Circular reporting

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Two types of false confirmation. Dashed lines indicate sourcing invisible to a reviewer. In each case, a source (top) appears to a reviewer (bottom) as two independent sources.

Circular reporting, or false confirmation, is a situation in source criticism where a piece of information appears to come from multiple independent sources, but in reality comes from only one source.[1][2] In many cases, the problem happens mistakenly through sloppy reporting or intelligence-gathering. However, the situation can also be intentionally contrived by the source or reporter as a way of reinforcing the widespread belief in its information.[3]

This problem occurs in a variety of fields, including intelligence gathering,[2] journalism, and scholarly research. It is of particular concern in military intelligence because the original source has a higher likelihood of wanting to pass on misinformation, and because the chain of reporting is more prone to being obscured. It is also a problem in journalism and the development of conspiracy theories, in which the primary goal of a source spreading unlikely or hard-to-believe information is to make it appear to be widely known.

The case of the 2002 Niger uranium forgeries was a classic instance of circular reporting by intelligence agencies.[4]

Examples of circular reporting[edit]

1976 novel Roots[edit]

Author Alex Haley grew up hearing the oral history that his family's first ancestor to enter the United States was a young man named Kunta Kinte, who lived near the Kamby Bolongo, or Gambia River, and was kidnapped into slavery when out gathering wood. As an adult, Haley researched his family genealogy for what would become the 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, and he traveled to the Gambia in an attempt to confirm the family history of Kinte. Haley told the story of Kinte to a seminar of Gambian tribal experts, who searched for a griot—an oral historian—who might be able to confirm the story. Ultimately, Haley met a man named Kebba Fofana in the town of Juffure who was able to relate a story of Kunta Kinte that was strikingly similar to Haley's lifelong family history, an apparent confirmation that grounded Haley's novel (as well as the landmark 1977 miniseries adapted from the novel). After publication, however, it was discovered that griot oral histories were not reliable for dates before the 19th century, that Fofana was not a true griot, and that Fofana's confirmation of Haley's history was ultimately a retelling of the story Haley himself told Gambian experts.[5][6][7][8]

Iraq War[edit]

In 2001, the Niger uranium forgeries, documents initially released by SISMI (the former military intelligence agency of Italy), seemed to depict an attempt made by Saddam Hussein in Iraq to purchase yellowcake uranium powder from Niger during the Iraq disarmament crisis. They were referenced by other intelligence agencies to convince their governments or public that such a purchase had taken place.

In 2004, the Chairman of the US Senate Report on Pre-war Intelligence on Iraq told NBC's Tim Russert that a single informant, 'Curveball' "had really provided 98 percent of the assessment as to whether or not the Iraqis had a biological weapon."[9] This was despite the fact that "nobody inside the U.S. government had ever actually spoken to the informant—except [for a single] Pentagon analyst, who concluded the man was an alcoholic and utterly useless as a source."[10]

Other examples[edit]

In early 2012, a TV Tropes user named Tunafish claimed that a bug existed in Civilization that caused Gandhi to be much more aggressive. Tunafish did not provide any proof. The repetition of this false information led to the "Nuclear Gandhi" internet meme.[11][12]

In 2018, Shehroze Chaudhry was identified as an active member of the Islamic State who participated in the killing of several individuals, through reporting involving a New York Times podcast, among others.[13] The podcast and other outlets referenced blog posts authored by Chaudhry starting in 2016. The podcast was taken by government officials and others as evidence of the crime; however, the original posts were unverified and later renounced by the author.

Circular reporting on Wikipedia[edit]

Wikipedia is sometimes criticized for being used as a source of circular reporting, particularly a variant where an unsourced claim in a Wikipedia article is repeated by a reliable source, often without citing the article; which is then added as a source to the claim on Wikipedia.[14][15]

History of citogenesis[edit]

The xkcd comic strip that coined the term citogenesis[16]

The first recorded use of the term citogenesis to describe this phenomenon was in November 2011, when Randall Munroe used it in an xkcd comic strip. The neologism is attributed as being a homophonic wordplay on 'cytogenesis', the formation, development and variation of biological cells.[17]

An article in the magazine Slate referenced the four-step process described in the comic, to raise awareness about citogenesis as facilitated by Wikipedia. This type of circular reporting has been described as particularly hard-to-catch because of the speed of revisions of modern webpages, and the lack of "as of" timestamps in citations and "last updated" timestamps on pages online.[15]

Inspired by the comic,[18] Wikipedia editors have since maintained an internal list of citogenesis incidents to monitor its prevalence.[19]

Wikipedia advises researchers and journalists to be wary of, and generally avoid, using Wikipedia as a direct source, and to focus instead on verifiable information found in an article's cited references.[20] Researchers and Wikipedians alike are advised to note the retrieved-on date of any web citation, to support identification of the earliest source of a claim.

Examples on Wikipedia[edit]

Circular reporting by Wikipedia and the press

Prominent examples of false claims that were propagated on Wikipedia and in news sources because of circular reporting:

  • 2007: Wikipedia and The Independent propagated the false information that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen had worked at Goldman Sachs.[21]
  • 2008: A student arbitrarily added, "also known as....Brazilian Aardvarks" to the article on the coati, leading to subsequent commentary on the mammal that mentioned this nickname. Outlets repeating the nickname included The Independent,[22] the Daily Express,[23] the Metro,[24] The Daily Telegraph,[25] the Daily Mail, a book published by the University of Chicago,[26] and a scholarly work published by the University of Cambridge.[27]
  • 2009: The middle name "Wilhelm" was falsely added into Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's name. This was propagated by a raft of publications, including German and international press.[28]
  • 2009: An incorrect release year of 1991 was added to the Wikipedia article of the Casio F-91W watch. The BBC repeated this in a 2011 article. Communication with primary sources repeatedly confirmed a 1989 release year, but as a reliable secondary source, the BBC's use of 1991 made the misinformation difficult to remove. In 2019, KSNV cited this incident as another example of citogenesis.[29] The correct year was only restored after that review, with the KSNV article becoming cited in the article to support restoring the 1989 release date.
  • 2014: A statement was anonymously added to the Wikipedia page on UK comedian Dave Gorman stating that he had "taken a career break for a sponsored hitchhike around the Pacific Rim countries". When this was questioned, an article published at a later date (September 2014) in The Northern Echo, a daily regional newspaper in North East England was cited as evidence. Gorman repudiated the claim in an episode of his UK television show Modern Life Is Goodish (first broadcast 22 November 2016).[30]
  • 2022: A hoax article about Alan MacMasters, purported inventor of the toaster, was discovered to have been picked up in news media later used as citations.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sterzer, Marcus; McDuff, Patrick; Flasz, Jacek (Summer 2008). "Note to File—The Challenge of Centralized Control Faced by the Intelligence Function in Afghanistan" (PDF). Canadian Army Journal. 11 (2). Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 March 2012.
  2. ^ a b Rozen, Laura (7 June 2008). "The Cocktail Napkin Plan for Regime Change in Iran". Mother Jones. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  3. ^ Hurley, Micheal T.; Smith, Kenton V. (26 April 2004). "Chapter 8: The Aviv Report". I Solemnly Swear: Conmen, Dea, the Media and Pan Am 103. New York: iUniverse. p. 129. ISBN 0-595-29947-4. Retrieved 26 June 2019. Circular reporting occurs when what is reported is fed back to the originator in revised fashion which makes it difficult to objectively view the end product until you can trace back the sources to determine where the original information actually came from. Pan Am would eventually try to play that game by trying to introduce into court news reports that they themselves had a hand in producing.[self-published source]
  4. ^ Drogin, Bob; Hamburger, Tom (17 February 2006). "Niger Uranium Rumors Wouldn't Die". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 26 June 2019. This became a classic case of circular reporting," said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters. "It seemed like we were hearing it from lots of places. People didn't realize it was the same bad information coming in different doors. This is an interesting example of circular reporting.
  5. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (10 April 1977). "Some Points of 'Roots' Questioned; Haley Stands By Book as a Symbol". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 September 2021.
  6. ^ MacDonald, Edgar. "A Twig Atop Running Water -- Griot History", Virginia Genealogical Society Newsletter, July/August, 1991.
  7. ^ The Roots of Alex Haley. Documentary. Directed by James Kent. BBC Bookmark, 1996.
  8. ^ Wright, Donald R. "Uprooting Kunta Kinte: On the Perils of Relying on Encyclopedic Informants", History of Africa 8 (1981): 205–217.
  9. ^ "Pentagon's prewar intelligence role questioned". CNN. 11 July 2004. Retrieved 16 August 2013.
  10. ^ Michael Isikoff (14 June 2007). "The Dots Never Existed". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 14 June 2007.
  11. ^ Meier, Sid (2020). "Funny Business". Sid Meier's Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games. W. W. Norton. pp. 261–266. ISBN 978-1-324-00587-2.
  12. ^ Алексей Афанасьев (16 September 2020). История появления мифа о «Ядерном Ганди» – по версии самого Сида Мейера [The story of the appearance of the myth of "Nuclear Gandhi" – according to Sid Meier himself]. [ru] (in Russian). Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  13. ^ Cecco, Leyland (2 October 2020). "Did the 'Caliphate executioner' lie about his past as an Isis killer?". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  14. ^ Timmer, John (8 May 2009). "Wikipedia hoax points to limits of journalists' research". Ars Technica. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  15. ^ a b Harrison, Stephen (7 March 2019). "The Internet's Dizzying Citogenesis Problem". Slate. Retrieved 3 July 2019.
  16. ^ Munroe, Randall (wa). "Citogenesis" xkcd, no. 978 (16 November 2011).
  17. ^ Kemmer, Suzanne (5 December 2011). "Citogenesis". Neologisms database. Archived from the original on 14 August 2014.
  18. ^ "Wikipedia:List of citogenesis incidents", Wikipedia, 27 June 2014, retrieved 4 March 2021
  19. ^ "Wikipedia:List of citogenesis incidents", Wikipedia, 20 February 2021, retrieved 4 March 2021
  20. ^ Wikipedia:Citing Wikipedia
  21. ^ "Wikipedia Article creates Circular references". Tech Debug. 19 April 2009. Archived from the original on 26 February 2021. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  22. ^ Brown, Jonathan (21 June 2010). "From wallabies to chipmunks, the exotic creatures thriving in the UK". The Independent. Archived from the original on 21 May 2014. Coati (also known as the Brazilian aardvark): found in Cumbria
  23. ^ Ingham, John (21 June 2010). "Exotic animals could wipe out native wildlife". Daily Express. Retrieved 5 July 2019. There are also about 10 Brazilian aardvark in Cumbria
  24. ^ "Scorpions, wallabies and aadvarks 'invading Britain'". Metro. 21 June 2010. Archived from the original on 25 June 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2019. There are thought to be ten coatis, a kind of Brazilian aardvark, in Cumbria
  25. ^ Leach, Ben (21 June 2010). "Scorpions, Brazilian aardvarks and wallabies all found living wild in UK, study finds". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 25 June 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  26. ^ Randall, Eric (19 May 2014). "How a Raccoon Became an Aardvark". The New Yorker. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  27. ^ Safier, Neil (2014). "Beyond Brazilian Nature: The Editorial Itineraries of Marcgraf and Piso's Historia Naturalis Brasiliae". In Groesen, Michiel van (ed.). The Legacy of Dutch Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 179. ISBN 978-1-107-06117-0. In the case of the Coati, for instance, also known as the Brazilian aardvark, Buffon explained that "Marcgrave, and practically all of the Naturalists after him, said that the aardvark had six toes in its hind feet: M. Brisson is the only one who has not copied this error of Marcgrave."
  28. ^ "Wie ich Freiherr von Guttenberg zu Wilhelm machte". Bildblog (in German). 10 February 2009. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
    kdawson (11 February 2009). "False Fact on Wikipedia Proves Itself". Slashdot. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  29. ^ Moyer, Phillip (15 June 2019). "The case of an iconic watch: how lazy writers and Wikipedia create and spread fake "facts"". KSNV. Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  30. ^ Hardwick, Viv (9 September 2014). "Mears sets his sights on UK". The Northern Echo. Archived from the original on 29 September 2014. Retrieved 26 June 2019. He once hitchhiked around the Pacific Rim countries
  31. ^ Rauwerda, Annie (12 August 2022). "A long-running Wikipedia hoax and the problem of circular reporting". Input. Retrieved 23 August 2022.