Wikipedia is not reliable

The Bicholim Conflict lasted either eight months or five and a half years, depending on one’s vantage point. It either began in the middle of 1640 and lasted until early 1641; or it started on the fourth of July, 2007, and came crashing down on December 29, 2012. It took place in what is now the Indian state of Goa, or it took place in cyberspace. Either way, no one died.

Like most other historical wars, there’s a Wikipedia entry for the Bicholim Conflict. The entry talks about a battle between Portuguese authorities in what is now India and the local Maratha Empire, an Indian imperial power which lasted until 1818. The conflict, as described in said Wikipedia entry, began in 1640. The Portuguese controlled Goa but many locals wished to be under the rule of the Marathas. The Maratha Empire attempted to expand into Goa’s Bicholim region and the two sides clashed violently. According to Wikipedia, the conflict resulted in a non-aggression pact between the two, with Goa remaining under Portuguese control.
But if you visit that region today, you’ll find no evidence of the battle whatsoever. There’s a good reason for that — the Bicholim Conflict never happened.

On July 4, 2007, a Wikipedia editor under the username A-b-a-a-a-a-a-a-b-a created a 4,500-word entry for the Bicholim Conflict. It was entirely a work of fiction, but a believable one. Within a few months, the author had successfully received at least one significant, favorable review of his work by other (but legitimate) Wikipedia editors. Wikipedia has a list of criteria for “good articles” — articles which are well-written, neutral, and (comically, in this case) verifiable — and on September 21, 2007, the Bicholim Conflict was considered and ultimately listed as one of these “good articles.” Emboldened, a month later, the author submitted the article as a candidate to be featured on Wikipedia’s very visible front page, but he was thankfully rebuffed — not because the article was a fake, but because the footnotes were a mess. The fraud went undiscovered at that time, and, for that matter, for over five more years.

In August of 2011, a Wikipedia user noted that the dates used in the article were patently incorrect — the Maratha Empire’s leader at the time would have been only ten years old. (In fact, the Maratha Empire itself didn’t exist in 1640.) But again, no one took further action until in late December, 2012. That’s when a Wikipedia editor under the username ShelfSkewed was doing some cleanup work on the website, correcting references to books which had invalid ISBNs, likely due to typographical errors. In this case, however, the errors weren’t typos. The books didn’t exist at all. Other Wikipedia editors kept digging, finding the same result. On December 29, 2012, the Bicholim Conflict entry was deleted from the main, encyclopedic section of Wikipedia, and two days later, A-b-a-a-a-a-a-a-b-a was banned from editing Wikipedia in the future. (That didn’t matter much, though, as he hadn’t since October of 2007.)

To Wikipedia’s credit, the article is still available. And to the discredit of others, it’s also available as a book, for $20, via Barnes and Noble.

Bonus Fact: The Bicholim Conflict is not the only intentionally false article on Wikipedia, of course, and to Wikipedia’s further credit, the community collects and archives a lot of notable hoax articles. Among their complete list you’ll find out about the (fictitious) Upper Peninsula War between Michigan (U.S.) and Canada. Like the Bicholim Conflict, it’s a hoax, and an even more detailed one at that. Unlike the above-mentioned one, though, the hoax was detected within two weeks. (It’s creator has also been banned from editing in the future.)



Bitcoin soars

The value of Bitcoin skyrocketed Monday, coinciding with Senate hearings into the regulatory environment surrounding the virtual online currency.

As of 7:04 p.m. the Coindesk Bitcoin Price Index valued the currency at 1 Bitcoin to $675.61, an increase of more than 50 times its value 12 months ago. As recently as late October, Bitcoin was valued at less than $200.

The dramatic increase in price highlights the volatility of the stateless, regulation-averse, encryption-based currency. It also coincided with hearings at the Senate Homeland Security Committee, in which legislators, regulators, law enforcement and interest groups grappled with how to deal with the new currency.

During Monday’s hearing, Bitcoin was primarily characterized as a new technological frontier for criminal activity in need of regulatory innovation. “Regulation both at home and abroad is going to catch up. Because it has to,” said Jennifer Shasky Calvary, director of FinCEN, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman lauded the efforts of law enforcement to bring down the illicit online networks—like the contraband marketplace Silk Road—that run on Bitcoin, saying big busts show that Bitcoin “is not in fact anonymous and it is not in fact immune to investigation. And that is an important message to send.”

Whatever course the regulators take, it’s clear this is just the beginning. For every weakness revealed by recent events like the bust of the online contraband marketplace Silk Road, there is an anecdote pointing to what a mammoth task the U.S. government faces as it seeks to impose a regulatory regime on the so-called “Dark Web.” Not long after it was shutdown, for example, the Silk Road was reborn online, an apt illustration of the game of whack-a-mole that awaits law enforcement on the dark web.

On the other hand, as George Mason U. law professor Jerry Brito noted at Monday’s hearing, virtual currencies are not particularly new. “They’ve been around for years,” he said, citing World of Warcraft gold as his first example. And as FinCen Director Jennifer Calvary said, “Cash is probably still the best medium for laundering money.”