Circular reporting

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 intelligence-gathering practices. However, at other times the situation can be intentionally contrived by the original source as a way of reinforcing the widespread belief in its information.[3]

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.

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]

Circular reporting on Wikipedia

The genesis of citogenesis

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, citing the article; which is then added as a source to the initial claim.[5][6]

History of citogenesis

In November 2011, Randall Munroe coined the term citogenesis to describe this phenomenon in an xkcd comic strip, as wordplay on cytogenesis (the original process for the creation of cells) except for citations (often shortened to "cites").[7] The popularity of the comic brought the term into common use, and raised awareness about the risks of Wikipedia-mediated citogenesis for readers and journalists alike.

The four-step process illustrated by the comic has been referenced as the typical way that circular reporting develops via Wikipedia. This 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.[8]

Inspired by the comic,[9] Wikipedia editors have since maintained an internal list of citogenesis incidents, to monitor its prevalence.[10]

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.[11] 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

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: Sacha Baron Cohen. Wikipedia and The Independent propagated the false information that Cohen worked at Goldman Sachs.[12]
  • 2008: the coati. Beginning in 2008 when a student arbitrarily added "also known as....Brazilian Aardvarks" to the article on the coati, much subsequent commentary on the mammal mentioned this unsubstantiated nickname. Outlets repeating the nickname included The Independent,[13] the Daily Express,[14] the Metro,[15] The Daily Telegraph,[16] the Daily Mail, a book published by the University of Chicago,[17] and a scholarly work published by the University of Cambridge.[18]
  • 2009: the name "Wilhelm" was falsely added into the middle of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's name. This was propagated by a raft of publications, including German and international press.[19]
  • 2009-2019: the release year of the Casio F-91W watch. In 2009, an incorrect release year of 1991 was added to the Wikipedia article. The BBC echoed 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.[20] 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: Dave Gorman. In January 2014 a statement was anonymously added to the Wikipedia page on UK comedian/broadcaster Dave Gorman stating that "he had taken a career break for a sponsored hitch-hike 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).[21]

Examples outside Wikipedia

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 publics that such a purchase had taken place.

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 The New York Times podcast, among others.[22] 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.

See also

External video
How false news can spread - Noah Tavlin, TED-Ed[23]


  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. 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. Timmer, John (8 May 2009). "Wikipedia hoax points to limits of journalists' research". Ars Technica. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  6. Harrison, Stephen (7 March 2019). "The Internet's Dizzying Citogenesis Problem". Slate. Retrieved 3 July 2019.
  7. Munroe, Randall (w, a). "Citogenesis" xkcd 978 (16 November 2011)
  8. Harrison, Stephen (7 March 2019). "The Dizzying Problem of Citationless Wikipedia "Facts" That Take On a Life of Their Own". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  9. "Wikipedia:List of citogenesis incidents", Wikipedia, 27 June 2014, retrieved 4 March 2021
  10. "Wikipedia:List of citogenesis incidents", Wikipedia, 20 February 2021, retrieved 4 March 2021
  11. Wikipedia:Citing Wikipedia
  12. "Wikipedia Article creates Circular references". Tech Debug. 19 April 2009. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. "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
  16. Leach, Ben (21 June 2010). "Scorpions, Brazilian aardvarks and wallabies all found living wild in UK, study finds". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 25 June 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  17. Randall, Eric (19 May 2014). "How a Raccoon Became an Aardvark". The New Yorker. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  18. 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.
  19. "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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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
  22. Cecco, Leyland (2 October 2020). "Did the 'Caliphate executioner' lie about his past as an Isis killer?". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  23. "How false news can spread - Noah Tavlin". TED-Ed. 27 August 2015. Retrieved 26 June 2019.