01/08/2013 01:47 pm ET

Wikipedia Hoax 'Bicholim Conflict' Deleted From Site

Ever heard of the Bicholim Conflict? The undeclared war between Portugal and the Indian Maratha Empire lasted from 1640 to 1641, but there was little damage and few casualties. It was significant largely for its peace treaty; the settlement between Portugal and India helped pave the way for Goa as an independent state.

There's one little problem with this whole narrative -- none of it actually happened. The Bicholim Conflict is a 4,500 word Wikipedia hoax, an article that achieved "good article" status for its "thorough" treatment of a war that never existed, Techcrunch reports. The page was even nominated for "featured article" status by probable creator "A-b-a-a-a-a-a-a-b-a." Luckily, the Daily Dot reports, Wikipedia editors did not give the page a "featured article" status, saying it was based too heavily on "a few weak sources." The article's reviewers appear not to have noticed that the "weak sources" were as fake as the conflict itself.

The page on the nonexistent Bicholim Conflict persisted on Wikipedia for five years, until a curious Wikipedian under the username ShelfSkewed did a bit of research -- and realized that every single reference to the Bicholim Conflict originated at the article itself. "After careful consideration and some research, I have come to the conclusion that this article is a hoax—a clever and elaborate hoax, but a hoax nonetheless," he wrote, according to Techcrunch. Wikipedia quickly owned up to the mistake, deleting the article after it was reported on Dec. 29, putting an end to one of the most elaborate Wikipedia hoaxes in history.

It's tempting to round this all up and say it's proof of what many have suspected -- that Wikipedia is an unreliable source, "populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects," as one USA Today editorial describes it. But it's worth noting that a 2005 study published in Nature magazine revealed that Wikipedia is nearly as accurate as the canonical exemplar of accurate reference, the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The fact that "anyone can edit" the free encyclopedia does cause problems. For instance, there are many other hoaxes that have appeared on Wikipedia. Remember a torture device called "crocodile shears"? Those, like the Bicholim Conflict, were a wiki writer's fiction. The "Reich Corps Of The Trombone" was never created by Joseph Goebbels "for propaganda purposes." And the fictitious assassin of Julius Caeser, Gaius Flavius Antoninus, was listed on Wikipedia for eight years before being reported as a hoax.

Sadly, these hoaxes are often hard to catch, and can persist on the Internet even after Wikipedia takes them down. Sites like the New World Encyclopedia and Encyclo copy content from Wikipedia, a process that is legal because Wikipedia has a Creative Commons license. Articles deleted on Wikipedia can remain on these websites even long after hoaxes are revealed.

And given the more than 10 million articles on Wikipedia as a whole, it can be difficult to catch a hoax that's sufficiently well-written. As William Beutler, a Wikipedia consultant, recently told Yahoo! News, “Anyone who's clever enough to make up convincing sources and motivated enough to spend the time and skilled enough to write a plausible article can deceive whole Internet—at least for awhile.”



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