly and are therefore “meaningless.”
- Contributor lied: An anonymous Wikipedia contributor who edited thousands of entries and claimed to be a professor of religion turned out to be a 24-year-old college dropout, according to MSNBC. The hoax was discovered after The New Yorker “published an editor’s note stating that a 2006 Wikipedia profile in the magazine had erroneously described Essjay’s purported academic resume.” He was so respected in the Wikipedia community that he had even been made an arbitrator by Wikipedia and was hired by Wikia Inc.
- Holland royalty scandal: The Dutch royal family was the subject of a double scandal that started when a Wikipedia entry described a 2003 incident involving now Princess Mabel of Oranje-Nassau. The New York Times explains that Mabel had had a “liaison” with a drug dealer, causing Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende to refuse government approval for his son to marry her. The incident was reported on Wikipedia, but was unethically erased by the prince and princess in 2007.
- Death in the Afternoon: Hemingway’s nonfiction work Death in the Afternoon was reported by Wikipedia to be “a non-fiction book by Ernest Hemingway about the ceremony and traditions of Spanish whores.” The book is actually about Spanish bull-fighting, and the entry was later corrected.
- Jane Fonda: Jane Fonda’s reputation wasn’t really damaged through her Wikipedia page, but in a report from The Register, even Jimmy Wales admits that her biography at one time read “she won an Academy Award and has a dog,” and was not a good example of Wikipedia’s finest work.
- Plato: Plato was an ancient Hawaiian weather man and surfer, writer of cosmo girls and founder of the punahou in Ancient Florida? According to his Wikipedia entry discovered by a teacher and submitted to Flickr, he was.
- Stephen Colbert blocked: Stephen Colbert ripped Wikipedia’s open policy when he jokingly said that “if you make something up and enough people agree with you–it becomes reality,” according to Newsvine.com. Colbert called this phenomenon “wikiality” and even edited George Washington’s Wikipedia page on the show, and a Wikipedia entry for elephants. Colbert fans joined in the game, “repeatedly vandalizing approximately 20 articles on elephants before all being placed under a lock.” Colbert was also blocked from Wikipedia.
- Alan Mcilwraith: In this hoax, Wikipedia served Alan Mcilwraith with the ability to set up a fake life and possibly get girls. Mcilwraith put up an entry on on a Wikipedia mirror site describing the biography of a British army officer, Captain Sir Alan Mcilwraith, saying that he “is best known for risking his own life to protect that of his men for his action he was awarded DSO.” The poorly written entry even features a photo of Mcilwraith in full uniform. In reality, Mcilwraith was a Dell customer service representative.
- NPA “hoax”: When Anthony Benis, the creator of the NPA theory that claims human personalities are comprised of narcissism, perfectionism and aggression, put up a Wikipedia entry about his theory, Wikipedia users got mad, criticizing Wikipedia for letting the creator of a theory to promote his own ideas on the site, calling it a “vanity entry,” according to Ars Technica. Wikipedia deleted the entry, claiming that Benis was not notable enough to write his own entry.