How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit

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T. Mills Kelly encourages his students to deceive thousands of people on the Web. This has angered many, but the experiment helps reveal the shifting nature of the truth on the Internet. 

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A woman opens an old steamer trunk and discovers tantalizing clues that a long-dead relative may actually have been a serial killer, stalking the streets of New York in the closing years of the nineteenth century. A beer enthusiast is presented by his neighbor with the original recipe for Brown's Ale, salvaged decades before from the wreckage of the old brewery--the very building where the Star-Spangled Banner was sewn in 1813. A student buys a sandwich called the Last American Pirate and unearths the long-forgotten tale of Edward Owens, who terrorized the Chesapeake Bay in the 1870s.

These stories have two things in common. They are all tailor-made for viral success on the internet. And they are all lies.

Each tale was carefully fabricated by undergraduates at George Mason University who were enrolled in T. Mills Kelly's course, Lying About the Past. Their escapades not only went unpunished, they were actually encouraged by their professor. Four years ago, students created a Wikipedia page detailing the exploits of Edward Owens, successfully fooling Wikipedia's community of editors. This year, though, one group of students made the mistake of launching their hoax on Reddit. What they learned in the process provides a valuable lesson for anyone who turns to the Internet for information.

The first time Kelly taught the course, in 2008, his students confected the life of Edward Owens, mixing together actual lives and events with brazen fabrications. They created YouTube videos, interviewed experts, scanned and transcribed primary documents, and built a Wikipedia page to honor Owens' memory. The romantic tale of a pirate plying his trade in the Chesapeake struck a chord, and quickly landed on USA Today's pop culture blog. When Kelly announced the hoax at the end of the semester, some were amused, applauding his pedagogical innovations. Many others were livid.

Critics decried the creation of a fake Wikipedia page as digital vandalism. "Things like that really, really, really annoy me," fumed founder Jimmy Wales, comparing it to dumping trash in the streets to test the willingness of a community to keep it clean. But the indignation may, in part, have been compounded by the weaknesses the project exposed. Wikipedia operates on a presumption of good will. Determined contributors, from public relations firms to activists to pranksters, often exploit that, inserting information they would like displayed. The sprawling scale of Wikipedia, with nearly four million English-language entries, ensures that even if overall quality remains high, many such efforts will prove successful.

Last January, as he prepared to offer the class again, Kelly put the Internet on notice. He posted his syllabus and announced that his new, larger class was likely to create two separate hoaxes. He told members of the public to "consider yourself warned--twice."

This time, the class decided not to create false Wikipedia entries. Instead, it used a slightly more insidious stratagem, creating or expanding Wikipedia articles on a strictly factual basis, and then using their own websites to stitch together these truthful claims into elaborate hoaxes.

One group took its inspiration from the fact that the original Star-Spangled Banner had been sewn on the floor of Brown's Brewery in Baltimore. The group decided that a story that good deserved a beer of its own. They crafted a tale of discovering the old recipe used by Brown's to make its brews, registered BeerOf1812.com, built a Wikipedia page for the brewery, and tweeted out the tale on their Twitter feed. No one suspected a thing. In fact, hardly anyone even noticed. They did manage to fool one well-meaning DJ in Washington, DC, but the hoax was otherwise a dud.

The second group settled on the story of serial killer Joe Scafe. Using newspaper databases, they identified four actual women murdered in New York City from 1895 to 1897, victims of broadly similar crimes. They created Wikipedia articles for the victims, carefully following the rules of the site. They concocted an elaborate story of discovery, and fabricated images of the trunk's contents. Then, the class prepared to spring its surprise on an unsuspecting world. A student posing as Lisa Quinn logged into Reddit, the popular social news website, and posed an eye-catching question: "Opinions please, Reddit. Do you think my 'Uncle' Joe was just weird or possibly a serial killer?"

The post quickly gained an audience. Redditors dug up the victims' Wikipedia articles, one of which recorded contemporary newspaper speculation that the murderer was the same man who had gone on a killing spree through London. "The day reddit caught Jack the Ripper," a redditor exulted. "I want to see these cases busted wide open!" wrote another. "Yeah! Take that, Digg!" wrote a third.

But it took just twenty-six minutes for a redditor to call foul, noting the Wikipedia entries' recent vintage. Others were quick to pile on, deconstructing the entire tale. The faded newspaper pages looked artificially aged. The Wikipedia articles had been posted and edited by a small group of new users. Finding documents in an old steamer trunk sounded too convenient. And why had Lisa been savvy enough to ask Reddit, but not enough to Google the names and find the Wikipedia entries on her own? The hoax took months to plan but just minutes to fail.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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