Arab Media Spreads Wikipedia Hoax Claim About Late Saudi Oil Minister

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia
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Former Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who died Tuesday, was an architect of the 1973 oil embargo and widely misreported by Arab-language media, including CNN’s Arab edition, to have been the first Secretary-General of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Arab News reported Wednesday that the claim of him serving as secretary-general was false and attributed it to Yamani’s page on the Arabic Wikipedia, which has included the false claim since the page’s creation in 2005.

Unsourced until late 2019, an editor added a citation in November of that year to the official government page about Yamani at the website for the Ministry of Energy, Industry, and Minerals, which appeared to copy the Wikipedia article.

Yamani, who served as Saudi Arabia’s oil minister for 25 years, died at age 90 on February 23. He played a crucial role in organizing the oil embargo in 1973, which was a response to Western support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict and sparked an international economic crisis. Reports about Yamani’s death in major Arab-language sources claimed that Yamani had also served as the first secretary-general of OPEC. This also made its way into English-language Arab media, specifically the Saudi Gazette.

As Arab News reported, Yamani never served as secretary-general of OPEC. The oil cartel’s official website identifies the group’s first secretary-general as Dr. Fuad Rouhani of Iran. Only one Saudi, Mohammad Saleh Joukhdar, is listed as having served as secretary-general of the organization. Despite the claim being false, numerous Arab media reported it as fact. Among them were the Arab-language edition of Qatari outlet Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language version of Russia’s state-owned RT, and Saudi state-owned media outlet Al-Ekhbariya. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency was also among the outlets repeating the false claim. CNN Arabic also repeated the claim and has since posted a correction to its story.

The same error was noted by Arab News as being present on Yamani’s article at the Arab-language version of Wikipedia, where it remains as of this report. Yamani’s page has included the claim since 2005 when his article was originally created. While Arab News reported the claim was unattributed, a source was cited for the claim in November 2019, nearly a decade and a half after the article was started. The source was an archived profile of Yamani on the Saudi Energy Ministry’s official website that closely mirrors the Arab-language Wikipedia entry, including the false identification of Yamani as OPEC’s first secretary-general. Archives only show the Energy Ministry site existing since 2016, following its renaming from the “Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources,” a decade after Yamani’s Wikipedia page was created featuring the false claim.

Wikipedia making false claims that are then repeated by other sources, subsequently cited to support the original incorrect statement, has been dubbed “citogenesis” and has resulted in the spread of numerous hoaxes that originated on Wikipedia. Previous incidents include the naming of the coati, a Brazilian animal related to the racoon, as the “Brazilian aardvark” – a name coined by a Wikipedia vandal with no real-world use. The name persisted after the hoax’s exposure, finding its way into a Brazilian academic study. Other citogenesis incidents include the spread of disinformation about conservatives, such as fake inflammatory quotes attributed to late radio host Rush Limbaugh. Breitbart News was itself falsely smeared in another citogenesis incident.

Non-English versions of Wikipedia have proven particularly vulnerable to false or erroneous information, even information already corrected in English. A false statement claiming on English-language Wikipedia that Borat actor Sacha Baron Cohen worked at Goldman Sachs is one such example. In English, the claim made it to the Independent and the Guardian, the third most-cited outlet on Wikipedia, before it was exposed. While the English page was corrected, the claim made its way to French Wikipedia, where French media parroted it. The media repeating the claim creates a cycle where, now, Wikipedia cites French media citing Wikipedia as proof that the false claim is true on Cohen’s French Wikipedia page.

In another notorious incident occurring last year, the entirety of Scots-language Wikipedia was exposed as mostly being written in broken English by an American teenager who was not fluent in Scots.

Despite this history of spreading hoaxes and errors, corporate media increasingly praises Wikipedia as a check against “fake news” online. Many outlets, as well as academia and Big Tech, rely on Wikipedia. The site’s owner is pushing this promotional strategy following a recommendation by a firm owned by the Clinton Foundation’s Head of Communications to capitalize on concerns stemming from the 2016 presidential election, where many tried to blame “fake news” on Donald Trump’s surprise victory. Aside from its tendency to spread false information, numerous studies and analyses have also found Wikipedia exhibits a left-wing bias, which has been repeatedly criticized by the site’s co-founder.

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.

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