[WikiEN-l] How Wikipedia deals with hoaxes: a practical example

David Gerard dgerard at gmail.com
Thu Apr 13 12:30:03 UTC 2006

This is the story of a real case on en: Wikipedia, prompted by a
journalist query on the subject. I'm sending it to wikien-l and
wikimediauk-l as it's on topic, and Aphaia suggested wikipedia-l would
benefit from it as well.

Full credit to en:user:Average Earthman on this one - he did an excellent job.

This shows how Wikipedia deals with hoaxes: patiently and carefully
the first time around, less patiently the second, shoot-on-sight the

The (Glasgow) Daily Record articles:

The eventual Times article barely mentions Wikipedia:
- but I got a nice thank-you note back from Mr Lister and I think we
can say another journalist has successfully been informed.

I also blogged it: http://reddragdiva.livejournal.com/307381.html

- d.

Original query:

    My name is David Lister and I am a journalist for The Times. I am
doing a story today about a man called Alan McIlwraith, a call centre
worker in Glasgow, Scotland, who has been passing himself off as an
Iraq war hero. Mr McIlwraith, who claimed he was a sir and had
received the Military Cross, was exposed by a Glasgow tabloid
newspaper today; the British Army says that he has never even served
in its ranks. He also had an entry in wikipedia - which I am assuming
he wrote himself - in which he was described as someone who "can get
things done and is thought of as a hero…by the UK and NATO". His entry
has now been deleted: can you please tell me when it was removed? I am
assuming that he wrote this entry himself - what are the procedures
that one has to go through to submit an entry on your website?

My reply:

    Creating an article is easy - the only requirement is that you
create a WIkipedia user account, which is about thirty seconds'
effort. (This requirement was put into place in November last year,
which is actually after the Alan Mcilwraith article was first
created.) This means it's very easy to create something. The figures
as of November last year were about 4000 new articles a day, 2000 of
which were deleted within 24 hours. We've become ridiculously popular
since then, so I'm sure the numbers are much higher now.

    We get a lot of rubbish, but we operate on the principle of "keep
it open and clean up later" because it generally works well enough and
*most* jokes and hoaxes are easily spotted. Ever since the John
Seigenthaler hoax late last year, we've kept a *particularly* close
eye on the biographies of living people, which helps in areas such as
the current case.

    The article "Alan Mcilwraith" was created and deleted a few times.
I have administrator powers on English Wikipedia ("administrator" =
"janitor", rather than any sort of "senior editor" - an admin has
various cleanup powers, the ability to block vandals, delete and
undelete articles, etc.), so I am able to look up the history of the

    It's actually a pretty typical example of how Wikipedia deals with
people putting rubbish or hoaxes in, so I'll detail exactly what
happened for you to give you an understanding of the process. We get
this sort of thing all the time, and we have reasonably effective
procedures for dealing with persistent hoaxers.

    The article was first created 18:28 GMT, 5 October 2005 by an
anonymous IP-address user. It was a badly-spelt and ungrammatical
article detailing Mcilwraith's improbable heroics, and reads like
something a high-school student would create as a prank - a lot of
deletable articles are of that description, and we're used to this
sort of thing. The creator kept working at the article, also creating
a username (User:MilitaryPro) to continue working on it - that
username doesn't appear to have written on any other subject.

    (MilitaryPro did add Alan Mcilwraith to "List of honorary British
Knights" on 21:18 GMT, 4 October 2005, but someone removed him two
hours later, at 23:19 GMT, with the comment "del Alan Mcilwraith -
Google has never heard of him - pretty good for someone supposedly
knighted this year". Lists of this sort tend to be on a lot of
editors' watchlists.)

    MilitaryPro uploaded a purported picture of Mcilwraith:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Alan.No2.jpg , uploaded 22:36 GMT,
9 October 2005. Note that he marked it "may be reused for any
purpose", so if MilitaryPro is Mcilwraith and he owns the image, he
has in fact legally released it for free reuse if you need a pic :-)

    The article triggered the suspicions of Wikipedia editors in
fairly short order. One user, "Average Earthman", tagged it
"cleanup-verify" at 17:49 GMT, 10 October 2005, with the comment "This
smells like a hoax to me. What year was he made a CBE then?" The
"cleanup-verify" tag not only warns the reader, but adds tagged
articles to a category for dubious articles, so others can easily look
over what needs an unforgiving eye.

    Ten days later (19:48 GMT, 20 October 2005), with no verification
having been added to the article, another editor (user "RussBlau")
marked it for deletion. You can read the deletion debate at
- typical for an obvious hoax or joke article with no-one coming
forward with anything to verify otherwise. So it was deleted at 11:50
GMT, 26 October 2005.

    Interestingly, the same IP address that had created the article
had come back on 24 October and blanked the article, before its
deletion but after the first two comments on the deletion debate.

    MilitaryPro came back and created the article again at 18:39 GMT,
21 December 2005, working on it for a few days further, both as a
logged-in user and as an anonymous IP address. (The same IP address
also tried twice to delete the previous deletion discussion from the
list of old discussions, though these changes were quickly spotted and

    "Average Earthman" spotted the recreation at 12:44 GMT, 22
December 2005 - presumably he had the article on his watchlist - and
tagged it for deletion again, then re-tagged it 24 December for speedy
deletion as recreated deleted content, with the comments: "No, forget
the AfD, it's already failed in the past. Same lies again. It's a
hoax. And in case it isn't speedied, I still think it's a hoax. Uni at
14? Advisor to Generals at 22? No google hits? Really?" It was then
deleted the second time at 17:50 GMT, 24 December 2005.

    MilitaryPro came back to create the article a *third* time at
10:53 GMT, 17 February 2006. It was tagged two minutes later, at
10:55, for speedy deletion as "patent nonsense." MilitaryPro then
blanked the page at 11:00; "Average Earthman" tagged it for deletion
*again* at 11:09. (The more persistent the hoaxer, the easier they are
to deal with.) It was deleted for the third and final time at 16:19
GMT, 17 February 2006, and the page was locked with a "do not
recreate" notice (as you can see at
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Mcilwraith ) a few seconds later.

    Interestingly, the hoax has been noted on the talk page of the
article (the "discussion" tab at the top):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Alan_Mcilwraith . Now that he's
making the papers, we have the question of whether his newfound fame
as a hoaxer makes him notable enough to have a Wikipedia article!

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