Wikinews interviews journalist Konrad Godlewski, who uncovered BATUTA hoax

Sunday, February 14, 2010

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Four years ago, on February 9, a major Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza published a report detailing a hoax in Polish Wikipedia entitled Henryk Batuta. The author of the report was Konrad Godlewski; several weeks later, Godlewski began editing Polish Wikipedia. The results of his work include one featured article – pismo chińskie (Polish for "Chinese character") – as well as various articles relating to China.

During our interview, Godlewski discusses memes, hoaxes, and the Batuta Army – the creators of the hoax his paper reported on. From February this year, a special project on the Polish Wikipedia, BATUTA, saw a makeshift taskforce work on improving the quality of content. BATUTA stands for "Bezwzględna Akcja Troskliwego Uźródławiania Tysięcy artykłów", roughly translated as "Ruthless Action of Carefully Adding References to Thousands of Articles".


 ((Wikinews )) You are the author of the first news story about the Henryk Batuta hoax, uncovered four years ago in the Polish Wikipedia. Do you remember when did the authors of the hoax first come to you? Was it just before the publication or earlier? The hoax was uncovered on January 20 and the story was published on February 9, so there was a period of time between those two dates...

 ((Konrad Godlewski )) I found them myself. Accidentally. I was looking for new, interesting stories about the Internet. My newspaper colleague Robert Sankowski told me he had heard somewhere about a friend of a friend who had been doing some huge scam in Wikipedia. Step by step, I had traced that person. This was a few months before the publication, back in late 2005. A representative from Batuta's Army asked me to hold on with publication, even though the article had already been visible in Wikipedia for many months.

 ((WN )) Did you follow the process of deletion of the article?

 ((KG )) Yes, for the last few days. The Army from the very beginning wanted to test Wikipedia's defense mechanisms. It was then when I had a meeting with them and they told me about their views. They knew their hoax was nearing its end and they wanted to close it somehow.

 ((WN )) In your story you wrote they wanted to show how thoughtless the people of Warsaw were when it came to names of streets and neighborhoods. Now it turns out it was more about Wikipedia and its mechanisms.

 ((KG )) It was about a number of things at the same time. It was easy to notice the hoax was created by really smart people. Testing Wikipedia was one of the aspects of this entire thing.

The second one was the attitude towards streets and generally Poland's communist past. As one could easily guess, Batuta's Army had rather right-wing political views, most probably close to IPN [e.d. note: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej/IPN, English: National Memory Institute is a governmental agency in Poland conducting both criminal investigations and scientific research into the country's communist past], which fights against communist streets' namesakes.

And there was a third reason. As I'm sure you remember, in the 90s, conspiracy theories concerning Jews were popular in Poland. As some of the people of such origin had changed their names, the conspiracy theory made people see Jews nearly everywhere. Such lists were printed on paper and later they got published on the Internet.

 ((WN )) It's a bit strange. Having right-wing views, the Army caused the right-wing websites, which copied the hoax from Wikipedia, to get discredited as an effect of this.

 ((KG )) Not all right-wing people are uneducated individuals with antisemitic views.

 ((WN )) The same IP number (which is dynamic but from a narrow range) which was used to create the hoax, is still being used today to edit Wikipedia. For example, quite recently someone tried to smuggle in a biography of "Hipolit Pieściuk – sculptor and social activist". Google shows no information on this biography. They've added just text, not an article. Does it mean they have not give up on Wikipedia? Your article in "Gazeta Wyborcza" ended with the words "Batuta's Army is asking for anonymity and claims that Henryk Batuta is not their last word".

 ((KG )) I haven't heard about Hipolit. As far as I know, Batuta's case actually turned up to be their last word. As far as I know those people have made careers and they now have more serious things to care about.

 ((WN )) So they don't want to reveal themselves?

 ((KG )) I imagine it wouldn't look good in their CVs. There are people who think of such scam as a point of honor. I don't think that's the case with Batuta's Army. Anyway, this case had also had an effect on me. Before the Batuta story I had made a few trial editions in Wikipedia. But later something turned me on. I thought there was a group of idealistic people who want to make humanity happier with their meticulous work. And someone tried to make idiots of them.

 ((WN )) So you've started to develop articles up to featured article standards.

 ((KG )) Don't exaggerate. I've written just one such article. But thanks to this, I've realized how important Wikipedia had become. I don't think there is single journalist who doesn't use it.

File photo of Konrad Godlewski from 2009

 ((WN )) Would you reveal your Wikipedia nickname?

 ((KG )) Yes, it's actually my high school nickname – conew. Sadly, after some time I stopped. My family got bigger and I didn't have enough time to make all of humanity happier.

 ((WN )) When we were talking soon after your publication, you wrote to me you had hoped there would be some positive effects of your story. Do you think you've initiated a landslide change?

 ((KG )) I don't think it was a landslide. But still, I do acknowledge the fact that Batuta's case has become something of a milestone in the development of Wikipedia. I had a chance to about it with Jimmy Wales. It was in the time when the German Wikipedia was testing new, stricter editorial guidelines.

However, I think the most important was the impact on the other side – the readers. Even the best editorial system lets some mistakes pass undetected. I know it, I've worked in several newspapers. Batuta's case reminds us the old truth: dubito ergo sum. There are mistakes in respected encyclopedias and books as well. Sometimes those are "Dawkins-like" mistakes, if you remember the chapter about memes in "The Selfish Gene".

My favorite example is the one about Michał Boym, Polish Jesuit and one of the first sinologists. He had done a great job with his descriptions of Chinese plants and animals. His works were later published in Europe. Sometimes his text were stolen from him and published under other people's names. There was a case of "green-furred turtle". Boym wrote about it because it was extremely bizarre: a turtle with green fur. In fact it was a kind of seaweed growing on the turtle's shell. Boym described it in his Latin text as "viridium". And printers from Vienna made it "vindium" which can be translated as "floating in air". This slight typing mistake made people in the West believe there were flying turtles in China. What's more, there were pictures showing this unusual thing.

 ((WN )) Batuta also started to mutate and it happened at the very beginning.

 ((KG )) That's because Wikipedia's articles are the best example of memetics at work. The articles are like some living organisms transferred to a new environment – with time they evolve, adapting to the requirements such as neutral of point of view, proper language, verifiability and, most importantly, factual truth.

 ((WN )) In the printed edition of "Gazeta Wyborcza" your text was accompanied by a photo, supposedly showing Henryk Batuta. It actually did not appear in the Wikipedia article, but even Jimbo mentioned that photo when he was explaining this situation to the journalists.

 ((KG )) Oh yes. The photo was the idea of the editor of that day's edition. It's a petty it is now stuck somewhere in Gazeta'sarchives because it a really great job by the photo editor. Maybe Wikipedia should ask "Gazeta" for permission to use this little masterpiece.

 ((WN )) When I read some recent texts about Batuta I often come across different mutations of the story. The most common is the one which says the journalists were the ones who uncovered the hoax, in spite of the fact that your text was published several days after the uncovering made by the Wikimedians themselves.

 ((KG )) That's correct. It is quite common to attribute different things to the journalists because of their job which is to go around, look and investigate. I've seen Batuta being quoted in many publications on Wikipedia and the Internet. This is part of a broader problem of credibility of sources. It's horrifying but we are surrounded by the half-truths and lies.

 ((WN )) Roman, Władysław, Marek – the names of the members of Batuta's Army were obviously false as well?

 ((KG )) Yes, they were "alternative".

 ((WN )) Was the term "Batuta's Army" created after you had already begun to talk? Or maybe they came to you already with this term?

 ((KG )) Batuta's Army was invented by the hoax' creators as we spoke. Probably they wanted it to sound like some well-know political terrorist organizations like IRA or Red Army Faction. It was a kind of joke.

 ((WN )) News about Batuta became a "good meme" and later it began to live a life of its own. Many legends originated from this story. Do you think it will become a "hard" urban legend?

 ((KG )) I had thought so, but fortunately the Wikimedians woke up right in time and put an end to this. Today the original Batuta article is like an antibody in a vaccine – accompanied by a secure commentary, it can be used by anyone for the sake of his/her own immunity against such a "virus". However, another "Jewish conspiracy" theory is still thriving. It has something to do with Batuta's article, as in the hoax he was a communist activist with you-know-what origin. The theory I'm talking about was made popular by Okhrana (Russian secret police from the tzars times) with the publication of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion". It has made its way as far as to Japan. Recently I've been following its spread in China. A book called "The Currency Wars" has recently been published there. The author used to work at American financial institutions. When he came back to China, he wrote the book describing how America's finances are under control by a group of friends with common ancestry. I don't think there's any way of defense against a good hoax. I'm sure at least a few such Batutas are hiding somewhere in Wikipedia. It's a classical evolutionary arms race.

 ((WN )) When media published a story about a hoax concerning a false product (medicine for hangover), they praised the company for visionary marketing, despite the fact it came down to a deception. Why in the conflict between citizens and business, the media represents the corporations?

 ((KG )) Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. I don't think you can simplify it to such an extent. This is a chain: journalist – editor – publisher – owner. Each of the elements has its own motivations and there is little in common between them. That's maybe with the exception of desire for profit. But there are also some journalists who work mainly for their ideals.

I don't remember in detail that particular case, but a tendency to deceive is part of the human nature. What's more, people enjoy being deceived, they appreciate manipulation as long as it's witty and funny. One of the authors compared Batuta's case to provocations which are the basis of the modern conceptual art. The artist gets into the public space and shocks people in order to make them react, to make the viewer part of the game.

 ((WN )) Maybe it's my oversimplification indeed. And maybe that's because Wikipedia itself is being perceived as if it was a corporation. I remember when Google's Knol was launched and one of the media stories called Knol David and Wikipedia Goliath.

 ((KG )) It's a question of marketing and public relations. Google, as any modern company, spends a lot of money to create and maintain the image of both itself and its products. And Wikipedia is a bunch of Internet users who tries to set its own order by democratic means. It's part of democracies' nature that they need years to earn their own ethos, image and culture of organization. Just compare Polish and British democracy.

 ((WN )) OK, so I classically thank you for talking to me.

 ((KG )) Thank you.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.