The story behind Jar'Edo Wens, the longest-running hoax in Wikipedia history

Editors' discovery in March that Jar'Edo Wens was a 9-year fabrication just one of 33 found in 2015 on site that relies on public input, policing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 April, 2015, 3:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 April, 2015, 3:39am

Jar'Edo Wens is an Australian aboriginal deity, the god of "physical might" and "earthly knowledge". He's been name-dropped in books. Carved into rocks.

And, as of March, conclusively debunked.

There is no such figure, it turns out, in aboriginal mythology; instead, Jar'Edo Wens was a blatant prank, a bald invention, dropped into Wikipedia nine years ago by some unknown and anonymous Australian. Some suspect a prankster by the name of "Jared Owens".

By the time editors noticed the false god Jar'Edo Wens on March 3 this year, he had leaked off Wikipedia and onto the wider internet.

Created in 2005, the hoax deity's reign lasted nine years, nine months and three days. He may not have been a god, but Jar'Edo Wens became the longest-lived hoax on the free encyclopedia yet that anyone knows about.

Ask any diehard Wikipedian about hoaxes, and they'll call them a natural byproduct of the Wikipedia project: Since the day the open-sourced encyclopedia opened for business in 2001, pranksters, vandals and other saboteurs have done their best to disrupt it.

But in the past year, Wikipedia hoaxes appear to have grown far more frequent - or at least far more visible. Editors have uncovered 33 major hoaxes since January, including several about fake bands and fake political parties. Of Wikipedia's 16 most egregious hoaxes, 15 were discovered in the past six months.

"There's a lot of nonsense on Wikipedia that gets papered over," sums Gregory Kohs, a former editor and prominent Wikipedia critic. "Wikipedia is very good at catching obvious vandalism, like swearing and caps-lock. But non-obvious vandalism?" Not so much, he says.

To understand how misinformation spreads on Wikipedia, you must first understand how the site works. Anyone can edit Wikipedia: More than 130,000 readers have done so in the past 30 days. But because wide-open editing is an obvious recipe for disaster, the site is undergirded by a vast volunteer bureaucracy. These editors and administrators aren't paid, and they aren't technically affiliated with Wikipedia or Wikimedia, the aloof nonprofit that oversees the site.

But whether because they believe in Wikipedia's mission or they like the power or they're bored, they spend hours policing the site's new changes, checking links and tweaking grammar and arguing on internal message boards.Their success rate, by all accounts, is a pretty high one; in a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales boasted that he no longer saw vandalism as much of a problem for the site.

And yet, critics like Kohs and his colleagues at the Wikipedia watchdog Wikipediocracy maintain that there are untold errors that editors don't even know about, let alone fix.

On Monday night, Kohs wrapped up an experiment in which he inserted outlandish errors into 31 articles and tracked whether editors ever found them. After more than two months, half of his hoaxes still had not been found - and those included errors on high-profile pages