A 22-year-old Irish college student posted a phony quote on deceased French composer Maurice Jarré’s Wikipedia entry for a sociology project, and inadvertently fooled the world’s media.
His academic grades may not be public knowledge, but it’s clear that Shane Fitzgerald, a University College Dublin student, is a tireless researcher.
The first time he changed the Wikipedia entry on Jarré, Wikipedia editors saw that the passage was unattributed, and deleted it right away; he put it up again, and it was gone within six minutes.
But the third time Fitzgerald got lucky and when he posted his fanciful phrases, nobody noticed.
The quotes, which he attributed to the dead Jarré, remained on the Wikipedia Web site for 25 hours before administrators picked up on them.
By that time journalists all over the world who were hastily writing Maurice Jarré’s obit had scoured Wikipedia.
Fitzgerald’s fabrications were so good that the Guardian used the passages both to open and to close. “My life has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life,” the obituary began, ending: “Music is how I will be remembered. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear.”
The quotes, which appeared on Wikipedia without any link to an original source, also fooled the London paper the Independent, some Australian newspapers and a host of blogs.
Fitzgerald later told the Guardian: “My aim was to show that an undergraduate university student in Ireland can influence what newspapers are doing around the world and also that the reliance of newspapers on the internet can lead to some faults.”
He told the Irish Times he wanted to show how people are connected through the internet.
In the online world, bloggers had little sympathy for their print peers, but they did have some advice. One commentator on Hacker News remarked, “It’s really disappointing. Wikipedia is a good starting place for learning about things, but if you're publishing something and citing Wikipedia then something is seriously wrong.”
In fact, it was weeks before the newspapers discovered their error – and that was only after Fitzgerald got in touch to tell them of it.
Fitzgerald’s act of Wiki-vandalism could have given some pain to the family of the recently deceased Jarré, but the student said he did his best not to cause offense. “I tried to think of a quote that was very general,” he told the Guardian. “I didn't want to falsify someone's obituary.”
And did the experiment help the student’s research at all?
Despite its international significance, the answer seems to be no. In answer to a question why he didn’t alert the papers earlier, Fitzgerald explained that it was because he didn’t end up using the information. “I was originally going to do a report for my class and then it didn't work out. I know I should have told you sooner.”