Members of a Reddit group for discussing Scotland found many articles on the Scots-language Wikipedia, purporting to be written in the language, were really written in a broken English imitation. Further examination of the articles revealed they were all edited or authored primarily by a single user who is one of Scots Wikipedia’s few administrators, users with special privileges on the site. The administrator is an American teenager not fluent in the language.
After learning of the widespread distortions on the site, members of Wikipedia communities have discussed potential responses to the scandal such as shutting down the Scots language site or undoing the tens of thousands of article contributions the user made.
The problems with the Scots Wikipedia came to light when user “Ultach” posted a thread about the site to the Scotland discussion group on Reddit last week. In the opening post Ultach expressed frustration with issues on the site, noting the status of Scots as a language rather than a variation of English has been disputed and claiming the Scots Wikipedia provided ammunition to critics favoring the latter perspective. Problems listed with the site’s handling of the language included using very little Scots vocabulary, using it incorrectly when it does, and being more grammatically like normal English rather than Scots.
Ultach identified these problems as all coming from a single user. While not identifying the user, Ultach’s description of the user’s edits matched that of Scots Wikipedia user “AmaryllisGardener” who made over 160,000 edits to the site since registering, accounting for over a fifth of all edits. AmaryllisGardener was listed around the time of the post as having authored over 27,000 articles on the site or almost half of all Scots Wikipedia articles. In addition, AmaryllisGardener is one of only four administrators on the site, having gained those privileges back in 2013.
Examining his contributions, Ultach criticized AmaryllisGardener as not understanding the Scots language, accusing him of misusing words or even fabricating words by writing English words in a Scottish accent and sometimes simply writing whole phrases in English with Scots words inserted randomly. Articles cited as examples were articles on a French mathematician, the Minotaur of Greek mythology, and the article on villages. Ultach stated these made little use of actual Scots language and suggested AmaryllisGardener had been using an online dictionary for translation, possibly combined with an online translation tool.
Previous concerns were raised about AmaryllisGardener’s translations. A user in 2016 requested a Scots translation of several phrases, but another user objected to AmaryllisGarden’s translation as “English with a few misspellings.” When someone mistook this response as insulting the Scots language, the user responded by identifying as a native speaker and stating “what is written on this site barely resembles the actual Scots language” adding the site treating these translations as legitimate worsened an already negative view of Scots. Ultach expressed similar concerns on Reddit, describing the distortions of the language as “cultural vandalism” and having “done more damage to the Scots language than anyone else in history.”
Controversy about the state of the Scots Wikipedia has prompted intense discussion of the matter on the Meta Wikimedia site, a place for discussing matters broadly affecting Wikipedia sites of all languages and other affiliated sites. Users noted during the discussion that, while the most prolific party, AmaryllisGardener was not the only non-fluent speaker making major contributions to the site as more than half a dozen other editors who had more than a thousand edits to the site identified themselves as having a similar or lower level of understanding of the language as AmaryllisGardener.
Suggested actions have included deleting the entire Scots Wikipedia, which many opposed as a potentially permanent move that would destroy contributions of native speakers and bar native speakers who may be interested in contributing, or undoing all of AmaryllisGardener’s contributions, a move with near-unanimous support. Others suggested manually reviewing all pages, requiring members to disclose their fluency in the language, or even re-orienting the site to function more as a selective high-quality presentation of the language rather than focusing on quantity of content. One problem noted with the increasing participation of Scots speakers is the language’s declining status and even native speakers intermixing it with English as the languages are closely related.
Responding to the controversy, AmaryllisGardener issued a statement expressing regret and defending himself as having been well-intentioned, but accepting whatever decision is reached about his contributions to the site. He added: “I was only a 12-year-old kid when I started, and sometimes when you start something young, you can’t see that the habit you’ve developed is unhealthy and unhelpful as you get older.” Wikimedia UK, the British chapter organization for the Wikipedia community, gave its own statement pledging to work with the community and the Wikimedia Foundation, who own Wikipedia, on addressing the problem.
The concern about the Scots Wikipedia being poorly-edited and run is not unusual for lower-profile Wikipedia sites in different languages. In the Azeri Wikipedia, users upset about the Armenian Wikipedia presenting an unrecognized separatist Armenian state in Azerbaijan as independent responded by editing the Azeri article on the Armenian Genocide to cast doubt on its occurrence. Croatian officials have warned about the Croatian-language Wikipedia being co-opted by Nazi sympathizers and engaging in genocide denial over actions committed by a Nazi puppet regime in Croatia during World War II.
Such issues have also been long-standing with sites affiliated with Wikipedia, which often face relatively less scrutiny. The widely-promoted Wikidata affiliate has become regularly susceptible to long-lasting vandalism. As Wikidata is integrated into Wikipedia and other affiliated sites, the vandalism is then spread widely. In one case, vandals had First Lady Melania Trump labeled a “porn star” for a week across many Wikipedia sites, including a simplified English Wikipedia intended for non-fluent speakers and children. Quote-compilation site WikiQuote was previously involved in getting hoaxes to appear in the media as happened when inflammatory fake quotes were attributed to radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Although more heavily-policed, the English Wikipedia is still awash with agenda-driven editing, whether from paid editing both permitted and prohibited or politically-motivated editing by left-wing editors supporting Antifa, the BlackLivesMatter movement, and Democratic presidential candidates such as Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris. Wikipedia’s politically-motivated editors have even drawn criticism from site co-founder Larry Sanger who declared the site’s “neutrality” dead. His criticism is corroborated by analyses showing the site’s most-cited media sources generally, and on American politicians specifically, are left-wing. Concerns about the impact of problems at Wikipedia and related sites are not baseless as media, academia, and Big Tech, all rely heavily on the online encyclopedia “anyone” can edit.
T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.