Run away to DreamWidth. Come with me. (reddragdiva) wrote,

"May I suggest that you try the space cadet organisation."

I had a journalist's query about a Scottish hoaxer/loon called Alan Mcilwraith, who evidently pissed off his co-workers so much with his delusions that they investigated him themselves and called the papers. Since he'd written a Wikipedia article about himself, I got an email.

It's an interesting study in how Wikipedia deals with hoaxes — patient and careful the first time around, less patient the second, shoot on sight the third.

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?

I had a look through the article history and wrote up the fascinating tale ...

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 article.

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Alan_Mcilwraith - 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 reverted.)

"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!

The Times article this morning barely mentions Wikipedia (our main involvement is that he wrote an article on himself and stuck it up at his desk at work), but I got a nice email back from the journalist, so hopefully I've educated someone as to how these things work out in practice.

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