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S03E23: Comparative Hoaxology
May 15, 2012 5:36 PM   Subscribe

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. These stories have two things in common. They are tailor-made for viral success on the internet. And they are all lies.
posted by Sebmojo (203 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
I posted about Kelly's previous version of the class.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:43 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Then Bioy Casares recalled that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number or men. I asked him the origin of this memorable observation and he answered that it was reproduced in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, in its article on Uqbar.
posted by dng at 5:43 PM on May 15, 2012 [32 favorites]


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.

Oh, reddit.
posted by brundlefly at 5:44 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


You can't really fool Wikipedia though can you? By its nature there is no council that looks at an entry and says, "Yes, this is correct, and good, and complete. Lock it down, no more revisions." Whether it takes minutes, days weeks or years to notice a problem and change an entry, and whether changes are prompted by Joe Blow or a leading scholar on the subject Wikipedia is functioning as it is meant to. The only way to actually fool Wikipedia is to fool every single person in the world, forever.

Last January, as he prepared to offer the class again, Kelly put the Internet on notice.

This professor is a dick. We all aren't playing his game.
posted by Science! at 5:47 PM on May 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


You can't really fool Wikipedia though can you? By its nature there is no council that looks at an entry and says, "Yes, this is correct, and good, and complete. Lock it down, no more revisions."

You haven't been around much lately, have you?
posted by scalefree at 5:53 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


I read it was a head in the trunk.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:59 PM on May 15, 2012


Huh. Regardless of what I think of his morals, the projects themselves sound fascinating... Imagine the large scale cooperation to create the primary documents, the timed release of information! Much cooler than the classes I got to take, at least.
posted by Phire at 6:00 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every time somebody tries to point out that they read something on The Internet so it MUST be true, I tell them about the time I read on Wikipedia that heterochromia disproportionately affects yetis.
posted by lekvar at 6:01 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yo, Professor Kelly, I'm really happy for you and I'mma let you finish, but H. L. Mencken's Bathtub Hoax is the greatest fake history hoax of all time. OF ALL TIME.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:05 PM on May 15, 2012 [12 favorites]


Every time somebody tries to point out that they read something on The Internet so it MUST be true, I tell them about the time I read on Wikipedia that heterochromia disproportionately affects yetis.

Thus underlining their point. Duh.
posted by maxwelton at 6:05 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Agree that "putting fake info on Wikipedia that nobody gets around to noticing or correcting" is not exactly the same as "fooling Wikipedia."
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:06 PM on May 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


This professor is a dick.

I'd have to agree. I don't understand what he thinks he's accomplishing. What is the lesson? "People can lie." Well...yes? This is not revelation. It seems to me you could structure essentially the same class, call it "The Art of the Con," assign a book, have the students go out and perpetrate a real-estate scam, and then claim they learned from the hands-on experience and that it served to remind society to be wary.
"Why would I design a course," Kelly asks on his syllabus, "that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past?" Kelly explains that he hopes to mold his students into "much better consumers of historical information," and at the same time, "to lighten up a little" in contrast to "overly stuffy" approaches to the subject.
"Lighten up" sometimes has merit, but it's facile. When you are literally using your students to try to make the world worse—even if your overall goal is to make parts of it better—I think you need to be packing something more substantial than "lighten up." He doesn't seem to be.
posted by cribcage at 6:10 PM on May 15, 2012 [15 favorites]


The students become very familiar with how hoaxes work, I think the idea is, and can thereafter not only spot them, but make good guesses as to how exactly they're being done.

I am unsure about the ethical aspect of this. I don't think that hoaxes are necessarily unethical, but pitching one on Wikipedia goes against the stated mission of the site, and therefore requires contempt of Wikipedia and everyone who takes it more seriously than you. I feel like Reddit is a decent place for this, but not every subreddit would be.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:17 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


So this is what passes for academic work these days?
posted by Kitty Stardust at 6:17 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, I was going to guess that they were all examples of adversarial design.
posted by NoMich at 6:20 PM on May 15, 2012


Wow, I didn't know you could major in douchebaggery.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:20 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


AS a public history person, I think this absolutely fantastic. This delivers a pretty powerful one-two punch of underscoring the importance of reliable sources and original research, and provoking thoughts on the love of the human race for a terrific story, and what that means for the practice of history. This is very exciting and I'm off to read more.
posted by Miko at 6:26 PM on May 15, 2012 [19 favorites]


I love the idea of promoting critical thinking to an audience that would believe something as ridiculous as Lincoln inventing a 19th century facebook. There are better ways to do this. The internet is filled with lies that fool all sorts of people, all day, everyday. This seems like a childish way to prove something that isn't in doubt: people are gullible, believe whatever they read and don't know a damn thing about history.
posted by IvoShandor at 6:27 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't understand what he thinks he's accomplishing. What is the lesson?

Yeah....I am with you there. I have been scratching my head over this for an hour or so. I cannot for the life of me figure out why being taught how to lie in authorship circles is some sort of quality to aspire to?

I work with a lot of freelance writers and one topic that comes up all the time is integrity in their writing. Or more accurately, how it is eroding on a daily basis all over the place. It seem that, in the world with "authors" the likes of James Fry and Jayson Blair (among many others), it has not only a badge of honor to falsify and get caught, but to then go on to profit from the very act which, at its most basic level, it repugnant. And now we have a person who has decided that teaching how to dupe people as what appears to be a sport, is almost inconceivable, but there it is. I don’t know who are the bigger knuckleheads in this situation are – the teacher, the GMU faculty that approved the course, the students who think this is somehow valid or all of them.

What’s next? A course in creative financial investment that centers around duping unwitting seniors out of their retirement savings? Oh yuk yuk yuk…wouldn’t that be an interesting experiment?
posted by lampshade at 6:34 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm really having trouble understanding who is being harmed. The only difference between this professor and his students and ever other lazy scammer and poor historian on the internet is that they're openly telling you about it.

There are better ways to do this.

I'm not so sure. It sounds like a lot of fun, very exciting and a phenomenal, real-time proof of concept.
posted by Miko at 6:35 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


I think it's quite interesting and don't understand all the hate. It's not like they ruined wikipedia.
posted by snofoam at 6:36 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Hmm, I think I am going to have my next class create new MeFi personae.
posted by spitbull at 6:38 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know, it doesn't seem so wrong as long as they announce the hoax at the end of the course. The end result may be to make the Internet more paranoid and hoax resistant (because we know these guys are out there), which isn't really a bad thing.
posted by Kevin Street at 6:39 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


@Sidhedevil: Agreed also.

It's hard to judge without having seen the sequence of events, but from the description it sounds as if it was done by a 'walled garden' of users, and that sort of thing can go unnoticed for a while. The articles appear to have broken a number of fundamentals of Wikipedia practice that some critical outside editor would have spotted sooner or later: particularly use of unverified primary sources, blogs and YouTube videos, and citing factoids from websites with no reason to trust ("strong first-person voices" cut no ice with regular Wikipedia editors).

The reality that a well-organised hoax can fool Wikipedia for a while isn't evidence that the whole Wikipedia system is broken, any more than (say) temporarily fooling an ER department by presenting with Munchausen's Syndrome is evidence that doctors don't know how to diagnose illnesses.
posted by raygirvan at 6:40 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


AS a public history person, I think this absolutely fantastic. This delivers a pretty powerful one-two punch of underscoring the importance of reliable sources and original research, and provoking thoughts on the love of the human race for a terrific story, and what that means for the practice of history. This is very exciting and I'm off to read more.

One could just as easily perpetuate a hoax on the class and order them to produce papers on the subject. Or indeed investigate existing conspiracy theories or disinformation exercises.
posted by anigbrowl at 6:41 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I also don't see how it is comparable to comitting securities fraud or the other comparisons people are making. In general, it's not a crime to make up crazy stories. No one got hurt here.
posted by snofoam at 6:41 PM on May 15, 2012


"I am down on memes and I shan't quit ripping them"
posted by Flashman at 6:43 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


As with the previous incarnation of the course, the students all walked away from the course with a firm belief that research counts and that accepting whatever you find online at first glance is a bad policy. I was really pleased to see that they extended this lesson beyond the Internet to pretty much all historical sources. As one student said to me, from now on she was going to apply the “sniff test” to all her sources..if it smelled slightly fishy, she was going to have to seek corroboration. If all they got out of the class was this one lesson, then it was well worth teaching.
Syllabus for Lying About the Past: "By learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we all become much better consumers of historical information. In short, we are much less likely to be tricked by what we find in our own personal research about the past...I hope that you’ll improve your research and analytical skills and that you’ll become a much better consumer of historical information. I hope you’ll become more skeptical without becoming too skeptical for your own good. I hope you’ll learn some new skills in the digital realm that can translate to other courses you take or to your eventual career. And, I hope you’ll be at least a little sneakier than you were before you started the course."

Having read the material, I'm still enthusiastic but would wish for a little more of a historical framework that deals with not just hoaxes, but with the constant manipulation and spin of information about the past that we all live with constantly. The important piece of this course is not that you can deceive people, but that people - the people - are constantly decieved by historical narratives developed by people with vested interests in promoting one storyline or another. Hoaxes themselves are a very small-time, inconsequential version of that, though they do demonstrate quite well why those spins are possible. Still, the underlying concept here, as an educational approach not just for his students but for the online world, is really a pretty brilliant approach.
posted by Miko at 6:46 PM on May 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


There are better ways to do this.

Around 1984, I took a history course that focused on one topic. That time, the topic was the Jack the Ripper murders. (Oh, and it met at night in an urban campus in Detroit. Not relevant but true, and I mention it so you can imagine the feelings some of the students, especially the female ones, experienced.)

We read the first assigned book. Then we read the second assigned book and -- hey, wait a minute, this book contradicts the first one! Indeed it did. The professor deliberately started us out with a bad book on the topic to make an effective point ... and it was done without deliberately introducing bad information into the world.

Sorry, I think this GMU prof is too focused on sensationalism.
posted by pmurray63 at 6:49 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


I spoke too soon. Apparently several acres of protected wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay area were significantly damaged by people looking for the hidden treasure of Edward Owens. This included nesting grounds of the Ruddy Turnstone and several other migratory shorebirds. I guess this guy is an ass after all.
posted by snofoam at 6:49 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


One could just as easily perpetuate a hoax on the class and order them to produce papers on the subject.

That had occurred to me, but you can only do it once, it's for credit, and the students are paying. I think it would have been a breach, and more to the point counterproductive, not to establish trust within the class.

Or indeed investigate existing conspiracy theories or disinformation exercises.

They do that in the class. But then they learn from those techniques as they create their own attempt.

Honestly, from the perspective of training potential future historians, I can't see a downside. Hackers often ask for praise for revealing the weaknesses of a system. The same thinking should apply here.
posted by Miko at 6:50 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm not so sure. It sounds like a lot of fun, very exciting and a phenomenal, real-time proof of concept.

Part of my point is, what exactly is being proven here? There are hoaxes in the world? In history? On the internet? Nothing novel there.

It isn't that it's uninteresting but like I said, it seems to be childish, it very much elicits a feeling, at least to me, of look how oh so much smarter we are than these plebes that we fooled oh so easily. The gotcha moment at the end of the course isn't helping alleviate this feeling. It just really rubs me the wrong way, I guess.
posted by IvoShandor at 6:52 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Eugene Mirman talks about people who cite statistics that they barely remember, and so are almost making it up. He says he likes to make up stuff in response:

"I read that everyone in American is Asian."

They'll reply, “Well you’re not Asian.”

“I read I was.”
posted by benito.strauss at 6:55 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are we sure this article in The Atlantic isn't a lie?
posted by Sys Rq at 6:55 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nothing novel there.

And yet people are taken in all the time. It's like arguing against the Amazing Randi.

In addition, to each generation, it's brand new. My dad gave me his late 19th century copy of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in the late 80s, and it blew my mind.

I think asking what he's "trying to prove" is a little off base. What he's trying to do is run an interesting history course. It may be that the course adds to the abundant evidence that "the internet," broadly defined, is a lousy place to gather historical information if you don't have strong research and analysis skills. But I'm not sure it's his goal to prove that so much as to demonstrate it to each successive class.
posted by Miko at 6:56 PM on May 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


Are we sure this article in The Atlantic isn't a lie?

In your evaluation of The Atlantic as your source, what arguments can you muster that it could or couldn't be a lie? Relative to other sources, how do you rate the Atlantic?
posted by Miko at 7:01 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


This whole thread is a hoax. In fact, Mefi is a hoax. None of us exist.

*disappears*
posted by jonmc at 7:02 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Miko - I'm not against running an interesting history course, I think it's important, to me, very much so. But does one have to actively make the world worse to do it?

The reason I keep bring the word "prove" into this is because it seems like this prof is desperately trying to prove something, I think that why it elicited the feeling it did in me: childishness, "I'm smarter than you", etc.

I just really think there are better ways to teach these lessons, whether they're novel to their audience or not isn't really relevant I suppose. I thought pmurray63's comment offered up one such way that this can be done better without the negative externalities, if you will.

Interesting is one thing. Damaging is another. Outside of the audience of this history course, and anyone who happens to be tuned in when the hoax is announced, or uncovered, this is pretty mean-spirited. I think that anyone enrolled in History 389 doesn't need to be convinced that history is interesting, and they probably don't need to learn how to think critically, if they do at that point in their college career, well, we're all just fucked then, aren't we?
posted by IvoShandor at 7:05 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


They didn't fool Reddit because it's a community which evaluates shared information, and as such Reddit has a lot in common with Metafilter. It did take them 26 minutes to figure it out; Metafilter could have done it in ten. ;)

BTW, the author of the linked article is named Yoni Applebaum, which seems suspicious somehow, don't you think?
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:13 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like that this course is straight up called "Lying About The Past." Not "Creating narratives about the past that feel true." Not "Changing hearts and minds with factional stories." Not "Biographies based only loosely on real life."

This is sort of the historical equivalent of figuring out what genomes increase transmitability in flu viruses and then publishing that information to help other virologists identify and track dangerous flus.
posted by muddgirl at 7:13 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


But does one have to actively make the world worse to do it?

It's hard to answer that, because I actually think they're making the world better by doing it.
posted by Miko at 7:15 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


In all the years I've been adding false information to Wikipedia, I think the most surreal was the times I'd add fake books to prominent authors (that did stay up for years), and within a few months, Amazon would offer that book for sale.

And then I'd order one.

I'm still waiting, but OH MAN WOULD THAT BE AMAZING
posted by jscott at 7:15 PM on May 15, 2012 [25 favorites]


I'm a bit of a history geek and I make a large part of my living as a fact checker, and I'm with Miko here: this seems like a great thing and I'm really curious why people are reacting so strongly.

Hackers often ask for praise for revealing the weaknesses of a system. The same thinking should apply here.

Yeah, exactly.

I'm still thinking through my reaction, but I'm really wondering why people think some creatively false information temporarily existing on the Internet "makes the world worse."
posted by neroli at 7:16 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can see where you're coming from Miko, and I do think that announcing the hoax at the end of semester ameliorates the worst aspects, but I still feel that two wrongs don't really make a right.

On one side of the ledger is engendering skepticism and good analytical practice amongst a small cohort of students, true, but on the other side of the ledger, I would argue, is a small erosion in public trust.

I think this can be illustrated more clearly by imagining if the goal was to get papers and other news outlets to report on made-up hoaxes. "So what?" You might argue, "The news media is hopeless and regularly reports on incorrect, bias, suspect things in the most credulous manner."

This is true, but by levelling your criticism in such a way, you are actually contributing to the problem - and contributing to an erosion of (deserved or not) public respect and standards for news media, when what it really needs is higher standards, engendering more respect etc etc.

Now, I don't think it's controversial to say that news media has well and truly expanded to include blogs and other social media platforms. Exercises like don't just encourage more skepticism, but they encourage more disgust and scorn.

In my opinion, an exercise that would be more worthy - ethically speaking - and just as educational would be asking students to discover current frauds and hoaxes on wikipedia and in other media, then do a "forensic" examination of how and why they were perpetuated. Students could then compare different hoaxes to see commonalities and differences, compare them with hoaxes of yesteryear etc, and then develop a "lexicon" of modern hoaxing.

That way, students get a far broader exposure to different hoaxes, an understanding of what's changed and what hasn't and they're able to perform a form of public service and contribute to the good in the process.
posted by smoke at 7:20 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Eugene Mirman talks about people who cite statistics that they barely remember, and so are almost making it up. He says he likes to make up stuff in response:

In turn I have read that this is how misinformation can be so persistent, because you remember This Information That I Know Is Fact separately from and more persistently than The Source Of That Information, so you're unable to later distinguish in source credibility from "Encyclopedia Britannica" to "angry Internet image board."

I have, of course, forgotten where I read that.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:21 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's revealing the weaknesses of a system, and there's exploiting the weaknesses of a system.

This does the latter. Hence, dick.

Anyway, it's no great revelation that everything on the internet isn't 100% reliable. What a fucking waste of tuition fees.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:22 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


a small erosion in public trust

Right, but why is that a bad thing? Why is the public trusting something they shouldn't be trusting in the first place, and why is it a bad thing to demonstrate the ways in which that trust can deceive?

This is true, but by levelling your criticism in such a way, you are actually contributing to the problem

I don't think this is contributing. I think this is revealing an existing problem that, if you were successful in being included, has probably already resulted in a ton of misinformation well before you came along - or you wouldn't have been able to penetrate it as easily.

just as educational would be asking students to discover current frauds and hoaxes on wikipedia and in other media

Such as....? Do you have a list of undiscovered frauds?

Does debunking teach you as much as "bunking" about how to create credulity in a narrative?
posted by Miko at 7:26 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


on the other side of the ledger, I would argue, is a small erosion in public trust.

To me, that sounds like a good thing. I mean, a bunch of people working together on Reddit did history. They analyzed and weighed claims and evidence and sources. It's not just the Internet that "isn't 100% reliable." Nothing is 100% reliable. But you only really, truly know that by doing the work yourself -- by doing exactly what the people who exposed these hoaxes did.
posted by neroli at 7:26 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


T. Mills Kelly: not a lightweight.
posted by Miko at 7:29 PM on May 15, 2012


I think there is a lot of value to the idea of performing this activity publicly, but I agree that this is a problematic way of doing it. I think if done well this experiment teaches not just the students in the class but also the general public about the dangers of believing everything you hear about history. Most people asking for evidence about an historical event would look for corroborating secondary sources, and be satisfied with that. A discerning few might ask to see the primary sources, but probably wouldn't look much deeper once provided with the sources. But the truly dangerous historical inaccuracies and misinterpretations run far deeper than that. Heck, some books have won serious acclaim among historians before critical scrutiny revealed that it was blatantly false. Everyone knows they can't believe everything they read, but actively demonstrating to an audience that they generally do believe it anyway teaches that lesson far more viscerally than any other method possibly could. So in that sense a public performative aspect is absolutely crucial; pmurray63's comment, while excellent for the members of the class, doesn't include that public element to better not just the students but the entire community and so doesn't quite have the same goal.

But I'm not sure how willing a general audience is to unravel the significance of the experiment. A lot of people probably think "well those guys are dicks" and move on, convinced only that historians lie because they're jerks. They need to be pushed to think about "how do we know what we know?" in order to really consider the lessons of the hoax. The students have a dedicated professor to usher them through that process, but the general public gets a few media articles. And I am seriously skeptical that most news organizations will convey this topic with the nuance it deserves. So in that respect I can see how the hoax might have the unintended opposite effect of convincing the general public that you can't ever trust an historian (or god forbid that stupid historians let their opinions meddle with the facts of "what really happened), rather than thinking more critically about how fundamental interpretative analysis is to history.

I think it is an absolutely brilliant idea, though. I think it would be amazing to create some sort of museum exhibit or activity with this same purpose.
posted by lilac girl at 7:32 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


But I'm not sure how willing a general audience is to unravel the significance of the experiment.

I think we're seeing the answer in the reaction here: not very.
posted by Miko at 7:36 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think we're seeing the answer in the reaction here: not very.

I don't think that's what we're seeing here at all. I think what we are seeing is a questioning of the entire premise of the experiment's significance, at least from my end. I understand you disagree with that, but I don't think what you state in the above quoted is true at all.
posted by IvoShandor at 7:41 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


In hindsight, this is the best comment from the MeFi discussion of Kelly's previous version of the class:

Sounds like the kind of great class you can teach exactly once.
posted by The World Famous at 7:42 PM on May 15, 2012


Reddit would have done it faster, but it needed to submit the evidence it found in the form of a rage-comic first.
posted by hellojed at 7:43 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Miko: how do you distinguish between writing false Wikipedia articles and writing false invoices? Is it because Wikipedia isn't as important as money?
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:44 PM on May 15, 2012


Agree that "putting fake info on Wikipedia that nobody gets around to noticing or correcting" is not exactly the same as "fooling Wikipedia."

Yeah, this is like going to Harvard and stuffing a copy of Atlanta Nights onto a library shelf and then saying "Ha ha! I fooled the Harvard University Library system!"
posted by XMLicious at 7:45 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


If it's a brilliant idea for a college course then I think we shouldn't wait until then to teach it to students. Everyone should be taught how to lie in elementary school, instead of having to pick it up on the streets, the way I did.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:46 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


If there was a way to condense this down into a shorter activity, I think this experiment would have amazing value in middle or high school history classes. That's the last time most people interact with history, and the vast majority leave that last class with the idea that history is about revealing facts, and if you just string the facts together a perfectly clear story will reveal itself. But if you give students the opportunity to take "the facts" and distort them in misleading ways they have a chance to see just how much space there is to create a story, and indeed that you have to create a story to even make any sense out of the facts at all. There is no way around interpretation in history, and being aware of that truth is basically what I see as the takeaway message from the hoax experiment.
posted by lilac girl at 7:46 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does debunking teach you as much as "bunking" about how to create credulity in a narrative?

Is that the job of historians, or of literary artists? I'm not very bent out of shape about this either way, but I'm not sure about the essential lessons learned from pranking the internet. To be honest, I would support this more enthusiastically if it was done strictly for the lulz.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:47 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think we're seeing the answer in the reaction here: not very.

I think that's a bit uncharitable and quite dismissive regarding some of the criticisms of the program.
posted by smoke at 7:47 PM on May 15, 2012


Wikipedia isn't as important as money?

Um, yeah? They both based on trust, but if the institution underwriting currency was crowd-sourced and anonymous, I'd be paying for everything with gold.
posted by neroli at 7:49 PM on May 15, 2012


I found a box in an attic which had Obama's real birth certificate. He was actually born in Kenya.

Aw, nobody would believe that.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:52 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Miko: how do you distinguish between writing false Wikipedia articles and writing false invoices?

I'm not sure I do distinguish between these things. What are you driving at?

Is that the job of historians?

Yes, I'd definitely say that understanding how narratives are assembled from the facts of the past, and how those can be not only manipulated for emphasis and message but often created from whole cloth, is in fact exactly the job of historians.
posted by Miko at 7:52 PM on May 15, 2012


Is anyone actually surprised by this?
posted by quanti at 8:01 PM on May 15, 2012


Miko: how do you distinguish between writing false Wikipedia articles and writing false invoices?

A false invoice would generally constitute fraud. I'm not sure a false Wikipedia article would, except under very specific, hypothetical circumstances.
posted by The World Famous at 8:02 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Part of the discrepancy in perspective is something that lilac girl points out: there's a huge disconnect between the form history education takes in primary, secondary and even higher education in most cases, and what the practice of history really is. It is shocking how vast a gap exists between what's presented to the public (in public education) as "history" and what historians do. To do this kind of project is to get right involved in the kinds of things historians do and think about - but in most cases, history education is as far from this as you can imagine. It presents history as done, fully cooked, and ready to imbibe. If a student looks at an actual primary source of anything, it's a minor miracle in secondary history. If students gather and interpret evidence, it's practically unheard of except in the kinds of circles these students travel in.

For reasons cultural and highly political, the presentation of history to most people is a fairly wan and pat version of the real activity. Historians aren't necessarily trying to craft an irrefutable historical record. They're trying to create new knowledge and suggest new interpretations of the past. It's not about the establishment of a litany of fact so much as about using evidence to argue for or against interpretations of past events. The kinds of presentations of history we were all exposed to through formal and informal sources fifteen or twenty years ago are continually reviewed and challenged, so much so as to make the "history" we learned as children a sort of quaint artifact itself.

One of the central goals of some historians, public historians I mean, is to make history useful to people in the present. Well, it can be useful in a lot of ways - connecting to topics of contemporary relevance, generating new knowledge about something like sources of green energy that were exploited in the past, etc. But it can also be useful by shedding light on the process of narrative creation itself, by revealing the ways in which we think about things like "truth" and "identity" and understanding the underpinnings of the assumptions and assertions we make. That's what this kind of history program does. But for those who think of history as a process of establishing fact and then settling on a shared interpretation, who haven't made the leap from what passes for history at the public school level and the much more dynamic, contentious, challenging and questioning way that academic historians do history, I can understand how alienating this sort of approach seems.

This kind of project is all the more significant in an age where the authority of the scholar is routinely questioned by projects (such as Wikipedia) which embrace the philosophy that knowledge has been fully democratized, that no one's view is more significant than any other person's view, and that anyone can interpret any information presented to them. By playing at that same game, the project has revealed not only that citizen history (at least inasfar as debunking) is viable, but emphasizes that support for a given historical narrative depends not on the trappings of authority - a "trusted" website, a major newspaper - but on the gradual processes of verification, triangulation, and massing of multiple sources as well as sound reasoning.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on May 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


A false invoice would generally constitute fraud.

But only in certain contexts. I could make a big pile of made-up invoices right now and paper my walls with them or give them to friends, but that's not fraud.
posted by Miko at 8:11 PM on May 15, 2012


I'm still waiting, but OH MAN WOULD THAT BE AMAZING

So that's why your wishlist contains a copy of Jacques van Meegeren, son of the author of the Quixote.
posted by frimble at 8:21 PM on May 15, 2012


I could make a big pile of made-up invoices right now and paper my walls with them or give them to friends, but that's not fraud.

It would be fraud if your friends believed you, and I don't think you'd get off by saying that you were teaching them an important lesson. There are two components to fraud: the harm done to the person defrauded, and the harm done to society generally. Fraud is a crime because it destroys the mechanisms of trust by which our society operates. In this case the students have harmed the people who believed them (and therefore carry a false belief, or look stupid) and they have also harmed us generally by reducing the mutual expectation that people will do the right thing. Yes, it's good to know that people may lie, but it's also good to know that people may forge invoices. In each case the person providing the "lesson" is doing something wrong.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:25 PM on May 15, 2012


It would be fraud if your friends believed you

It would depend on multiple additional factors, as well, including intent.
posted by The World Famous at 8:31 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


List of [known] hoaxes on Wikipedia - not recently updated.

It would be fraud if your friends believed you

No, it would not. You misunderstand fraud as a legal charge. It would only be fraud if I used my friends' belief to extort something of value from them or otherwise left them worse off because of a transaction I instituted, and if I had done so using a variety of specific actions. Making fake invoices is not fraud.

I don't think you'd get off by saying that you were teaching them an important lesson

Most likely, you would indeed get off if you had neither taken anything of value or done anything to hurt the other person, apart from asking for their belief in your offer. To prove fraud you have to prove injury, and printing a bunch of invoices isn't injury, no matter what I do with them short of using them to leave another person worse off with knowing intent.

Setting aside the irony of citing Wikipedia,There are many conditions that have to be satisfied to prove fraud, at least in the US. Printing a bunch of documents is not sufficient, not a by a long shot. It's not a crime to encourage someone to believe something you say.
posted by Miko at 8:33 PM on May 15, 2012


Fraud is a crime because it destroys the mechanisms of trust by which our society operates.

No. It's a crime because it harms people materially.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


...this seems like a great thing and I'm really curious why people are reacting so strongly.

Because this happens all the time anyways on Wikipedia and people actually have to work to guard against and unravel it and coordinate large-scale projects to combat it, except they don't get paid for their work the way this professor and his employer are making money in the course of coordinating efforts to screw things up. But of course the sweat or aggravation of someone working on Wikipedia isn't "anything of value."

He could just have the students passively observe people like PR agencies and political campaigns and others doing this sort of stuff on Wikipedia, or better yet learn about it by tracking down and unraveling efforts like this. And then, when he wants to pee in someone's pool, why not his own? How about he has his students plant false information in research and documentation projects at George Mason University?

It would be totally awesome if a group of Wikipedians - perhaps the ones who work on Wikinews, which allows a bit of "original research" in its endeavors - ran an "experiment" to see how much fake stuff they could get introduced into Professor Kelly's work, or at least if they could plant tantalizing leads to see how far they could lead him down a goose chase for some academic holy grail in his particular field. All as a serious journalistic investigation for the benefit of society, of course.
posted by XMLicious at 8:36 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Apparently several acres of protected wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay area were significantly damaged by people looking for the hidden treasure of Edward Owens. This included nesting grounds of the Ruddy Turnstone and several other migratory shorebirds. I guess this guy is an ass after all.

I was thinking ass until I read this, now I'm thinking giant douchbag fuckup.

This guy needs to be responsible for the mess he made. EPA needs to haul him into court and fine the livin' shit out of him.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:43 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


people actually have to work to guard against and unravel it and coordinate large-scale projects to combat it

"Have to?" No, they don't have to. They're volunteering.

he wants to pee in someone's pool, why not his own? How about he has his students plant false information in research and documentation projects at George Mason University?

So, given the standard of research systems at a university, how would you do this? How would you get fake articles onto JSTOR, or have fake reference librarians direct students to fake directories and indexes? How could you fake multiple references and citations and peer review? Would you redirect the library interface website, and could you (a) actually do the coding necessary to make it look and act real, and (b) produce an entirely fake set of search results that led to an entirely fake body of articles that were referenced outside of the fake world you'd created?

It would be far harder than doing what the class did, and far less likely to succeed even a little bit. Part of the point of this project is exactly this -- to highlight the differences between systems of information presented in various commonly accessed resources online and the systems of information researchers rely on to establish relative confidence in the accuracy and veracity and reliability of their work.
posted by Miko at 8:44 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Apparently several acres of protected wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay area were significantly damaged by people looking for the hidden treasure of Edward Owens. This included nesting grounds of the Ruddy Turnstone and several other migratory shorebirds

Where does this information come from?
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


And then, when he wants to pee in someone's pool, why not his own?

There's something weirdly territorial about this. If Wikipedia is in fact democratic, it is as much his pool as anybody else's. And therefore,what counts as peeing in the pool, and what counts as briefly floating some inflatable animals across the surface of said pool, is up for grabs.
posted by neroli at 8:51 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I can't find any source for that claim about shorebirds. I'm not calling bullshit quite yet, but it's hilarious that people are so quick to believe it without any citation.
posted by neroli at 9:10 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Totally. I can't substantiate it either. I suspect a "well played, snofoam."
posted by Miko at 9:12 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


The students become very familiar with how hoaxes work, I think the idea is, and can there after not only spot them, but make good guesses as to how exactly they're being done.

Does the ability to make hoaxes confer any immunity to them? Or does it either just make you falsely certain that you can see through them, or make your hyper-alert to them so that you see them when they don't exist?
posted by JHarris at 9:23 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Have to?" No, they don't have to. They're volunteering.

I think this is probably the most disingenuous thing I've ever seen you say, Miko. Certainly, the people who are writing the application code that runs Wikipedia don't "have to" fix problems that occur, nor do any volunteers working at the data centers "have to" fix the servers as they break down - they could just let it all fall apart and the effort and donations of millions of people go to waste. I mean hey, it's the product of volunteerism, right? So it's basically worthless, unlike srs bsns things that would "have to" be fixed.

It would be far harder than doing what the class did, and far less likely to succeed even a little bit.

All the more valuable it would be for society, then!

And yes, since you asked, I personally would be able to do what you describe if I put my mind to it. You wouldn't need an entirely fake set of results, you would do what is called a "man in the middle" attack in which you would display the real web sites and real search results and just insert a few extra, tantalizingly interesting ones.

And hey, maybe you could drop a virus or two at the same time to give you a back door into their computers, and actually directly insert fake stuff into their notes and the final drafts of their papers, and send emails in their name to other academics so you could spread falsehoods with the voice of authority. What fun and enlightenment regarding the patterns of trust and credence in society and the nature of knowledge could be had!

For me or other Wikipedians to do remotely would be an extra order of difficulty beyond faking the content, but for students physically at George Mason University with a bit of computer savvy it would be a cinch, especially if spending time on it was also getting you course credit.

neroli: There's something weirdly territorial about this.

How is it "weird" to be territorial about someone coming in to experimentally screw up a project you're working on? Is it weirdly territorial for me to be pissed off when some political candidate's campaign does the same sort of thing and tries to basically create and control a Wikipedia article that's a brochure for their guy?

If, as in the analogy drawn by Jimmy Wales mentioned in the article, someone went to a city and dumped a bunch of trash on the streets to scientifically analyze and learn from the behavior patterns of the residents and sanitation workers there when they go to clean it up and otherwise deal with it, would it be "weirdly territorial" if they were rather pissed off by this and didn't at all object to the idea of someone going and dumping trash on the front lawns of the "researchers"?

If Wikipedia is in fact democratic, it is as much his pool as anybody else's.

Wikipedia is not democratic. You can't blank out the article on George W. Bush, erasing all of the research and effort and time people have put into gathering that information and the going back and forth to compromise on a balanced presentation of that information, and permanently replace it with "GWB sux" for kicks no matter how many people "vote" for it or say they want to see it happen.
posted by XMLicious at 9:49 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fraud is a crime because it destroys the mechanisms of trust by which our society operates.

No. It's a crime because it harms people materially.


That's an element of the crime, not necessarily the same as the policy behind it. There are lots of things that harm people materially which are not illegal. but that's by-the-by.

Yes, I'd definitely say that understanding how narratives are assembled from the facts of the past, and how those can be not only manipulated for emphasis and message but often created from whole cloth, is in fact exactly the job of historians.

I agree, but I still think you can learn that via debunking as well as by bunking. I love history and I also like historiography, but somehow I've managed to develop a good awareness of these issues without actually perpetrating any hoaxes. As I said above, I don't object, especially; I just amn't convinced by your argument that this is the best or only possible way of developing the necessary critical faculties.
posted by anigbrowl at 9:52 PM on May 15, 2012


...permanently replace it with "GWB sux" for kicks...

Actually, come to think of it, a new system developed over the last few years may soon be activated that would prevent this from even happening temporarily.
posted by XMLicious at 9:59 PM on May 15, 2012


Great ambition, lousy technique.

Wikipedia will wander on though. There are still several million pages untouched by this sort of douchebaggery.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:03 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


i think the lesson here is that crowdsourcing anything (uncool term btw) is doomed to failure and that we need a strong central authority to separate the legitimate facts from the illegitimate, lest you risk a situation where all are basically warring against all
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:34 PM on May 15, 2012


Anyway, it's no great revelation that everything on the internet isn't 100% reliable. What a fucking waste of tuition fees.

Actually, it is clearly a revelation for those of the younger generation for whom the web and the Internet are their primary media.

Before the web came along, I remember studying courses in media analysis and critical thinking. We examined how ownership structures (among other things) allowed media companies to craft agendas. They didn't tell you how to think, but they certainly told you what to think about. It opened my eyes, made me look at TV and newspapers in a whole new way and has influenced my career and thinking ever since (I work in web development and publishing oddly enough). In essence, I became media literate, instead of just a blind consumer of the pablum that passed for news, information and entertainment.

As a parent of a 12-year-old who regularly parrots bullshit he finds online for school assignments (which I make sure he corrects with more rigorous research), I welcome a course of this nature. From the history perspective, I have been favouriting virtually all of Miko's comments, as she's been making a far more lucid argument than I ever could. But from a straight-up media literacy perspective, I'd support more courses like this and believe a variant could be introduced at the middle or high-school level. Maybe even "should" rather than "could."

Some would argue that the web is making people dumb, or at least more gullible. I like the fact that this course explores that hypothesis (although I disagree that it does so in a "haha, look at the plebes" way, as someone up thread contends; they reveal themselves after all, rather than taking advantage of the duped masses in some way). If it provides an eye-opening moment for students -- and, better, those that were hoaxed! -- and they stop accepting all the bullshit at face value and start thinking critically about what they know about the world and where or whom they are learning it from, then I think it's far from a waste of tuition fees.
posted by sharpener at 11:05 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia vandalism made me feel like a legit crazy person for a few moments. One time I was watching Drop Dead Fred and thought, hmm, I don't know much about Rik Mayall other than that DDF is a guilty pleasure and he was amazing in Blackadder, I should wiki him. Turns out, unbeknownst to me, I was reading a vandalized page that said he died in his 98 quad bike accident, and it really bummed me out and stuck with me because, well, Drop Dead Fred was a guilty pleasure and he was great in Blackadder.

Then, like a year later, I was blearily reading through my Google Reader feeds while laying in bed one morning and some blog post mentioned some of his current work and, because I was half asleep, the idea that I had read a vandalized Wikipedia page didn't cross my mind - oh no, this was serious. Time had somehow changed and I had somehow retained a pre-change memory. I bet this happens all the time, little facts here and there but nobody really noticed until so much trivia was at our fingertips, I bet people are noticing this all the time now... Being half asleep and impressionable, I spooked myself with that for a few minutes before waking up and realizing, oh yeah, Wikipedia.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:09 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Time had somehow changed and I had somehow retained a pre-change memory. I bet this happens all the time, little facts here and there but nobody really noticed until so much trivia was at our fingertips, I bet people are noticing this all the time now..

You don't need Wikipedia to feel this way. The universe shifts out from underneath me all the time.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:08 AM on May 16, 2012


Who is harmed by it? He is saying that SOME lies do not matter, or are justified by a greater good. Nobody can see the harm in this belief?
posted by EnterTheStory at 12:49 AM on May 16, 2012


Wikipedia data point: I have a cousin who is very famous - to the extent that people become 'experts' in him. There are books published about him. He has a wikipedia page. Another distant, elderly relative of mine has been trying to correct a commonly held but utterly trivial misconception about this famous person for _years_ - I forget what it is exactly, but it's something in the order of whether he was a prefect at high school, or whether he played left-back or right-back in the football team in 1955.

At some point years ago, someone wrote a book that reported [famous person] played right-back (for example). My relative knows for sure that this was not the case - because *he* played right-back on the same team, goddamit, and he knows for a fact that [famous person] would never have played in that position.

Every time he tries to make a change to the wikipedia page, an 'expert' reverts the change claiming, rightly, that there's no cite for this fact and who the hell are you? My relative responds that he grew up with [famous person], changed [famous person]'s nappies and went to school with [famous person] and knows damn well that it isn't true. To which the expert cites the source of the misinformation and reverts the change again. Elderly relative splutters that that's the problem, don't you see, swears a bit and once again vows that this is the hill he's going to die on.

Whenever this subject comes up in my family. (About once a year, probably.) It's held up as proof that the internet is evil and a corrupting influence on the young . So think on, Wikipedia. Think on.
posted by Jofus at 1:48 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's held up as proof that the internet is evil and a corrupting influence on the young.

I see the conundrum your elderly relative is in. He knows that the info on that Wikipedia page is wrong, yet he cannot get it corrected, because he has no written sources. But then again, "written sources" seems like a perfectly valid criterion. "Eyewittness" is what your relative is, and even though he may be subjectively a better source, the reliability of his account is more difficult to confirm. In that sense, it is not much better than "I heard that somewhere."

There are of course cases, in which Wikipedia gets the facts wrong, and this may be one of them, but we don't even know that -- your relative might himself be misremembering or otherwise gotten the facts wrong. But at least the standard (written sources) is quite clear. It is not at all clear to me that allowing eyewittness accounts without further corroboration would improve the overall accuracy, even though in some cases like the one you mentioned it probably would. Seems to me that if you allow "I was there! I saw it!" as sufficient corroboration, then that might lead to lots of editors in wiki wars to erroneously claim just that.
posted by sour cream at 3:28 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


sour cream - Oh god, yes. But a gentleman of certain age likes to imagine his word is above that of some spotty-faced herbert on the internets.
posted by Jofus at 3:44 AM on May 16, 2012


T. Mills Kelly: not a lightweight.

Hmm, but also a specialist in the history of modern East Central Europe, and encouraging his students to perpetuate intellectual fraud in somebody else's field (mine, actually: American true crime). I wonder if he'd find this quite as provocative an assignment if a professor in Eastern Europe was assigning his students to lard the web with falsehoods about Prof. Kelly's area of interest?

Also: Pirate treasure? Jack the Ripper in New York? A more troubling issue here is what unimaginative hoaxes are being perpetrated. I'd assign these whippersnappers some extracurricular reading and see if they can't do better next time.
posted by Scram at 3:51 AM on May 16, 2012


This course, and others like it, including Lying About the Present, are part of a degree program: Marketing Deception. Noted graduates of the program include James O'Keefe.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:34 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


About 100 years before Wikipedia, a guy named Léo Taxil thought it would be fun to play a prank on the Freemasons, and on the Catholic Church's opposition to Freemasonry. He let everyone in on the joke in 1897, but there are still plenty of people who will tell you that the Masons worship Satan. See also: Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not sure what else Kelly thinks he needs to prove... couldn't he and his students see whether it's possible to undo some of these stupid "facts" that float around?
posted by usonian at 4:46 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


i once made an article for a fictional 19th century mayor of baltimore that stayed up for 7 months
posted by p3on at 4:49 AM on May 16, 2012


I was just doing a little thread-appropriate hoaxin' upthread.
posted by snofoam at 4:50 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I remember when Wikipedia went offline in protest, seeing the panicked reaction of many students when they realized that source was not available to them. This academic hoaxing feels like a much more subtle teaching experience along the same lines - it shows that Wikipedia is indeed not a source available to the researcher, or at least it's not a source a student should use like they once used ye olde encyclopedia.

I'm all for this sort of creative approach to learning. To make a good fake, you often have to know as much or more about a subject than an expert, not to mention becoming an expert in a bunch of tangentially related topics. Want to make a fake Jack the Ripper trunk? Okay, you'll need to know more about the Ripper than most historians, but you'll also need to learn about period luggage design, transport, and so on.

One thing I think this course is missing, however, is the instructive unraveling of the fake. Were I to teach a class like this, I'd almost want two sections pitted against each other, each creating their own fake while trying to debunk the other's. At the end of the semester, offer a symposium to the public where each class details their "findings" and then after an intermission, pulls back the curtain.

I love old Victorian museums like the Pitt-Rivers, the sort of cluttered collections that range from shrunken heads to tribal garb to old tools. In that context, the mundane becomes the fantastical - no, that can't just be a simple knife, it's a sacrificial dagger! I don't care if the card says otherwise, my imagination is fired and my attention captured. I've duped myself into learning there and spent far more time looking at a knife used for mending sails than I would have otherwise had I clearly been introduced to it.

Miko, I'd still love to see the PEM open up its vaults and take out some of the weirder objects it has accumulated over the years. Set them up in one of the period Salem houses the museum owns under the guise of being the Miskatonic Collection. Invite writers, local and horror and otherwise, to invent descriptions of the items in a Lovecraftian context and pair them up with descriptions as to what the items actually are. Visitors would come in looking for the spooky and weird and would end up leaving knowing something they didn't before.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:14 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you like hoax-prank stories, there's a nice and short one at about the hallway point in this episode of RadioLab.
posted by K.P. at 6:02 AM on May 16, 2012


Is that the job of historians, or of literary artists? I'm not very bent out of shape about this either way, but I'm not sure about the essential lessons learned from pranking the internet. To be honest, I would support this more enthusiastically if it was done strictly for the lulz.

I could see quite a bit of value in studying hoaxes. What people are willing to believe tells you quite a bit about the story they tell themselves about how the world works, which would tell you quite a bit about the story their society tells them about the world. Which is either a) interesting to an outsider or b) pretty helpful if you're part of that society and are trying to remove as much of your own biases from the research as possible.
posted by Gygesringtone at 6:06 AM on May 16, 2012


so when we got back from making out at Overlook Point there was the killer's hook hanging from the car door handle!
posted by jfuller at 6:29 AM on May 16, 2012


Oh hey, my husband was part of the Star Spangled Ale group. Cool!

To my understanding, the articles on Wikipedia created/altered by the students (at least for the beer team) were actually completely true. They didn't put in any information about Harris Thompson or The Beer of 1812, just filled out real information about Browns Brewery. And honestly, there was one radio personality who tweeted a link to the beer site, and he was a friend of one of the students. It's not like any of these things really went viral. I don't think there was any particularly valuable lesson learned here, but at the same time, it didn't hurt anybody.
posted by specialagentwebb at 6:41 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Columbus discovered America!
posted by Brocktoon at 6:45 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think this is probably the most disingenuous thing I've ever seen you say, Miko. Certainly, the people who are writing the application code that runs Wikipedia don't "have to" fix problems that occur, nor do any volunteers working at the data centers "have to" fix the servers as they break down...I mean hey, it's the product of volunteerism, right? So it's basically worthless, unlike srs bsns things that would "have to" be fixed.

Let me be clear. Wikipedia is volunteer-run. Where you leap to the assumption that I would say volunteerism is "basically worthless," you've put words in my mouth that I would never say. I work in a field that absolutely relies on volunteers and even quantifies their contribution of value in cash terms to demonstrate their worth. We couldn't do what we do without our volunteers.

That said, it's very important to recognize the nature of the volunteer relationship. Volunteers are under no obligation, except a voluntary obligation, to do anything. They do it of their own free will, and for compensation which is mostly intangible. I understand quite personally how frustrating it is to build and maintain something that others don't respect. But it can't be said that it's something those volunteers who built it "have" to do. They could choose to do something else.

Now, if they want a certain outcome, you could depersonalize that and say that the people working on it "have" to undertake certain tasks in order to get that outcome. Maybe that's the "have to" you're alluding to. But the reason those tasks have to be undertaken is that the design of the platform is such that it allows noise to be introduced. If the volunteers were willing to change the philosophy, no one would "have to" clean up Wikipedia. But the philosophical stance is that the difficulties are worth the benefits, and that volunteers are happy to do, and capable of doing this work. It seems to me that the system is working. What I object to is the tone that someone is unfairly burdened by the "have to" for reasons beyond their control. The choice to be involved in Wikipedia, and to advocate for the way Wikipedia is run, is totally voluntary. Wikipedia has a lot of weaknesses inherent in the design. It's okay to acknowledge those, and I would imagine that fully embracing its philosophy can only fairly mean understanding that this kind of thing will arise from time time, as sort of the cost of doing business in the way the collective chooses to do it.

very time he tries to make a change to the wikipedia page, an 'expert' reverts the change claiming, rightly, that there's no cite for this fact and who the hell are you?... the expert cites the source of the misinformation and reverts the change again.

The problem is that he's trying to make a change in Wikipedia, which depends entirely on compiling more reliable sources than itself. He should be talking to whatever scholars work on this issue and getting them to correct the record in future work. It's only through changing what they publish that the outcome for Wikipedia can be changed.

I think this is exemplary of the fundamental confusion that people have about Wikipedia. Elderly relative thinks that the source of information is somehow there, at the Wikipedia Corporate HQ or something, and doesn't understand how the information is gathered and presented. It's an end product, basically a report, not a piece of scholarship.

a specialist in the history of modern East Central Europe

This is true, but you're overlooking that the primary focus of his work today, and his primary discipline, is the digital humanities, and he's got a pretty fantastic resume with those projects, including being an associate director of the Rosenszweig Center which MeFi generally loves to love.

mine, actually: American true crime

And heaven knows no one ever makes up myths about that!
posted by Miko at 7:14 AM on May 16, 2012


> It isn't that it's uninteresting but like I said, it seems to be childish, it very much elicits a feeling, at least to me, of look how oh so much smarter we are than these plebes that we fooled oh so easily. The gotcha moment at the end of the course isn't helping alleviate this feeling. It just really rubs me the wrong way, I guess.

Yup, me too, and I'm having trouble understanding the people who are all "Yay, how cool, what a great idea!" (and, frankly, sometimes being kind of dickish about those who don't agree with them). I don't see how anyone who values the idea of truth can approve of this, even if no wetlands were harmed. Would you lie to your child so they could discover the truth later and gain the valuable understanding that they shouldn't trust anybody, even you?
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Comparing internet users to children doesn't seem fair to internet users.
posted by muddgirl at 7:37 AM on May 16, 2012


Also, I don't think the point of this was to 'teach the internet a lesson'. That's a rather grandiose objective for an undergraduate course. The objective was to teach the enrolled students about history, historical sources, and the Internet. Were there other tactics the professor could have used? Probably. Was this particular tactic net-negative? I don't think so. For me, the critical factor (as I mentioned about) is that the professor does not dissemble about what they are engaging in - he calls it Lying. This sets him apart from the Mike Daiseys and James Freys of the world, who do the same thing for personal gain and call it art.
posted by muddgirl at 7:43 AM on May 16, 2012


And viewing Wikipedia's authority as parental seems rather alarming as well.
posted by neroli at 7:44 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see how anyone who values the idea of truth can approve of this

Because we are surrounded by untruth, and looking at the mechanisms of untruth is an essential part of distinguishing it from truth.

Since I was a teenager I was fascinated with the urban legend, the myth, the compelling narrative that so often wasn't true (my favorite claim to fame is that I'm credited in Curses, Broiled Again for contributing a legend). It led to a fair amount of study about the way information and "information" are created and passed around and across communities, and has contributed to the way I view my work, politics, the media, and the production of knowledge and information in general.

I've read some of the comments on the Atlantic and the blog and elsewhere from the undergraduates, and it looks like many of them have gotten the bug, too. For those who think that everyone knows to be skeptical of knowledge, as a student in a university right now, I can tell you that no, they don't - especially undergraduates today.

I see this as very productive monkeywrenching.
posted by Miko at 8:04 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


This was a dick move coordinated by a douchebag. Instead of fucking with a real project why not create some viral email forwards? Would probably take more deftness and skill to get people to bite.
posted by aydeejones at 8:45 AM on May 16, 2012


> I see this as very productive monkeywrenching.

Yes, you've said so many times. Would you mind responding to my question? To repeat it: Would you lie to your child so they could discover the truth later and gain the valuable understanding that they shouldn't trust anybody, even you? And no, I'm not "equating" Wikipedians or the public at large with children, I'm saying it's a bad idea to knowingly lie to people, even with the laudable goal of educating other people. I'm quite sure there are better ways to get students interested in a methods course, but of course if lying doesn't bother the teacher, they're not going to bother finding a better way.

How do you decide which lies are productive monkeywrenching and which are just lies? (Especially if you choose to ignore or mock those who feel betrayed when they discover they were lied to—hey, they didn't actually lose money, so they have no right to complain.)
posted by languagehat at 9:18 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Would you lie to your child so they could discover the truth later and gain the valuable understanding that they shouldn't trust anybody, even you?

No, I don't think I would. But parenting and educating adults are very different contexts.

How do you decide which lies are productive monkeywrenching and which are just lies?

By the results.
posted by Miko at 9:23 AM on May 16, 2012


AS a public history person, I think this absolutely fantastic. This delivers a pretty powerful one-two punch of underscoring the importance of reliable sources and original research, and provoking thoughts on the love of the human race for a terrific story, and what that means for the practice of history.

anigbrowl, you're just going to LOVE the way Mallory Archer taught her young son to protect the things he loved, then... by stealing his bike and selling it.

IOW: maybe there are ways to teach this that don't diminish the public good in the process. Even for a semester.

Next up: art classes that encourage students to tag buildings, because using paper and paint is so passé.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:28 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I absolutely don't think the point of this exercise is to convince people that you can't trust anybody. The point is to show people just how much they rely on external sources of knowledge for information, and the weaknesses inherent in that method. This is an especially important lesson for history because all we have to rely on is other people's word that what they say happened actually happened. There is no way around that fact. The problem is that the version of history most commonly taught to students ignores that weakness and instead presents history as the ultimately true version of events that everyone can agree upon, and anything else is just bluster and opinion. That's the version of history that most of the university students I work with hold, and it's ridiculously difficult to persuade them away from it. And I think that version is not just misguided, but actually really dangerous to society. People need to be challenged about that idea.

But the problem with history education is that, outside a classroom where students work for credit, the only people who engage with history are the ones who are already interested in it and are somewhat more likely to already know how you can lie with history. And nobody likes to be told they're not as critical a thinker as they believe themselves to be. So how can you get people to see just how much they don't know about the process when they're not even willing to grant you that there is a process to history at all?

I don't think the best way to see this professor's goal is in the same camp as fraud or lying to your children. I see it on the same level as teaching someone how to ride a bike -- the kid learning is always going to fall over and get hurt in the process, and allowing that to happen as their teacher doesn't make you a jerk or a bad parent. It's how the kid learns. As a parent you do your best to ensure the only harm that comes to the kid is a bruise or a skinned knee and not something worse. This is the history education version of a skinned knee -- convincing people that we know an 1813 beer recipe is orders of magnitude less harmful than debates about the founders "really believed" about separation of church and state, or if McCarthyism on balance wasn't all that bad, or what really happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I'd much rather use a fake serial killer in New York to show others for the first time how history is constructed for than the debate about whether the Civil War was really about slavery.
posted by lilac girl at 9:37 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


you're just going to LOVE the way Mallory Archer taught her young son to protect the things he loved, then... by stealing his bike and selling it.

Again, Internet users are not children, and Wikipedia is not our mother.

If creating one false Wikipedia page significantly diminishes the public good, then I think we need to rethink our reliance on Wikipedia. I think the second set of lies is more interesting, anyway, when they added no false information to Wikipedia at all, and yet their lies are still seen as personally or socially injurious.
posted by muddgirl at 9:37 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, I don't think this is designed to teach that you "shouldn't trust anybody" -- it's designed to teach about how erroneous historical narratives are made and accepted, and the power of original research.

Also, the students weren't lied to. They created a fake story and shared it with the public, but they were dealt with plainly by the professor, as far as all information indicates so the parent-lying-to-child analogy doesn't hold too well there either.

In thinking about it, in my life as an educator, I and other educators have certainly used made-up stories and pretend contexts as teaching tools - such as meeting a historical roleplayer, assuming an imaginary context like a medieval castle or an underground railroad, or doing simulations like Alpha-Beta (aka Bafa Bafa)where not all information is revealed at the outset.

Deception (by teachers) is used in a lot of situations where process is the topic and the gradual or developing revelation of information is important to the outcome. If education exists to correct lack of knowledge, sometimes it makes sense to use that lack of knowledge and demonstrate the ways in which certain forms of knowledge utterly change your perspective by staging, withholding, and eventually revealing information. Usually, though, it becomes clear at the end through implicit or explicit communications that the false premise, made-up story, or legend was not factually true.

In fact, one reason I like this approach is that what you seem to object to - children being lied to - is exactly what happens now in a completely sanctioned way, every day, day in day out, in American "history" classrooms - and that, in my view, deeply poisions our country's politics and sense of its own past. Demonstating clearly the way those false and incomplete narratives are created and disseminated, and how readily and simply people can be misled, and how necessary both continual questioning and strong research skills are, is to me a worthy pursuit.
posted by Miko at 9:38 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


art classes that encourage students to tag buildings

Way ahead of you - we're doing that in July. Sort of, but pretty much.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I also think claims that this experiment harms the public are pretty exaggerated, and point to the very problematic version of knowledge and expertise that the pro-experiment people in this thread are trying to point out. If a few fake websites about historical hoaxes are so threatening to the public's view of the internet and knowledge, how is the public supposed to be able to handle far more elaborate operations to twist the truth? If our idea of truth is so fragile that a fake beer recipe really diminishes the public good, what does that say about our collective ability to detect the half-truths, mischaracterizations, and outright falsifications that corporations and politicians engage in every day?
posted by lilac girl at 9:53 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some more fakery designed to educate: Massachusetts Creates Fake Scam Websites To Warn People Of Real Scam Websites
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:57 AM on May 16, 2012


the reason those tasks have to be undertaken is that the design of the platform is such that it allows noise to be introduced. If the volunteers were willing to change the philosophy, no one would "have to" clean up Wikipedia. But the philosophical stance is that the difficulties are worth the benefits, and that volunteers are happy to do, and capable of doing this work.

Does that make it laudable to sabotage the system, because you can and someone else will clean it up? Are there people out there that believe the current philosophy of museums is fundamentally flawed? Do they introduce trojan-horse volunteers to trash the exhibits, and then go on the internet to brag about how they showed up _that_ museum's public-accesibility philosophy? I don't love it when someone boasts about grazing their individual herd of sheep on the town commons, and I'm not thrilled about offering a college course on doing so, whatever the higher philosophy behind it.
posted by ormondsacker at 10:07 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't love it when someone boasts about grazing their individual herd of sheep on the town commons

Not to take away from your point, but that is the explicit purpose of many town commons.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:13 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I, for one, am going to my grave convinced that Janis Joplin speed-walked everywhere and was afraid of toilets.
posted by malocchio at 10:17 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does that make it laudable to sabotage the system, because you can and someone else will clean it up?

I think it just makes it possible. Whether or not it's laudable depends on the intent and outcome.

Are there people out there that believe the current philosophy of museums is fundamentally flawed? Do they introduce trojan-horse volunteers to trash the exhibits, and then go on the internet to brag about how they showed up _that_ museum's public-accesibility philosophy?

It's actually a crime to do those things. If it happened, those people would most likely be prosecuted for their destruction of property not belonging to them, and if they had come in as volunteers, there'd likely be additional civil suits for breach of contract, which specifies what you can and can't do in the museum as a volunteer.

I don't love it when someone boasts about grazing their individual herd of sheep on the town commons, and I'm not thrilled about offering a college course on doing so, whatever the higher philosophy behind it.

I was going to say that about the commons - that's why the commons was put there, to allow anyone who wants to to graze sheep, or forage for wild greens, or play Ultimate, or make out on a bench, or pick the apples from its trees.
posted by Miko at 10:25 AM on May 16, 2012


...my point being, I guess, that in building public institutions we make choices about how access to them is provided. Wikipedia has made one set of choices that allows for anyone to add material, and everyone to change it, and its gradual tiers of adjudication that follow. The philosophy is one of low barrier to entry. That guarantees the need for constant policiing, but ensures the maximum flow of content.

Another institution, such as a library, is no less public and no less dedicated to the increase of knowledge. However, because their philosophy is to protect the holdings from vandalism, they do create some additional barriers. Perhaps anyone can come in and read, but no one can destroy content without consequences. There are hours of access; you can't go in at midnight if the library's not open. Locations are staffed. There are security measures in place - checkout system, magnetic alarms. There are charges for material you lose or destroy. Objects

Some libraries are even more carefully managed. You may need to register upon each visit. You may need an appointment. You may only have one book at a time, and may not be able to take it out of the library. You may need to be visually supervised by a librarian at all times while you're accessing the document. You may need to use only pencil.

Any institution - library, museum, online encylopedia - that holds something of value in trust and wants to provide public access has some decisions to make on a continuum of more restricted to less restricted access. The more access you provide, the more risk of vandalism or misuse. The less access, the less risk. In addition to providing access, we do risk assessment to think about how things can be used or displayed. That's why the Mona Lisa is behind bulletproof glass. It would be way better to see the brushstrokes on the painting's surface, but the tradeoff for being able to glom into her tiny gallery with 200 of your fellow travelers is to see her glazed and between two guards. When you choose to privilege total access above all other considerations, you must assess a higher level of risk, and put in place additional safeguards or cleanup mechanisms to ameliorate the damages caused by that access level.

I'm not saying it in a judging way - just a practical, managerial way. If Wikipedia wanted to never have to clean up faked entries, then it could easily just lock down the process of submitting an entry, subject it to editorial vetting and fact-checking, require ID, and so forth. That would mean that no entry made it up on the site that hadn't been through a stringent process. That, of course, can't guarantee against sophisticated fakes or human error, but it would prevent fly-bys like this incident. But that's not what the team wants to do; it's not their philosophy of access. So I think it's necessary to live with the reality that the philosophy means it's open to meddling and scamming.

Imagine if the local public library provided total access without oversight. Just unlocked the doors and left them open around the clock. Disabled all security systems. The majority of people who use the library would probably try to use it properly anyway. But others would take out books and never return them, not even sign them out. Some would tear maps, images, and pages out of books and periodicals to keep and frame at home, or sell on eBay. Jehovah's Witnesses and self-published authors would bring their own tracts and literature in, and people would drop off the books they'd cleaned out of their basement to add to the library. A team of volunteers might assemble to try to maintain systems for the library. They might create a code of ethics, staff the desk, page the shelves and in general try to keep order - but if they instituted no additional security measures, they can be sure that wanted books would leave, unwanted books would arrive, the catalogue would suffer, and it would be increasingly difficult to tell what books belonged, what didn't, where to find them and how they got there.

So it's not anti-access to put some controls in place. And the more an institution values the accuracy and findability of their information, the more they're going to create structures of organization and control - it's why university libraries are so different from public libraries; the holdings are more valuable, the purpose narrower, and the stakes much higher.
posted by Miko at 10:50 AM on May 16, 2012


Mona Lisa: Theft and Vandalism
posted by Miko at 10:53 AM on May 16, 2012


By the way, it's worth noting (well re-noting) that nobody vandalized Wikipedia. They added articles that completely complied with Wikipedia's policies and were completely honest. They may have had less than honest motives for posting to the site, but they actually added value to the wiki.

The rest is no better or worse than any viral marketing campaign, ARG, etc.
posted by Gygesringtone at 11:00 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can't really fool Wikipedia though can you? By its nature there is no council that looks at an entry and says, "Yes, this is correct, and good, and complete. Lock it down, no more revisions."

You haven't been around much lately, have you?


Your snark is misplaced, scalefree; what "Science!" said is accurate. Wikipedia is a "living" document, and while it might undergo temporary lockdowns (some of which are automatic, during unfolding news stories or known controversial webfights), it doesn't ever produce a final release version, unlike paper encyclopedias.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:16 AM on May 16, 2012


By the way, it's worth noting (well re-noting) that nobody vandalized Wikipedia. They added articles that completely complied with Wikipedia's policies and were completely honest. They may have had less than honest motives for posting to the site, but they actually added value to the wiki.

If so, Gygesringtone, then I missed that distinction, and withdraw my objections.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:16 AM on May 16, 2012


This all feels a little like "old person shits on Wikipedia and other newfangled things the kids are doing these days" stuff to me. I'm a graduate student, and obviously I'm not relying on Wikipedia for any significant research, but when I'm in the middle of a paper and I want to check some basic fact really quickly (e.g. did Oluṣẹgun Obasanjo assume the presidency of Nigeria in 1976 or 1977?), of course I'm going to check Wikipedia. If I told my parents that that's what I do, they'd probably say, "OMG DON'T YOU REALIZE YOU CAN'T TRUST ANYTHING ON THERE???" Now, I'm sure that this professor realizes that Wikipedia isn't THAT bad, and I agree that the point he's trying to prove is a valid one, but it does come off a little "Cranky Old Doesn't Trust the Intertubes," and perhaps further contributes to that sort of lack of trust.
posted by naoko at 11:22 AM on May 16, 2012


Not to take away from your point, but that is the explicit purpose of many town commons.

... and then everyone grazes their herd of sheep on the commons, and the shared resource is depleted and it's a tragedy, was what I was going for there. Depleting shared resources, in this case, volunteer time and goodwill, can fall short of being a civil-suit prosecutable crime and still be regrettable and not awesome.

Miko, that's a great clarification on structures of access. For some institution with intentionally-designed low barriers to access, it's just doesn't seem great to purposefully abuse those. I do give the professor in question something of a pass for having higher long-term goals in mind, but his methods are uncomfortably similar to those who game Wikipedia because of philosophical differences or for the yuks. Twice in this thread, we've got people talking about how they got fake information accepted to Wikipedia, which... okay? Way to improve the public sphere? 'I peed in the public well to teach people not to rely on the public well' is a philosophy, but it's not one I'm a particular fan of.
posted by ormondsacker at 11:24 AM on May 16, 2012


IAmBroom,

We're both right and wrong, apparently they did falsify things the first time around, but not this time.

From the article: "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."
posted by Gygesringtone at 11:26 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not relying on Wikipedia for any significant research, but when I'm in the middle of a paper and I want to check some basic fact really quickly (e.g. did Oluṣẹgun Obasanjo assume the presidency of Nigeria in 1976 or 1977?), of course I'm going to check Wikipedia.

Do you mean that you'll check Wikipedia to find the fact, then look at its citation, and then go check that source...or that you'll see whether the Wikipedia article says '76 or '77, and just go with whatever it says?

There's a difference between using an encyclopedia as a compilation of sourced facts, versus using it as an authoritative source. Problem #1 is that many people don't understand the distinction and do the latter. Problem #2 is that Wikipedia has specific flaws that make using it as an authoritative source even worse.

The point is to show people just how much they rely on external sources of knowledge for information, and the weaknesses inherent in that method. ... I'd much rather use a fake serial killer in New York to show others for the first time how history is constructed for than the debate about whether the Civil War was really about slavery.

I don't object to those lessons. Likewise, I don't think anybody would object to a class seeking to develop critical thinking or the ability to structure narrative, nor to the idea that all of these lessons can be taught in an "eye-opening" way. This is important stuff, but it also doesn't break new ground. Teachers have been "eye-opening" their students for...well, for quite awhile. Kelly deserves no credit for innovating the idea of skinned-knee teaching, so to speak.

What I see people objecting to is the particular aspect of this class where Kelly sends his students out of the classroom and off campus with a specific mission to fuck around with other people. And among the people who are objecting, I see a pretty constant message: He could accomplish his valid goals just as well without doing this, as many professors in fact do. The only sacrifice would be sensationalism (and its consequence, enrollment). It's totally valid to argue that every school should include a class like this, that explores important themes about authority and the Web and what not—I might even agree—but that is non-responsive to the objection.

A university has responsibilities to the society that sustains it, not just to its tuition-paying students. If you are a university professor and you find yourself doing something that involves telling the public, "My students are coming, so consider yourselves warned!", then I think you need to have some compelling rationale. Kelly might be teaching an important lesson, but it isn't a remarkable one.
posted by cribcage at 11:57 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I see the arguments that there are other effective ways to teach about the power of misinformation. I'm not sure that any of them would be as compelling for the students or those of us watching outside, though (We're not here discussing the other effective strategies that don't test our assumptions about how people should or shouldn't behave when creating information for public consumption) nor would make them think as sharply about what makes information seem authentic or inauthentic. The kinds of thinking you have to do to imitate the appearance of reality are actually higher-level, I'd argue, than those you have to do to suss out something that doesn't look right. And testing it on fellow students, "Wait, Wait, Don't tell Me" style, where the audience knows there's a fake in the mix and the only challenge is spotting it, seems a lot less potentially instructive than observing its activities in the wild, where you actually can't predict what will happen to the information and where it will go. The chances of students having the opportunity to learn something the professor doesn't already know are much higher when you do it in a real-world setting.

For some institution with intentionally-designed low barriers to access, it's just doesn't seem great to purposefully abuse those.

I agree that it might not be great. But I think it has to be expected. Another museum example occurred to me while walking back from one of my meetings. When the idea of touchable/interactive exhibits in museums first came around, a lot of naysayers objected "But you can't have things that people can use and touch! They'll steal or destroy it all!" For a long time this held a lot of museums back from establishing art labs, interactive areas and the like.

The truth is that they don't steal everything, as of course we know. But they do steal some things. Is that a reason not to have the exhibit? No. We budget in about 10% of the supply budget a year to replace the about 10% of supplies and touchables that walk away. We think the 10% is worth it in order to offer the service, and we set aside the staff time it takes to order and prepare and manage the materials. It's the cost of endorsing that philosophy. So all I was objecting to was that folks seemed to be complaining about the natural outcome of endorsing the Wikipedia philosophy. If you want to open access up widely, you have to expect 10% of things to get messed up, whether it's because of merry pranksters, academics making a point, jerks, ideologues, or whatever. It's just going to happen, and no one can stem that tide. We don't moan about the harm to the exhibits or the loss to the public good or worry that it spoils exhibitry forever. We just see it as necessary, predictable maintenance, and recognize that, humans being what they are, weird shit is going to happen every single day.

Since so much of this discussion has centered on Wikipedia, you realize how wise it was that they didn't fake Wikipedia at all this second time. And I'd love to see them work on it similarly next year, only without using Wikipedia at all, to examine the other pathways of information access and verification that people might be using. Would the lack of corroboration in Wikipedia be seen as evidence in itself that something wasn't real? And why, why not? There's a lot of stuff I study that has never been whispered of in Wikipedia. That's interesting too.
posted by Miko at 12:54 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kelly's blog
posted by Miko at 1:04 PM on May 16, 2012


> For some institution with intentionally-designed low barriers to access, it's just doesn't seem great to purposefully abuse those.

I agree that it might not be great. But I think it has to be expected.


Of course it has to be expected. It has to be expected that all sorts of things will happen: X number of people will get killed this year, Y number of paintings will be stolen, the earth's atmosphere will warm by Z percent, whether we like it or not. Does that mean it's OK to kill, rob, and wantonly emit carbon dioxide? No, it does not. And please don't bother telling me again that no one was actually hurt or deprived of cash value; I'm arguing with your basic philosophical point, that because bad things are expected it's OK, even laudable, to do them. You write:

> The truth is that they don't steal everything, as of course we know. But they do steal some things. Is that a reason not to have the exhibit? No. We budget in about 10% of the supply budget a year to replace the about 10% of supplies and touchables that walk away.

How would you feel about someone who stole things and argued it was OK because it was not only expected but budgeted for? Do you not see the basic error you're making?
posted by languagehat at 2:34 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


First, I think people might be misinterpreting Miko's point, despite the several times she's tried to clarify.
So all I was objecting to was that folks seemed to be complaining about the natural outcome of endorsing the Wikipedia philosophy.
She's not saying you should go out and steal from your library for no reason. She's saying that the library knows things are going to get stolen, but accepts that as a price for open access. Similarly, Wikipedia editors have to accept that college professors will experiment with their platform. That is the cost of having an encyclopedia that anyone can edit - some of those editors will have a different agenda.

If we're still talking about analogues, no one stole anything permanently, in this case. The theft was revealed and the items were returned to the library.
posted by muddgirl at 2:49 PM on May 16, 2012


Heck, it wasn't even a theft. Someone slipped their self-published book onto a random shelf.
posted by muddgirl at 2:50 PM on May 16, 2012


Languagehat, I'm sorry but I don't see an error.

I know that there are people who steal things and decide it's OK because the place will replace it. In fact I think that's how many Americans get their office supplies for the home (and often their branded pint glasses).

And you did get that the students didn't create any false content on Wikipedia this time, right? That only happened in 2008. So the "Wikipedia was harmed" aspect of it is fairly moot for the 2012 project.

But part of it what's in the subtext of the outrage against what I"m saying here is, I think, a disconnect in how people view Wikipedia. I don't see it as a sacrosanct resource, and when it does get gamed and vandalized, I see that as par for the course. I know there is a tremendous amount of utopian feeling and rhetoric around Wikipedia, but I don't share the perspective that generates that stuff, which probably makes me seem horribly callous. But in my view, it's just a handy website that you can use in a limited and specific way as a reference guide, nothing more. The volunteer/crowdsourcing history part of the project is interesting, but kind of a separate topic. If it were some other site -- Beliefnet? Fox News? -- would people here care?

I'm sorry I'm not measuring up against your moral yardstick, and I'm trying to think through why this isn't something that bothers me on a serious moral level, but I can't get exercised about it. I think it's instructive, a cool experiment to examine in al kinds of professional and academic discussions about the crafting of history (even in a meta way like we're doing), but to the vast potential audience, not all that important in the grand scheme of the information and disinformation we wade through daily.
posted by Miko at 2:52 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


But it can't be said that it's something those volunteers who built it "have" to do. They could choose to do something else.

This is still utterly sophistry. People can choose not to eat and die of starvation, or choose not to go to the hospital when they injure themselves, they don't "have to" do those things. All you're saying is "If you really think about it no one has to do anything at all."

We don't moan about the harm to the exhibits or the loss to the public good...

If this really doesn't bother you at all I'm rather inclined to think that maybe this is because it's someone else's money that is being spent to fix it or to pay people to fix it.
posted by XMLicious at 3:00 PM on May 16, 2012


Similarly, Wikipedia editors have to accept that college professors will experiment with their platform.

No, sorry, we don't "have to", interesting choice of words BTW. It is perfectly valid to say that they are dicks just as much as vandals, scammers, advertisers, and PR people who take a dump on our project and to not distinguish between "academics making a point" and "jerks" as though those are two separate things.
posted by XMLicious at 3:00 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm arguing with your basic philosophical point, that because bad things are expected it's OK, even laudable, to do them

Ah. It seems like you think this is my point, but to be very clear, that's not my point.

First, I don't necessarily accept the premise that what happened in this incident qualifies as "a bad thing."

Second, I never said it's OK to do bad things because they're expected. What I've said is that I recognize that in reality -- which I can't completely control -- bad things, or let's even call them non-desired outcomes, are predictable and quantifiable, as you point out. We know they will happen. It makes sense to design for these realities, even when you don't condone them. We can be delighted when they're rare, chagrined when they're frequent, but we will never lose by expecting that they will happen and preparing for that eventuality.

Thanks for pointing this out, muddgirl, because it looks like I just really hadn't clarified like I thought I was.

"If you really think about it no one has to do anything at all."

No, what I'm saying is that if you want Outcome A, you must choose to do the actions that create Outcome A. I objected to the characterization of having to clean things up as some unwarranted burden that got dropped on the Wikipedia editors out of nowhere. In fact, it is more probably SOP. Having to clean shit up on Wikipedia is an actual need that you can expect to have to meet if you want to create the outcome of having a reasonably useful online encyclopedia. No one is forcing anyone to edit Wikipedia, agreed; but if you want Wikipedia to match your ideal, then you do have to do what it takes to shape the outcome. If you don't want that outcome, you don't have to bother about it at all.

If this really doesn't bother you at all I'm rather inclined to think that maybe this is because it's someone else's money that is being spent to fix it or to pay people to fix it

First of all, since I have to raise that money too, manage the whole process and/or fix it myself, and am accountable for those expenditures personally, I wouldn't say I'm all that divorced from it. And even if it were mine all mine, I would certainly understand that inviting the public to use it is a risk. My ownership or non-ownership of the objects does nothing to change the level of risk.

Secondly, shrinkage is a fact of life. Every retail store, every restaurant, every school, every hotel, every public accommodation of any kind has to factor in and budget for the reality that some percentage of people take things that aren't nailed down.

We can study that, chalk it up to its likely factors: mental illness, emotional neediness, simple greed, childhood experimentation, they broke it and were embarrassed for anyone to see, they were showing off for friends, whatever - but if I'm going to open the doors to the public, I can't do a damn thing about the fact that unless I follow people around, some stuff will walk. This isn't Miko's philosophy - budgeting for attrition is a reality across public institutions.

So, since our philosophy is not to follow people around, we have to understand that we may need to do some replacing of materials over the course of a year. To follow people around might prevent the sticky-fingering, but of course there are costs to following people around: staff costs and philosophical costs. So we don't do it. We budget for attrition instead. It's a choice. Now, we do lots of other things to guard against excessive attrition. We have security staff, maybe cameras, signs, people walking around at intervals, volunteers, periodic inventories, we make adaptations to systems that make stuff easier to maintain. But all this is in the normal, expected realm of managing a public facility.

So this sort of burden, in a place like Wikipedia, should also fall in the normal, expected realm of managing a public facility.

No, sorry, we don't "have to"

But just as you pointed out, yes, you DO "have to" if you want the outcome of maximized crowdsourcing with low barriers. You don't really have a choice as long as you want that outcome - because it means that you have to allow anyone to mess with it for any reason.

If you start wanting a different outcome, then no, maybe you don't have to put up with "jerks."
posted by Miko at 3:18 PM on May 16, 2012


I didn't say that you couldn't call them dicks, or what have you. It's a free country. But yes, if you want a website that anyone can edit, you can't limit that 'anyone' to 'non-jerks.' Then you'd have a website that only non-jerks can edit.

But really, I don't think his class project in 2008 was any more jerky than the standard Wikipedia vanity page, which is nominally against the guidelines but which I had no luck getting deleted back when I was invested in Wikipedia. That is the way Wikipedia works - different editors have different goals and agendas.
posted by muddgirl at 3:22 PM on May 16, 2012


Okay, I don't understand at all who you guys think you have been arguing with, then, or what's with the hair-splitting conditional that people involved with the project only "have to" clean up after those like Professor Kelly if they want to accomplish the goals of the project, like because they could choose to leave the mess there that somehow minimizes the shittiness of him making a mess in pursuit of his own purposes and leaving others to clean up after it.

I don't see anyone who has said that people working on Wikipedia should not have to deal with people being jerks or that vandalism and exploitation of the system is some surprising unexpected thing "dropped on the Wikipedia editors out of nowhere" - in fact, I and others have listed out many varieties of this and pointed out that it happens all the time, there are basically multiple sub-institutions within the Wikipedia project devoted to dealing with it, and this activity is easily observed by anyone who wishes to. The analogy with someone dumping trash on public streets doesn't say anything about residents and sanitation workers being entitled to not expect assholes to litter or hurricanes to blow trash all over town.

What I see in this thread is people pointing out that this guy was being a dick and a jerk to coordinate an organized form of this, with the objection to that being characterized as "moaning", and the situation contrasted to others where something "of value" is lost or it's more practical feasible to prosecute the vandals, which to me conveys that the effort and donations of people working on Wikipedia is not something of value - right next to praise of Professor Kelly and the value of his work.

And Miko you do appear to be explicitly entertaining the notion that this is laudable - when ormondsacker asked whether it was "laudable to sabotage the system, because you can and someone else will clean it up" you replied in part, "Whether or not it's laudable depends on the intent and outcome."
posted by XMLicious at 6:56 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I and others have listed out many varieties of this and pointed out that it happens all the time, there are basically multiple sub-institutions within the Wikipedia project devoted to dealing with it, and this activity is easily observed by anyone who wishes to.

So great - sounds like it's really no problem, then, and probably didn't need to come up.

I think the professor's project is laudable.

I don't think those on the Wikipedia project are doing anything outside the bounds of what they agreed to do in the first place, or should be entitled to any special kinds of sympathy because of anything that occurred with this project in 2008 or any future testing of the guidelines it sets forth. I assume those volunteering for Wikipedia undertook the project knowing what it would entail, and cleanup after forays and tests like this is part of the predictable body of work they need to do in order to meet their goals of usability in an open-acccess environment.

I don't think Wikipedia is in some way special above other websites or projects or should (or even could) be eligible for any kind of special consideration or exemption from the normal expectations of public access. To get the benefits of a public service we have to also provide for the maintenance demands, or just watch it crumble.

Littering and trash dumping are actually illegal in most municipalities, so I don't think the analogy works. And good look expecting those hurricanes to obey the rules!
posted by Miko at 7:19 PM on May 16, 2012


And when someone coordinates vandalism of museum exhibits "It's actually a crime to do those things" as you point out. But I guess when there aren't laws against it, it's just moaning to find such vandalism condemnable, right? And thinking that Wikipedia and the work put into it deserve the same consideration as community concerns that have laws protecting them, and shouldn't be the object of coordinated vandalism by academics doing laudable work, would be "special consideration" and an entitlement to special kinds of sympathy.

I mean, it's not like this is vandalism of anything of value, it belongs on a lower pedestal than those other things and shouldn't be regarded in the same way as anything actually important, that would be special treatment for something of Wikipedia's status - it's really no problem and needn't even come up in the course of discussion of the Professor's valuable work.
posted by XMLicious at 8:38 PM on May 16, 2012


Would you lie to your child so they could discover the truth later and gain the valuable understanding that they shouldn't trust anybody, even you?

One of my dear friends was raised by very intelligent parents who would semi-regularly make ridiculous claims (like those black and white cows being skunks). The lesson wasn't to not trust - the lesson was that no one is above arguing with if you disagree with them, even the ultimate authorities - parents. It also taught critical thinking, since to argue they would have to say WHY those four legged mammals in the fields weren't skunks. It also taught basic argumentation, and how to disagree with people you loved without rancor or insults. Any and all of these are valuable lessons.

Personally, I find it fascinating that one project didn't get off the ground, and the other was cracked open in under an hour by Reddit. I think the implications of that, especially the degree to which cooperative crowdsourcing can actually solve problems, is fascinating.
posted by Deoridhe at 9:21 PM on May 16, 2012


It's not just moaning, it's an expression of frustration. But it's also not something protected by law. It's just not in that same category of recognized public benefit which a broad consensus has agreed is deserving of governmental resources and community protection.

That doesn't mean it's not valuable - plenty of things not touched on in law are valuable - but it does mean it's not analogous to things which have been deemed crimes.

What puzzles me is that you seem to be almost personally offended that people don't have more respect for Wikipedia, or treat it in a special way. You seem angry that I am not more respectful of Wikipedia, or something like that.

Standing outside of it, though, I'm not sure why a special respect should be demanded. It's a very big and interesting project, but you seem to be demanding that we put it on a special pedestal and not critique, experiment with, or challenge it, and I'm not sure why. Are you just upset that I don't consider Wikipedia to be immune from critique?

I understand it's lots of work for the editors. But lots of things people care about are a lot of work, and yet it's still unreasonable to expect everyone to value that work in the same way.
Let's say there's a community group that's into yarnbombing, and they yarnbomb every weekend in the town park and make sure every tree gets yarnbombed. No one asked them to do it, they just up and started doing it and they've been at it for a few months. It's really a lot of work to yarnbomb. It takes skill and patience and group coordination and creativity. It's very tiring. But these folks really care about the contribution they think it makes to public art and the atmosphere in the town; they believe it's transformative.

For the general public, some think it's fun and nice to look at, at least as long as it stays fresh and not waterlogged and grimy. Some have no opinion either way, and some are critical of the activity because it changes the way the park looks, conceals the natural bark of the trees, and perhaps changes the way people and animals use the park. Some think it's a waste of time, and not as practical as knitting sweaters is. Some think it's a fad. Nature photographers or environmentalists might be concerned about the effects on the park or the impact on their own work.

Are all these not valid viewpoints?

Yarnbombers is a silly example, but it does help me illustrate the way such involved proects look if you're not directly invested.. Why should members of a voluntary project be offended if others don't value the project in the same way the participants do? Lots of kinds of people work hard on lots of kinds of projects. The hard work, in and of itself, doesn't make the project valuable to everyone.

Rather than being exempted from critique, I think Wikipedia needs to be continually and more strongly critiqued, regularly and attentively. This critique is a vitally important activity that needs to continue, in the same way that critique of news media and critique of politics and critique of cultural life and critique of the publishing industry and critique of Hollywood and critique of education and, really, critique of every other institution of knowledge, power, and information needs to continue.

Precisely because of the brightness and ambition and hopefulness and idealism of the rhetoric surrounding the resource, and because of its ubiquity and ease of access, it needs to be looked at hard, and questioned. The fact that a lot of people have worked to build this thing is interesting, but I am the first to say it's not an unalloyed good and it's far from perfect as a community, as a system, and as a resource. It's not that I disparage people for working on it - I just don't share their estimation of the value of the resource, in and of itself, as it is today, nor do I share the feeling that it should be exempt from much-needed, ongoing skepticism and critique.

This was an interesting read, and even this overlooks a lot of interesting issues.
posted by Miko at 9:27 PM on May 16, 2012


But it's also not something protected by law. It's just not in that same category of recognized public benefit which a broad consensus has agreed is deserving of governmental resources and community protection.

I reeeally do not think it works that way. Vandalism of web sites is not something that is generally legal. You may have heard of a group called Anonymous that likes to do this; many of its members have been hunted down and incarcerated through the international cooperation of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Vandalism of Wikipedia is certainly easier because of the open-access nature of the site but in the parallels we've been talking about that doesn't usually matter - vandalism of a sculpture that is installed in a square out in front of a museum is just as criminal as vandalism of a sculpture that is indoors behind a velvet rope.

I do not think that there has been some broad societal consensus that your museum exhibits are more valuable than Wikipedia articles, at least in terms of whether they're worthy of protection: I think that the difference is entirely practical. For one thing, the effort to prove that a particular person carried out a specific act on the internet is staggeringly difficult next to someone witnessing physical vandalism being carried out or the act being caught on a security camera. As the cases of intellectual property industry companies trying to prosecute piracy demonstrate, even when you can spend millions of dollars on litigation and actually be able to prove that the act was carried out from a computer owned by the accused, it's still a Herculean struggle. It pretty much takes the kind of long-term surveillance that only a government can legally carry out, along with international cooperation of law enforcement when a computer-savvy individual is trying to hide their tracks, to conclusively pin a particular individual online act on a particular person in a fashion admissible in court.

Yes, I am somewhat angry that a person I respect as rather rational and fair-minded is ready to praise the endeavors of Professor Kelly, which you aren't directly invested in either, while throwing Wikipedia under the bus and getting pretty close to saying that it's laudable for him to vandalize or sabotage Wikipedia if he is doing so in the course of his ever-so-worthy work.

Museums, public streets, and academic institutions and projects get government grants and funding, laws that support them, and laws that criminalize abusing them. No one here is suggesting that Wikipedia should get government funding or asking that vandals of Wikipedia should be pursued as criminals the way that vandals of those other public things would be or asking for anything that would bring Wikipedia up to being remotely equal to those other things, or even asking that it get the kind of consideration and rights that a private concern like Zucotti Park or a patch of wilderness with "Private Property, No Trespassing" signs around the edge gets.

Yet you seem to be saying that for you even just to acknowledge the validity of people being pissed off at someone coming in to trash the Wikipedia community's work in furtherance of their own project, would be some sort of super special respect for and special treatment of Wikipedia relative to its real worth. This doesn't appear to me to be a matter of expecting "everyone to value that work in the same way" a Wikipedia editor does, it feels like I'm just expecting the basic decency and respect to acknowledge that coming in and kicking someone else's sandcastle all over the place and leaving them to clean up after you is a pretty shitty way to behave whether or not there's law enforcement to provide consequences for that shitty behavior.

I have no problem with critiquing Wikipedia - there are lots of things to be critical about and more critiquing of Wikipedia is probably carried out at Wikipedia than anywhere else, like the essay you link to. But this has been about people being critical of Professor Kelly and what he did, not about anyone claiming that Wikipedia should be immune from critique. I don't feel like I got a straight answer before but I do not believe you would find it so kosher if people were critiquing Professor Kelly by going in and messing up his research or projects to analyze his response or make a point, rather than just discussing him in a thread on a web site.
posted by XMLicious at 10:57 PM on May 16, 2012


Hmm, I think I am going to have my next class create new MeFi personae.
posted by spitbull at 6:38 PM on 5/15


I'm curious about how the people who support the professor's methods would feel if he did something like this. I feel it's a very similar thing.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 4:57 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vandalism of web sites is not something that is generally legal. You may have heard of a group called Anonymous that likes to do this; many of its members have been hunted down and incarcerated through the international cooperation of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

What were they charged with? There is no legal definition of website vandalism yet. The only thing people who object can do is try to find coverage under existing laws, such as fraud and copyright infringement law.

My point is that physical vandalism, fraud, and so on are already well covered under the law as crimes because they have historically met a broadly accepted standard of harm which the society wished to punish and prevent. I am absolutely certain there will soon be more robust law about websites, but my point is that there isn't much work going on in that area just now - and if there were, it's most likely that to bring successful cases, the law would have to be based on the harm principle, as is other fraud and vandalism law.

It's interesting that you bring up Anonymous, because the professor's approach is not dissimilar philisophically. Again, when Anonymous has been prosecuted, it's because of the material harm they've caused: stealing private data, transporting porn across state lines, fraud, harm to computers. There's nothing that says what Anonymous does is wrong on principle - it's prosecuted based on outcomes to specific targets covered under existing law.

I do not think that there has been some broad societal consensus that museum exhibits are more valuable than Wikipedia articles, at least in terms of whether they're worthy of protection

A little farther down you recognize that there is such a consensus by listing the funding, law, protections, etc.

Yes, I am somewhat angry that a person I respect as rather rational and fair-minded is ready to praise the endeavors of Professor Kelly, which you aren't directly invested in either, while throwing Wikipedia under the bus and getting pretty close to saying that it's laudable for him to vandalize or sabotage Wikipedia if he is doing so in the course of his ever-so-worthy work.

I think Kelly devised a very engaging lesson that is interesting for his students and also interesting for researchers and historians, particularly public historians, in general. If anything, I am a little more invested in that because it's my career, after all.

I'm glad you think I'm fair-minded, but that's exactly why I'm saying that Wikipedia shouldn't be exempted from real life out of special consideration for its volunteer nature. Newspapers aren't exempted, other indexes and encyclopedias and dictionaries aren't exempted, libraries aren't exempted. I don't think it's fair to say "Don't scam us because we're nice people and what we're doing is so honorable." I think this halo-donning sort of lets Wikipedia off the hook for its editorial policies and choices, which have real and negative consequences sometimes. I don't really think any institution should be above test and trial, and I think Wikipedia is generally too highly estimated as a resource and as an organization, so to me what's fair is to present another view.

No one here is suggesting that Wikipedia should get government funding or asking that vandals of Wikipedia should be pursued as criminals the way that vandals of those other public things would be or asking for anything that would bring Wikipedia up to being remotely equal to those other things, or even asking that it get the kind of consideration and rights that a private concern like Zucotti Park or a patch of wilderness with "Private Property, No Trespassing" signs around the edge gets.

Okay, then. It certainly seemed like you were asking that I take Wikipedia hoaxes as seriously as I take vandalism to a public park or similar. I don't. They're different and they're managed and presented and legislated differently. The forms of support you list are exactly the pieces of evidence I would use to show that there is an argument for a broad public trust (meaning holding) built on relationships of funding, law, and citizenship that comes into play with public facilities like this, and results in certain public expectations, that just doesn't apply to independent projects on the web.

it feels like I'm just expecting the basic decency and respect to acknowledge that coming in and kicking someone else's sandcastle all over the place and leaving them to clean up after you is a pretty shitty way to behave

I think that's a personal reaction. The reason I don't "acknowledge" it is that I just don't view the whole activity the way you do. don't think the harm to Wikipedia was in any way serious, and I don't think what the students did four years ago was a "pretty shitty way to behave." I understand it frustrates you but I don't see a moral obligation for me to condemn it, because I don't construct the actual site in the same way you do.

The objection just seems overheated to me, which is why I took pains to emphasize that this kind of monkeywrenching is endemic to the format the founders chose. I spent some time last night reading internal critiques of Wikipedia, and it sounds like the general tone is one of being totally comfortable with the exploitability of the system, and understanding that it's the cost of doing business in this way. I don't see the kinds of wronged feelings or condemnations of testing that we've seen here. Reliability of Wikipedia says
Wikipedia is open to anonymous and collaborative editing, so assessments of its reliability usually include examinations of how quickly false or misleading information is removed. An early study conducted by IBM researchers in 2003—two years following Wikipedia's establishment—found that "vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly — so quickly that most users will never see its effects"[10] and concluded that Wikipedia had "surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities".[11] A 2007 peer-reviewed study stated that "42% of damage is repaired almost immediately... Nonetheless, there are still hundreds of millions of damaged views."
On vandalism:
The open nature of the editing model has been central to most criticism of Wikipedia, as traditional encyclopedias such as Encyclopædia Britannica rest their reputations on the fact that they are written by experts with much care. One particular criticism is that, at any moment, a reader of an article cannot be certain that it has not been compromised by the insertion of false information or the removal of essential information.
IN Wikipedia is Not So Great, accuracy is listed as the "single biggest problem."

So this isn't even an unusual thing, and it looks as though the community is well aware of it and has taken it into account, in a matter-of-fact way not reflected in feelings aired in this thread. There are a lot of things Wikipedia doesn't do that it could do to reduce vandalism, but it seems as though the community, by and large, is happy to deal with the occasional vandalism in order to maintain its current way of performing its service.

But this has been about people being critical of Professor Kelly and what he did, not about anyone claiming that Wikipedia should be immune from critique.

It was about Kelly at least some of the time, but Wikipedia came up as a special thread of inquiry by the third comment, and after that a few people have focused almost exclusively on his use of Wikipedia in 2008 as something they wanted us to take for granted was beyond the pale. We didn't hear that about YouTube, and we didn't hear that about Reddit, and we didn't hear that about the USA Today blog. But we were asked to think that it was especially terrible to use Wikipedia to try to spread false information as an experiment.

I don't think it's more terrible than using any other website to try to spread false information. The spreading of false information happens daily on Wikipedia and elsewhere, everywhere. And while I deplore false information, I deplore more the erosion of critical and research skills and the blind trust with which most of us access and use information unquestioningly. I approve of that complacency being challenged in a positive, academically framed way which causes no demonstrated harm and highlights the ease with which it is done, and perhaps can be the basis for more discussion of the other ways in which it is done and to which we don't generally object. There was an interesting greater purpose here, one which I think a lot about and which is an important subject of conversation for librarians, researchers, scholars, historians, and students.

I do not believe you would find it so kosher if people were critiquing Professor Kelly by going in and messing up his research or projects to analyze his response or make a point, rather than just discussing him in a thread on a web site.

Well, I suppose you're free to try that, though I'd look into the risks of getting involved in a university computing system first. I'm not sure what I'd think if it happened, but if university systems are that easily gamed, then I probably would support the point of view that they need to be more secure because they are treated with a higher level of trust, as systems. It would be a serious challenge to the trust we place in professional librarians and library systems. I guess you could mess with his course website, or email his students and tell them not to turn in some assignment or other, but again, once you're in the university system and not on a publicly accessible website, there probably are crimes you could be charged with. What would you be trying to prove exactly?

Hmm, I think I am going to have my next class create new MeFi personae....I'm curious about how the people who support the professor's methods would feel if he did something like this. I feel it's a very similar thing.

That kind of thing has happened before, but not quite as an intellectual exercise inasfar as we know, more as a personal weirdness. I think it could be very interesting - there are few better ways to introduce information of the historical-hoax kind to a widely connected community that would share it and concurrently examine it - and if discovered, it would certainly generate a lot of outrage on MeFi, or if discovered, outrage mixed with the usual glee and self-congratulation.

I don't think it would permanently harm MetaFilter any more than past hoaxes have.
posted by Miko at 6:53 AM on May 17, 2012


> And while I deplore false information

That's certainly not apparent from anything you've written here. You regard this as a charming, praiseworthy prank and have consistently treated those of us who see anything at all wrong with it as priggish killjoys. If you "deplore false information," you should deplore people spreading it. If I had been in that first class, I would have refused to take part in the project, and frankly I think both the professor and the students who went along with him are ethically deficient.
posted by languagehat at 8:35 AM on May 17, 2012


If you "deplore false information," you should deplore people spreading it.

I don't think this follows. What I think more about is the reality that false information is a constant in our lives, and the burden that places on each of us to find and share better information.
posted by Miko at 9:32 AM on May 17, 2012


It's not a constant -- because of these people there is now more of it! That burden goes both ways. Be sure of your facts, and, don't contribute to the noise of the world.
posted by JHarris at 9:43 AM on May 17, 2012


It'll be always with us. There's never going to be a world in which everyone is honest, aboveboard, transparent, and upfront. Not ever, never.

That burden goes both ways.

Sure, it's up to each of us to decide which side to play.

Be sure of your facts, and, don't contribute to the noise of the world.

The best we can hope for is that some. maybe the majority of people might follow this advice and agree that it's a good way to live. But, as you see, others might take a different approach to ideas about information.

One amusing thing is that this is the battle we regularly fight on AskMe. "People are giving bad information! They don't know what they're talking about, they're spreading mths, their answers should be deleted and they should be banned!" I've always disagreed with this.
The price of getting a lot of answers and a lot of activity is getting some bad answers. But you need to get a lot of answers and have a lot of activity to get good answers. It's reasonable to trust that over time, the quality of what's available will improve because more voices, more authority, and more sourcing will appear to contradict or clarify the myths. It's actually the same principle as Wikipedia. And in fact, the appearance of bad answers (or bad research) often spurs better answers and better research as people with more knowledge or authority seek to quell rumor or correct the record.

I think this works on a macro level as well.
posted by Miko at 10:01 AM on May 17, 2012


Just another thing to consider, aside from following the guidelines on Wikipedia this year, (including adding only factual information) here's the website for the beer group. The top of which reads:

This website is a hoax, created by students at George Mason University, in the class "Lying About the Past," during the spring 2012 semester. All of the facts on this site are true, except for the central facts: Harris Thompson is not a real person and he did not discover the beer of 1812. The rest of what you will find here is true.

I think part of the disconnect here is the might be that the article makes it seem like the result of the assignment had a much bigger footprint than what the scope of what the groups actually did was. From my point of view, it looks like the professor realized that the project may have crossed some ethical lines last time adjusted the assignment accordingly.
posted by Gygesringtone at 11:06 AM on May 17, 2012


But one can certainly avoid contributing to the problem with one's own actions, indeed, the spread of this attitude could mean the difference between putting up with a managable level of deception and not being able to trust anyone -- and let's be clear, ultimately that amounts to the collapse of civilization. Eventually you have to trust someone, you can't fact check everything.
posted by JHarris at 11:06 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think part of the disconnect here is the might be that the article makes it seem like the result of the assignment had a much bigger footprint than what the scope of what the groups actually did was.

Well that's a horrible sentence. Let's try again "I think part of the disconnect here might be that article makes it seem like the result of the assignment had a much bigger footprint than what the scope actually was."
posted by Gygesringtone at 11:08 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


What false information now exists in the world as a result of this project? Please specify.
posted by neroli at 11:38 AM on May 17, 2012


I think one of the problems I have with this is that if anything was actually taught, it benefitted a tiny group of people at the slight expense of many.

It's not like the prof came out with a public article saying, this is how easily we fooled the public.

This info had to be rooted out by others.

Also I thought it was common knowledge to take everything you read or hear with a grain of salt, especially off the net. If you don't hold this view already...you have some larger problems ahead. You need an actual full length college couse to teach you this?
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:02 PM on May 17, 2012


AS A STUDENT THAT TOOK THE CLASS AND WAS PART OF THE BEER HOAX:

Most of you need to take a chill pill. Think of it this way...

- if you aspire to be a computer forensics superstar or a white-hat hacker, don't you need to know how to weaponize code?

- if you want to be a biologist or chemist that finds the cure to a terrible disease, don't you need to know the inner workings of the disease itself?

- if you want to be an undercover cop, don't you need to take drugs, nail hookers and act like an asshole to fit in with your targets?

... so we hoaxed people. Big deal. If my idea had been passed, you folks would REALLY be up in arms, because it was FAR more hurtful than the two softballs that we ended up voting for. We lied about a fake serial killer and a made-up beer recipe. That is seriously a drop in the pan. We learned how to be more critical of our source material BECAUSE CLEARLY PEOPLE TRUST EVERYTHING THEY READ ON THE INTERNET.

MORE IMPORTANTLY, what most of you can't seem to understand is that WE DID NOT VANDALIZE WIKIPEDIA. In fact, our group CORRECTED previously incorrect data from the Smithsonian and added a wiki article about an old brewery that REALLY DID EXIST. Brown's Brewery changed to Claggert's Brewery AFTER Pickersgill sewed the flag, not before. Read the top of our website (located here) -

"This website is a hoax, created by students at George Mason University, in the class "Lying About the Past," during the spring 2012 semester. All of the facts on this site are true, except for the central facts: Harris Thompson is not a real person and he did not discover the beer of 1812. The rest of what you will find here is true."

So the bottom line / tl;dr? I learned a ton more in my last semester of my college career than I ever have from a traditional class, and it frustrates me that people (both here and at GMU) are trying to bury it because they are indoctrinated into a society that doesn't promote its students (and especially its teachers) to think outside the box.
posted by Yzerfan at 12:05 PM on May 17, 2012


Yzerfan: What, exactly, do you think the exercise accomplished? Do you feel the lesson "Not everything on the internet is true" is really worth whatever you paid for it?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:17 PM on May 17, 2012


What false information now exists in the world as a result of this project? Please specify.

The information exists in the minds of anyone who read those Wikipedia pages without access to the insular and rather wonky circles through which news of the hoax has been circulating.

Maybe you'd argue they should have checked their sources, but there isn't any purpose lying to those people serves that isn't better served BY JUST TELLING THEM TO CHECK THEIR SOURCES IN THE FIRST PLACE.
posted by JHarris at 12:24 PM on May 17, 2012


How do we know you are who you really are, Yzerfan? :-)


- if you aspire to be a computer forensics superstar or a white-hat hacker, don't you need to know how to weaponize code?

- if you want to be a biologist or chemist that finds the cure to a terrible disease, don't you need to know the inner workings of the disease itself?

- if you want to be an undercover cop, don't you need to take drugs, nail hookers and act like an asshole to fit in with your targets?



I think the problem I have with your analogies is that people in these situations don't actually go and do this in a public space on unsuspecting people (at least if they're trying to be ethical.) And wow, I think your analogies actually work more against the professor's case than help.

I agree this is not a big "OMG TERRIBLE THING" the class did, but I think if we ALL operated according to the ethics of your class ("let's break this thing-everybody-shares a little bit so we can learn more") humanity would be way more fucked than we already are.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:25 PM on May 17, 2012


From my point of view, it looks like the professor realized that the project may have crossed some ethical lines last time adjusted the assignment accordingly.

I absolutely agree that that probably accounts for the change from the 2008 model to the 2012 model. Even so, in 2008 on his blog, in a discussion which is way more thoughtful than this year's, he said:
We spent a lot of time in class discussing the ethical issues surrounding our project, which is why we created a hoax on something so innocuous as a small time pirate who never amounted to much.
And in the comments, someone notes:
I gather from the Chronicle article that one of the issues that the class grappled with was that of the ethics of this project. The article references a few ethical concerns that were discussed:

* No money would change hands.
* No medical information would be put forth.
* No national-security issues would be involved.
* No violations of the university’s responsible-computing policy would be made.

Frankly, while these are all certainly legitimate ethical pitfalls of living and producing information online, I think the one that’s not mentioned and the one that I feel this class DID stumble on was the issue of trust networks. Some of the folks who were duped by this project were led to it by messages distributed in social networking channels by people whom they new and trusted. I think this kind of trust is a critical component of the social contract that we all tacitly agree to by participating in these networks.
Another commenter says:
the very existence of your class made me highly skeptical of my own online trust networks in the blogosphere.
So that's interesting. And that could be dealt with more deeply. In this age, does it become easier for spin and lies to travel if you understand how to plant them in and subvert trust networks? Why do we trust trust networks? Should we? That's really something to look at.

A student from the 2008 class writes:
We concluded this hoax and all of the research for it before two of my other history classes were finished. I had two papers left to write. I carried the enthusiasm for this class over to my final two papers and was able to produce well-written papers, and my level of enthusiasm was like never before (I’ve always been enthusiastic about history, but at the end of the semester, my enthusiasm doesn’t get as high as it could.). I’m anticipating my Spring ’09 semester on a level I never thought possible. I want to get into my history classes, do research and really, truly check my sources. Thanks to Mills, I now know how to recognize some of the tiniest details that could make something that seems credible to be completely false.
This info had to be rooted out by others.

But if it hadn't been, it would have been revealed at the end of the term anyhow. It was revealed in 2008 in the Chronicle of Higher Education.In the first go-round, they chose to reveal it because it was starting to take in a journalist and some professors, which is pretty interesting.

I thought it was common knowledge to take everything you read or hear with a grain of salt, especially off the net.

I wish that that were true, but it's not.

the spread of this attitude could mean the difference between putting up with a managable level of deception and not being able to trust anyone -- and let's be clear, ultimately that amounts to the collapse of civilization. Eventually you have to trust someone, you can't fact check everything.

To me, the first part is true - we can contend adequately with a certain level of deception in everyday life - but the second part is not - that you can trust no one and that will cause a collapse of civilization. We all do depend on trust just in order to get through the day - in the people who wired your house, drivers, employers, people who email you, friends and lovers. Sometimes that trust does bite us on the ass, which is the risk trusting. But to me the response is simply to recognize that we are placing that trust, and to give some thought to what it's founded on, if anything. If you proceed through life in a totally trusting manner, you will believe a lot of falsehoods. If you proceed through life willing to step back and engage in skeptical inquiry when you come across a hint of deceit, something seeming off, something seeming too good to be true, something not gelling, then I think we'll all be better off.

Ultimately we all have to make individual judgments about the trustworthiness of what we encounter. Where I get troubled by untruth is not that untruth exists as a thing. That's all over the place. But it's not always malicious. I am troubled by it when it's put in the service of narratives that oppress, suppress, and take advantage of people - particularly people who can't develop or were never taught the skills of critical inquiry. Intent and outcome matter more to me than any other aspect of fabulism, which after all is a fairly universal human trait.
posted by Miko at 12:26 PM on May 17, 2012


AS A STUDENT THAT TOOK THE CLASS AND WAS PART OF THE BEER HOAX:

Cite?
posted by JHarris at 12:26 PM on May 17, 2012


The information exists in the minds of anyone who read those Wikipedia pages without access to the insular and rather wonky circles through which news of the hoax has been circulating.

And what is the harm that has been caused?
posted by Miko at 12:28 PM on May 17, 2012


but the second part is not - that you can trust no one and that will cause a collapse of civilization.

This is false, and nothing will demonstrate it to you more conclusively than trying to talk sense to friends and family who watch Fox News. It is possible to construct for yourself, or have constructed around you, such an elaborate belief system that it cannot be objectively distinguished from reality. If you can construct a framing context around a fact you wish to discredit, you can make it mean anything at all, and there is always a bigger frame to be built.
posted by JHarris at 12:32 PM on May 17, 2012


And what is the harm that has been caused?

No man can say.
posted by JHarris at 12:33 PM on May 17, 2012


But if it hadn't been, it would have been revealed at the end of the term anyhow. It was revealed in 2008 in the Chronicle of Higher Education.In the first go-round, they chose to reveal it because it was starting to take in a journalist and some professors, which is pretty interesting.


Hmm, I'm not so sure something like this would have ever made its way back to the public...your average wiki reader.

I think it would have been more ethical if the professor had tried to hoax the Chronicle of Higher Education. Smaller circle involved, and ensuing damage control actually benefits and effects the people who were hoaxed.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:34 PM on May 17, 2012


JHarris & the____of Justice

I can only hope more people learn this lesson! I'm not going to put my credentials on here because I appreciate the anonymity of the interwebs, but that is the exact question I hope more people ask!
posted by Yzerfan at 12:40 PM on May 17, 2012


This is false, and nothing will demonstrate it to you more conclusively than trying to talk sense to friends and family who watch Fox News.

Has civilization collapsed?

It is possible to construct for yourself, or have constructed around you, such an elaborate belief system that it cannot be objectively distinguished from reality.

This is exactly my point. What do you think is the antidote to such unthinking credulity?

I'm not so sure something like this would have ever made its way back to the public...your average wiki reader.

I'd have to put that down to the fault of the Wikipedia interface.

No man can say.

Maybe give me a worst-case scenario.
posted by Miko at 12:44 PM on May 17, 2012



I'm not so sure something like this would have ever made its way back to the public...your average wiki reader.

I'd have to put that down to the fault of the Wikipedia interface.


Really? But not the people who perpetrated the hoax?
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:53 PM on May 17, 2012


If there are inevitably and forever going to be hoaxes on Wikipedia, and I think that Wikipedia's own documentation accepts the fact that there are inevitably going to be, there are things Wikipedia could do to more clearly inform people who have called up a hoaxed page that it was a hoax, once it's found out.

They don't do that right now, but they could.
posted by Miko at 1:43 PM on May 17, 2012


> if you want to be a biologist or chemist that finds the cure to a terrible disease, don't you need to know the inner workings of the disease itself?

Yes, but you don't release the disease to the public at large. Unless you're taught by this guy, of course.

> If there are inevitably and forever going to be hoaxes on Wikipedia

...then it's perfectly OK to perpetrate one. I still don't grasp the logic of this.
posted by languagehat at 1:55 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yzerfan: No one is trying to "bury it". There appears to have been another class before yours that did actually create fake articles on fake topics. What aggravates me and probably other people is the suggestion in discussions of this that sabotaging and vandalizing Wikipedia is a laudable thing if it's for a super-duper-important reason or done by people whose work is more worthy than that of the people who have to follow along, unravel what they've done, and clean it all up.

Miko, I'm not a lawyer but the impression I have gotten is that the laws governing what is illegal to do online and with computers in general are actually much broader than what's illegal IRL, to the degree that how many things they could be applicable to is a problem. For example the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (in 18 USC § 1030) criminalizes the acts of someone who
...knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer...

(2) the term “protected computer” means a computer—
(A) exclusively for the use of a financial institution or the United States Government, or, in the case of a computer not exclusively for such use, used by or for a financial institution or the United States Government and the conduct constituting the offense affects that use by or for the financial institution or the Government; or

(B) which is used in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce or communication, including a computer located outside the United States that is used in a manner that affects interstate or foreign commerce or communication of the United States;
This does not seem to square with your statement that "There's nothing that says what Anonymous does is wrong on principle". Especially in a post-USA-Patriot-Act world, though that law was originally created in 1986. But that doesn't really matter to me, because I'm not the one trying to make an argument about things being non-dickish when they aren't illegal or not censured by society with enough force.

I understand it frustrates you but I don't see a moral obligation for me to condemn it...

No, what frustrates me is that you're trying to claim that for anyone to condemn it or to not accede to the suggestion it might be laudatory is some sort of super-special respect or extraordinary beneficial treatment of Wikipedia, as I am frustrated by Professor Kelly's apparent assertion that a person must have some notion about "sanctity" of Wikipedia to object to this.

I think that intentionally, unnecessarily making a mess that someone else has to clean up is a dickish move in general, whether that's peeing in someone else's pool, someone taking a dump behind one of your museum exhibits or otherwise vandalizing it, putting false information or other crap on Wikipedia, or trolling MetaFilter to intentionally create some blow-up flame-out thread that's entertaining to the instigator and maybe edifying to some research project but which the mods have to clean up, and hence the instigator benefits from causing them headaches - headaches they perfectly well expect to encounter and in some cases are actually paid to deal with, but nonetheless it is not some sort of "entitlement to special kinds of sympathy" for anyone to say that this is being dickish to the mods. Something doesn't have to cause "serious harm" or "permanent harm" to be a dick move and I would say this of any forum or other moderated web site, not just ones I'm directly invested in where I can crack the whip over five bucks I paid half a decade ago.

Here's maybe an even better illustration: what if someone took a dump in a bathroom, but instead of using the perfectly usable toilet took a dump on the floor next to the toilet, for the purpose of observing how others coming into the bathroom responded or how the person who had to clean it up behaved or even something like the scientific sanitation effects of doing it on a tile floor or something? This isn't illegal, at least I've never heard of someone being prosecuted for just this specific act; everyone expects to have to clean up gross stuff in a bathroom, and if it's a public bathroom there's probably someone who is paid to clean it up out of the recurring sections of a budget somewhere - but you're still being a dick to whoever has to clean up after you, without the involvement of any "entitlement to special kinds of sympathy", even if this occurs in some No Man's Land that isn't part of any nation and hence no laws exist to create even the slightest official condemnation of it.

So this isn't even an unusual thing,

This is so diametrically opposite from an unusual thing that it would be ludicrous for anyone familiar with Wikipedia to make this comment: as has been repeatedly said throughout the thread, vandalism happens on Wikipedia all the time. Vandalism on Wikipedia is such a continuous unrelenting torrent that it would be hopelessly unmanageable without automated tools to detect and revert the most obvious and crude things. I would not be surprised if a single joke from Stephen Colbert can generate what would be man-days or man-weeks of labor if it all had to be handled manually, though a sizeable percentage of it probably does have to be handled manually anyways, and every damn person thinks they're being as witty as Colbert himself. I dearly hope that the "Pending Changes" mechanism I've linked to above is activated and inhibits the feedback loop for the more casual vandals of getting to immediately see their artful handiwork in the public version of the article, so that more effort and resources can be devoted to the spreading-subtle-falsehoods and spammy types of vandalism.

...and it looks as though the community is well aware of it and has taken it into account, in a matter-of-fact way not reflected in feelings aired in this thread.

If you did not come across utter rage about vandalism and got the impression that it's an "occasional" thing that the community is "happy to deal with", your investigation was pretty damn shallow for someone who thinks it's important to ward against people being "decieved by historical narratives developed by people with vested interests in promoting one storyline or another."

If there are inevitably and forever going to be hoaxes on Wikipedia, and I think that Wikipedia's own documentation accepts the fact that there are inevitably going to be, there are things Wikipedia could do to more clearly inform people who have called up a hoaxed page that it was a hoax, once it's found out.

They don't do that right now, but they could.


You mean like putting Template:Hoax at the top of an article, before they work through the process to explicitly state it in the text itself or delete the article entirely? Gee, maybe the volunteers working on the Wikipedia project haven't gotten around to doing it on the articles you're looking at because they've got a backlog of other kinds of cleaning up after people who are pulling stupid stunts or messing things up out of self-interest, or the people who really actually need help editing the encyclopedia and screw things up by accident, or who barely speak English and are trying to document something they see as important, or the million other things that have to be done to keep the place running such as it is.

Oh, they should work on ways to reduce the backlog and increase the response time on these sort of things? Yep, doing that, thanks.

Another thing that's aggravatingly superior along with the rest of the attitudes expressed surrounding this issue is the way people sound as though they think that this ever-so-worthy work "testing" Wikipedia is providing some sort of brilliant insight or critique that is going to be mindblowing to everyone else, when they just haven't familiarized themselves with the object of inquiry. The education of tender young minds part of it is admirable and worthy, just not the method or any of the things that people seem to think are revelations from this.

One more thing, regarding the hypothetical example of Professor Kelly being critiqued the same way his work critiques Wikipedia -

I'm not sure what I'd think if it happened, but if university systems are that easily gamed, then I probably would support the point of view that they need to be more secure because they are treated with a higher level of trust, as systems. It would be a serious challenge to the trust we place in professional librarians and library systems.

Oh, believe me university systems are easily gamed. Much more important computer systems like military or hospital ones are easily gamed. Most of the computer systems in the world are about as secure as a McDonald's play gym with a foot-thick steel vault door at the entrance to the ball pit. The pundits and officials like Richard Clarke making all kinds of noise about severe "cyber-security" problems aren't just stirring up hype (well they might be about their specific solution to the problem, just not about the severity of the issue itself.) An even more minute amount of significant information would be revealed about facility security in a critique like that than is revealed about Wikipedia by Kelly's work.
posted by XMLicious at 3:47 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


...then it's perfectly OK to perpetrate one. I still don't grasp the logic of this.

You keep saying this, but no matter how many times you say it, "inevitable" does not start to mean "perfectly OK." I just won't agree to any broad statement like that. I spent a lot of time above talking about intent.

Miko, I'm not a lawyer but the impression...

I was referring to exactly that law. What Anonymous does is not illegal on principle, it's illegal (When it can be proven) because of demonstrated harm to a physical computer. One of the problems with the limitations of these laws, and with prosecuting under them, is that they were written in the 80s when all people could imagine related to cyberattack was doing damage to the data on someone's physical computer. Damage to a website is somewhat trickier, and damage to constantly changing information floating in the cloud still trickier. In addition, it relies on the interstate commerce clause - again, irrelevant where there's no commerce.

No, what frustrates me is that you're trying to claim that for anyone to condemn it or to not accede to the suggestion it might be laudatory is some sort of super-special respect or extraordinary beneficial treatment of Wikipedia

I understand that some people don't condemn it. But I do think in saying "this is a terrible thing to do to Wikipedia" people are endorsing a special status for Wikipedia that they aren't extending to YouTube or Blogger or whatever other sites or projects were involved. And the argument for the special status is (a) honorable purpose and (b) volunteer effort. I'm saying those are nice things but they don't give reason to expect people to treat projects like that differently.

The analogies get nuttier. Taking a dump on a bathroom floor is almost universally repulsive to anyone who sees it, not just the cleaner-upper, and a biohazard to the person who has to clean it up. That's a really different degree of harm than a small pretend article on a not-particularly-reliable site. Those analogies are just...real stretches.

What happened in this incident is just not really harmful, in the grand scheme of things. It may have inconvenienced a few people who have already stepped up to volunteer for a whole big bundle of inconvenience, and that's the worst I can see of it. We have already spent more time on it in this thread than it took Wikipedia to deal with it, and than it probably took the Atlantic to write it.

My point is that if preventing misinformation were really more important to Wikipedia than its other priorities, they'd implement the many easy ways to do it. It's clearly not a big priority. I'm sure you're correct that I could pull back the curtain and find much complaint about the cleanup process, though that's not what is chosen as the public face. One can only wonder why, then, the group doesn't put paid to the problem. To all appearances, the answer is that people don't think it's a big enough problem to change the way the site runs.
Therefore, it's not a particularly big problem.

I'm absolutely sure you can go mess with university systems if you want to and plenty more. With malicious intent there's no end to what you can do.

I get that you really love Wikipedia and think it's great. There's a lot of evangelism for the site and I've always been deeply skeptical of that. I think it's okay; I use it, but it's so flawed that you have to use it in certain narrow and specific ways to get any value out of it. It's riddled with disinformation as well as misinformation as well as stupid errors as well as omissions and weighting issues. It should be totally okay to say all that. Despite the challenge "do you really need to do this to show its weaknesses," I think the answer is going to continue to be yes. It should be totally OK to point this out to undergraduates, and it should be OK to use the system they've been invited to use to illustrate the weaknesses (and strengths) it has in realtime. Because the system invites it.

These folks are only doing with Wikipedia what Wikipedia wants done, as a de facto principle. Because if Wikipedia wanted it done differently, they'd change the premise of participation.
posted by Miko at 6:52 PM on May 17, 2012


The criminal offenses which list the standard of harm from the law you cite:
[Stuff about private government data and then]

Knowingly accessing a protected computer with the intent to defraud and there by obtaining anything of value.
Knowingly causing the transmission of a program, information, code, or command that causes damage or intentionally accessing a computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage that results in:
-Loss to one or more persons during any one-year period aggregating at least $5,000 in value.
-The modification or impairment, or potential modification or impairment, of the medical examination, diagnosis, treatment, or care of one or more individuals.
-Physical injury to any person.
A threat to public health or safety.
-Damage affecting a government computer system
-Knowingly and with the intent to defraud, trafficking in a password or similar information through which a computer may be accessed without authorization.
All pretty concrete, physical-world definition of damage.

Also, all this applies only to computers in the federal system. Relevant detail [PDF].

Not seeing anything to apply to the crime of being briefly deceived about America's last pirate.
posted by Miko at 7:01 PM on May 17, 2012


This is going to be long because I believe very strongly about this, and received a visit from the Inspiration Fairy just now. If you can substantively counter what I'm about to write and do it fairly I will be quite impressed, but I don't think it's possible. Here we go:

>This is false, and nothing will demonstrate it to you more conclusively than trying to talk sense to friends and family who watch Fox News.
Has civilization collapsed?


OY. Give it time, they still have an excellent chance of pulling it off!

This is exactly my point. What do you think is the antidote to such unthinking credulity?

Oh, you've convinced me. From now on I'll be a lying asshole to anyone seeking honest advice from me.
* What's the best way to protect your laptop from malware? Soaking it in warm brine.
* What is this thing "Linux" you're heard about? It's a kind of salty paste made from fish that you put on bagels.
* Oh JHarris my computer is running slowly, whatever should I do? I've got the thing to put in your hard drive that will speed it right up, it's this amazing new product called my cock, let me get it out of its wrapper.

My point isn't that people shouldn't be more critical of what they read: oh, they most certainly should. My point is this can ONLY GO SO FAR. Even your very mind is constructed off of a foundation of a thousand of things you've been told by others that you've had to accept uncritically just to operate, from what things it's safe to eat, to what words mean (especially that) to potty training. That's why when people have been brought up really dyed-in-the-wool fundie they don't change out of it that often; they'd have to rethink too many things, and have been told the consequences of doing so are dire. As someone who did manage to get out of it, I feel those difficulties keenly.

It's a thing in philosophy, I hear, to ask if you are an actual being experiencing true things through your senses, or are you just a brain in a jar being fed sensory stimuli that makes it appear you're experiencing things? That's rather an extreme version of being lied to at a profound level about everything, but it's a similar kind of thing.

I'd have to put that down to the fault of the Wikipedia interface.

Call up Jimbo Wales, I'm sure he'll be convinced.

>No man can say.
Maybe give me a worst-case scenario.


You've already given a bad one, Fox News, but it's far from worst case. That is enough -- that lying is an objective, if ineffable, evil that one inflicts upon our very culture.

But if you want to restrict it to this situation alone, "No man can say" means more than not being able to tell how many thousands of trivia quizzes those poor readers will lose, GASP! Among my circle of friends I tend to be the one who has, or is willing to, not accept whatever cockamamie urban legend has been handed to me, I tend to be the first one to say "Now that's not likely, is it? Let me look that up," when I don't already know the answer.

I usually experience ridiculous push-back. Like when my friend who's been in the Marine Corps was told that Fred Rogers was never in the Marines, and he didn't wear that cardigan because his arms are covered with tattoos. This he and his military friends had treated with an article of faith, and this might be stereotyping, but I've observed that no one will believe something so readily and fiercely as a military man. And I find it hard to believe that they didn't build a small piece of their soul on that foundation, that wonderful kind-hearted Mr. Rogers was secretly a man who charged into battle screaming death and bullets for the good of his country. He didn't -- he went into the clergy, then into show business, and as far as I know never held a gun.

No doubt it said to them, here is a story of human nature and unexpected appearances! I can slot this into my worldview! I might come up to him later and tell him it's false, but it'll never undo the damage that it caused, the mistaken impression of the nature of man, because we aren't computers, we don't establish elaborate boolean truth tables by which the judge the veracity of dependent facts. If you build your elaborate system of mathematics off the foundation of 2+2=3.1415926, the profound implications of that falsehood will extend even after you discover four, idiot. That is why passing false information like this is evil, possibly a minor evil depending on the nature of the fact passed, but still, possessing a non-zero evil value.

There is no end to these stories, I've discovered, there's always more. No doubt there are folks out there who spread them on purpose. People should be less credulous, yes, but other people should be more credible too, because if it weren't for the sources that I turned to to debunk that Mr. Rogers story then I'd be forced to go along with the assertion too. Either that, or I could just assume everything I've ever been told or seen or did has been the experience of a brain in a jar. Scientists eventually have to shrug and operate as if the universe is playing fair with them, and so do we all.

Finally, your attitude is that it's not hard to check up on these things, but the fact is it wasn't that long ago that doing the research meant going to a library, which meant there had to be a library near you, and you had to have the hours to look it up (or knew to call the information desk where helpful librarians will expend those hours for you). Overturning a piece of false information then was laborious process. Ironically, Wikipedia has been the greatest thing in the history of mankind towards pushing out accurate (for the most part) information to the most people.

Since its very nature is that attacks against it have to be noticed to be fixed, this little game is really an attack against the greatest resource for spreading accurate information the world has ever seen, for because of this stunt breaking a few piddly pages, a lot more people are going to look suspiciously at THE MIGHTY PEDE when it tells them something capital-I important, like oh, say, that the Holocaust really happened.

There will always be people to come along and vandalize pages, and there will (I hope) always be people to fix them. The solution isn't more vandalism. Ultimately the veracity of Wikipedia is the veracity of the sum of human discovery -- the nature of learning has always been thus, those PhDs who tell you facts learned them from someone else. What if they were lied to? What if, when they checked those facts, the place they checked lied too? In the end the process is exactly the same as Wikipedia's, it's just slowed down by a factor of millions and has big expensive schools build around it to try to make those facts seem more objectively true. But they aren't -- facts are not objectively true. Facts are a human creation, and the universe doesn't care about whether they're true or not. That burden has always been on us -- in the hearing, but in the telling too.

THE SCREED IS FINISHED. I GO!
posted by JHarris at 7:48 PM on May 17, 2012


From now on I'll be a lying asshole to anyone seeking honest advice from me.

Then it'll be easy for people to stop asking you.

Finally, your attitude is that it's not hard to check up on these things, but the fact is it wasn't that long ago that doing the research meant going to a library, which meant there had to be a library near you, and you had to have the hours to look it up (or knew to call the information desk where helpful librarians will expend those hours for you).Overturning a piece of false information then was laborious process. Ironically, Wikipedia has been the greatest thing in the history of mankind towards pushing out accurate (for the most part) information to the most people.

I totally disagree. I went to the library. I still go to the library.

If you're relying on Wikipedia to overturn false information, you're relying on the wrong thing.

t the greatest resource for spreading accurate information the world has ever seen

the veracity of Wikipedia is the veracity of the sum of human discovery


This is exactly the kind of hyperbolic evangelism for Wikipedia that I think is really lazy and pernicious.

It concerns me that people seem not only to be unaware of, but unable to imagine, better sources than Wikipedia.

Here's a question: Can you imagine a better Wikipedia? If so, what qualities would it have?

Facts are a human creation, and the universe doesn't care about whether they're true or not. That burden has always been on us -- in the hearing, but in the telling too.

Totally agree with that. And some will not accept the burden of limiting their telling to fact - especially when it's the very idea of fact itself they want us to examine.
posted by Miko at 8:08 PM on May 17, 2012


In the end the process is exactly the same as Wikipedia's

And, as regards academic or serious journalistic research, this is really false.
posted by Miko at 8:13 PM on May 17, 2012


It should be totally OK to point this out to undergraduates, and it should be OK to use the system they've been invited to use to illustrate the weaknesses (and strengths) it has in realtime. Because the system invites it.

Do not disrupt Wikipedia to prove a point.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:30 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Miko, none of the damage in the "Causing Computer Damage" section of the PDF you linked to has anything to do with physical harm to a computer. I'm again not an expert but none of the cases where I've ever heard of this law being applied have had anything to do with physically damaging a computer.

In the same section of that PDF it mentions that the law applies to computers belonging to banks and computers "used in, or affecting, interstate or foreign commerce or communications." Which is basically every computer connected to the internet. That's why prosecutors have attempted to use this law to prosecute a woman for harassing people over Facebook. That kinda sounds like "constantly changing information floating in the cloud" to me.

This isn't the 1990s any more, you can't just handwavily say "cyberspace is a legal grey area that's still developing" - there are now precedents and actual instances of these laws being applied, even if they're bad precedents and bad laws. I wish there weren't laws that criminalize translating a document or learning the wrong thing, but they do actually exist.

If the Wikipedia article is to be believed this section of the U.S. code has been updated repeatedly over the quarter-century it has existed, including being amended by the Patriot Act. This agrees with my recollection but if you find information contradicting that I'll happily read it.

But I do think in saying "this is a terrible thing to do to Wikipedia" people are endorsing a special status for Wikipedia that they aren't extending to YouTube or Blogger or whatever other sites or projects were involved.

I'm not seeing where anyone is saying that and I think that if Professor Kelly's project involved getting into YouTube or Blogger and altering someone else's videos or blog posts or faking new ones from the same individuals I think that people would find this similarly dickish. Conversely, if it involved just going onto talk pages and discussion boards at Wikipedia and saying stuff in a conversation, people really wouldn't have a problem with it. It's messing around with the product of the Wikipedia project so that other people have to go and clean it up that's the shitty thing to do.

If you want a more computer-y analogy, it's like checking in pointless or malicious code to an open source software project or otherwise messing up the source code repository, which would be similarly dickish and require someone to fix it for the project to progress. Whereas going on the software project's web site and saying nasty or even deceptive things about the program or the programmers' ancestry would be a much lower order of dickishness.

It may have inconvenienced a few people who have already stepped up to volunteer for a whole big bundle of inconvenience, and that's the worst I can see of it.

Except that it's somehow completely different from all of these other parallel situations where a volunteer or employee who signed up for a whole big bundle of inconvenience is treated the same way. So different indeed that when examining those situations we don't tread anywhere near the question of whether or not the analogized making a mess for someone else to clean up is also dickish, we look at things like whether there's a law against it that might get enforced in one out of a thousand instances (bzzzt, doesn't count, next!) if there's a biohazard involved and someone would have to wear safety gear during the cleanup (bzzzt, doesn't count, next!) and how we have to interpret the phrase "have to". There are no equivalent cases where we could ask whether making a mess for someone else to clean up is being dickish, that's just nutty!

My point is that if preventing misinformation were really more important to Wikipedia than its other priorities, they'd implement the many easy ways to do it. It's clearly not a big priority.

Oh, here it is. Wikipedians want there to be shit on the floor, this is "what Wikipedia wants done", that's why it doesn't matter who puts it there. If the Wikipedia project just doesn't care about misinformation, why is it a valuable or worthwhile thing for Professor Kelly to demonstrate how easy it is to "fool" Wikipedia if its weaknesses aren't weaknesses, they're features designed to enable what everyone involved actually wants to happen? "Let's watch it burn."

"Of course they wanted it to burn," says the arsonist, "why else would they have made it from something flammable? I'm just testing the fire alarms and the fire department's response time, clearly they aren't going to know how to do this nondestructively themselves and they need my help."

Guess what, you aren't the first person to explain how Wikipedia could easily be so much better (there should be a term like "mansplaining" for this but I can't think of one) but that the people working on it just don't want it enough. The licensing of the content makes it possible for anyone to copy the entire encyclopedia and all the software behind it and immediately go forward with one of these perfect schemes that will fix all of the problems that Wikipedians are just too thick to see the solutions to, but for some reason such attempts never seem to produce anything useful.

I get that you really love Wikipedia and think it's great.

I have not said anything like this. There are lots of assholes there who severely reduce the overall value and efficiency of the project and they are assholes for the same reason: they think nothing of messing up someone else's work or burning up someone else's time because it isn't as important "in the grand scheme of things", i.e. not as important as their own time or their own work or the things they're interested in.
posted by XMLicious at 8:35 PM on May 17, 2012


has anything to do with physical harm to a computer

I guess you must have missed page two, then.
Causing Computer Damage (18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(5))
Paragraph 1030(a)(5) proscribes unleashing worms or viruses or otherwise causing computer damage, that is, (A) intentionally causing unauthorized damage by knowingly causing a transmission to a protected computer; (B) recklessly causing damage by intentionally accessing a protected computer; or (C) causing damage and loss by intentionally accessing a protected computer. These kinds of damage are only federal crimes under paragraph 1030(a)(5) if they involve a protected computer.

...Other than physical injury or death, the types of serious damage that trigger more severe punishment are damage that (1) causes a loss that over the course a year exceeds $5,000; (2) modifies, impairs, or could modify or impair medical services; (3) causes physical injury; (4) threatens public health or safety; (5) affects a justice, national defense, or national security entity computer; or (6) affects 10 or more protected computers over the course of a year.
But even if you can't get beyond page one of a primary source, you don't need to be a lawyer to understand that nothing about an activity like messing with Wikipedia is covered under this law.

I brought this up because people were trying to draw parallels between acts that are illegal because they cause harm, destroy value, breach national security and the like, and acts that are just unpleasant or inconvenient. Regardless of how much "gray area" there still is in cyberlaw, and there is in fact a ton, it still has absolutely zero bearing on what happens on a self-contained, volunteer-run, free, nonprofit website. The law, here, is just not relevant, and so parallels to things protected by actual law don't hold any water or advance any arguments. It's a bad idea to vandalize physical property, in part, because it's usually illegal. If it's a bad idea to vandalize a nongovernmental, noncommercial website, we haven't enshrined that in law yet. No parallel can be made. If there's a reason to treat that website more nicely, we need other grounds besides law.

The licensing of the content makes it possible for anyone to copy the entire encyclopedia and all the software behind it and immediately go forward with one of these perfect schemes that will fix all of the problems that Wikipedians are just too thick to see the solutions to, but for some reason such attempts never seem to produce anything useful.

Ah, yes. Well, Google will get to it.

In the meantime, for accuracy we do a lot better with actual primary research.

For convenience, Wikipedia wins, but you have to take your convenience with a big dose of skepticism. That's the whole point of the endeavor.

There are lots of assholes there who severely reduce the overall value and efficiency of the project and they are assholes for the same reason: they think nothing of messing up someone else's work or burning up someone else's time because it isn't as important "in the grand scheme of things", i.e. not as important as their own time or their own work or the things they're interested in.

Sure. The thing is, by pleading someone else's lack of interest in a project, you're also pleading your own interest in it. In addition, you're not interested in their project to experiment with and test your project, and don't think it's of value.

The two of you value different things, and you can't get someone else to buy into your standard of value by telling them they're an asshole. That definition of 'asshole' is something you create because of the value you've already placed on the work done on your project. If you were indifferent about the project you probably wouldn't think that person was an asshole. You wouldn't care. That assholishness is not something inherent in the other person, it's your estimation of the person, which is based on your sense of value for the project. And the value of the project itself (at least outside of you personally, or your cohort in-group) is not something inherent in the project, but in third-party estimations of your project.

I probably don't have sufficient respect for the yarnbombers in the eyes of the yarnbombers. But their saying "You're an asshole because your anti-yarnbombing stance severely reduces the value of my yarnbombing" gives me no incentive to change my view. If I think yarnbombing is a ridiculous, privileged waste of time that makes the park less enjoyable, that doesn't make me an asshole.

What do you do about this problem of antipathy or indifference? Tolerate it or ignore it. Or, most maturely, accept that people vary in their estimations, and do all you can to keep things as you like them, understanding that means cleanup in aisle 5, painting over the graffiti, replacing the toys, replanting the flowers every so often.

Why is it a valuable or worthwhile thing for Professor Kelly to demonstrate how easy it is to "fool" Wikipedia if its weaknesses aren't weaknesses, they're features designed to enable what everyone involved actually wants to happen?

Because the public perception of what this resource is, and what it actually is, are two different things. We know about the weaknesses/features and understand how to use them in context. Most people don't. He's working on the public perception issue, which is that Wikipedia is an excellent resource that has transformed human knowledge, makes research a breeze, and is quite reliable as fair, knowledgeable and accurate. If people remain in as deep denial about the weaknesses as some people here are, then it will remain worthwhile for someone to keep pointing out the large patches of bare skin on the Emperor.
posted by Miko at 9:06 PM on May 17, 2012


it will remain worthwhile for someone to keep pointing out the large patches of bare skin on the Emperor.

Well, I guess there is nothing wrong then to make fake user names on metafilter, give erroneous (if harmless advice)? Or make topics on the blue that are fake (linking to websites and fake content we ourselves created).

What harm will it do?

Later on, this group of hoaxers will say, "we sure learned about how easy it is to create false content on metafilter. Now we should be more wary about goes on here!"

And just to be kinda fair, maybe we'll even put a post about it on Metatalk. Just to, you know, come clean. Meanwhile, the good portion of metafilter users who never go to metatalk, or miss metatalk that day will never realize those harmless articles were fake.

Nobody was hurt. But it served to educate some of us about how metafilter can be manipulated.

Let's do all of this, instead of just a regular ol' post describing the ways people have pulled internet hoaxes in the past. Why? Because apparently we can't just be "told" about how to hoax people, we've got to do it ourselves. Because otherwise it's just so damn boring. And it's kinda cool this way. Nobody's getting hurt. And we just get to be all excited about something.

So...whose with me?
posted by The ____ of Justice at 9:49 PM on May 17, 2012


The ____ Of Justice,

So here's the thing: People do have multiple accounts, post self created content, do stunt posts, etc. They then (generally) get caught and (generally) banned, because Metafilter has a system in place that enforces the rules and standards that are important to it.

Now, all that's really beside the point, because apparently the Professor and class either decided that they had crossed an ethical line or that scamming Wikipedia wouldn't serve a purpose this time. So they DIDN'T scam Wikipedia.

Reasonable people can disagree as to the ethics of how the professor choose to teach his class back in 2008. Reasonable people can discuss the ethics of how the professor choose to teach his class this year.

What's telling is that nobody is doing the second. Why is misleading the Reddit community not as offensive as lying to Wikipedia? Why is it less effective (which by the way is what a good chunk of the article seems to be about)? Can Wikipedia learn from this to help protect against the false posting of information, or is there something inherent to the ideal that leads to this?

The problem is that you're trying to have the conversation about Ethics and Miko is trying to have the conversation about structure. They're two different conversations. Wanting to have either doesn't make you a bad person, just somebody who's interested in one aspect more than the other.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:26 AM on May 18, 2012


Now, all that's really beside the point, because apparently the Professor and class either decided that they had crossed an ethical line or that scamming Wikipedia wouldn't serve a purpose this time. So they DIDN'T scam Wikipedia.


Are you and I reading the same article?

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.


Or I guess putting fake stuff on Wikipedia doesn't count as scamming, if the purpose is to fool somebody else?


What's telling is that nobody is doing the second. Why is misleading the Reddit community not as offensive as lying to Wikipedia? Why is it less effective (which by the way is what a good chunk of the article seems to be about)? Can Wikipedia learn from this to help protect against the false posting of information, or is there something inherent to the ideal that leads to this?


But they DID change wikipedia. I'm really confused by your statement here.

The problem is that you're trying to have the conversation about Ethics and Miko is trying to have the conversation about structure. They're two different conversations. Wanting to have either doesn't make you a bad person, just somebody who's interested in one aspect more than the other.


Quoting Miko:

Whether or not it's laudable depends on the intent and outcome.

Intent and outcome matter more to me than any other aspect of fabulism, which after all is a fairly universal human trait.


I thought this conversation WAS about ethics.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:45 AM on May 18, 2012


Are you and I reading the same article?

Yup. The article that says there were two separate classes and three projects total. Only one project put false information up on Wikipedia, and that was four years ago. This year, they specifically made a decision NOT to put false information up on Wikipedia. Assuming they did good research, all the information they added to Wikipedia this year was factual. It's been mentioned at least five times in thread, including the relevant quote from the article.

In fact, I'm reading the article that is mainly about the failure of the second and third projects (the ones whose only interactions with Wikipedia strictly followed site guidelines, resulting in the addition of new and accurate information to the site) to convince the communities they were aimed at, and how that relates to the differences between Wikipedia and Reddit or the online craft brew community.

Oh and there's a bit at the end about them writing the National Museum of American History to inform them of an error in one of the displays in their museum.

I thought this conversation WAS about ethics.

Thus "trying" instead of "is." Honestly, I shouldn't have tried to guess at Miko's intent in the first place and I'll stop now. Sorry.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:02 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or I guess putting fake stuff on Wikipedia doesn't count as scamming, if the purpose is to fool somebody else?

Yeah, if you still think there was anything fake put up on WP in 2012 you should go back and reread the article. They actually improved Wikipedia in 2012. It wouldn't hurt to reread the other links in the thread, and many of the comments on those links, too.

I'm not sure I've really been having a conversation focused on ethics. I take the view that this wasn't unethical, but I'm not having a conversation about ethics so much as a conversation about information and how we take it in, evaluate it, and test it.

The ethics question is a little tricky because I really don't know what ethical obligations the professor is under, if any, as part of his job. Maybe he has broken some, maybe not, but I think you'd have to ask GMU or any union he's part of. Clearly what he did is against many people's personal ethics, but that's an individual choice. I don't think I'd do what he did but I am sure I'm not in a position to condemn what he did.

The whole ethical angle, though, not being a serious issue in this case and one that falls outside of our decisionmaking scope anyway, is a lot less interesting for me than the information and perception issues.
posted by Miko at 4:07 PM on May 18, 2012


I see now. I was apparently confused by this line:

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.

I thought this "elaborate story of discovery" and "fabricated images" was what was put in the Wiki articles. Apparently not. So apologies for my misunderstanding.

Maybe "ethics" isn't the proper term, but it seems the last few comments of this thread have been a debate about whether the ends justify the means, and to me falls under the purview of what I understand as "ethics."
posted by The ____ of Justice at 9:57 PM on May 18, 2012


I guess you must have missed page two, then.

No - I was actually considering quoting exactly the same bit you did and I still do not understand at all why you think that's talking about physically harming a computer. It would appear to me that if you ask, "How is the perpetrator damaging the computer?" the answer in the bit you quoted is "by unleashing viruses and worms on it, transmitting to it, and accessing it the wrong way" - hitting the computer with a hammer isn't in that list, roasting it on a gas grill isn't on the list, cutting it in half with a chainsaw isn't on the list. It's very specifically defining damage as particular acts affecting computers in specific non-physical ways. When they talk about causing physical injury, they aren't talking about choking someone with the computer's power cord which would be illegal already, they're talking about transmitting information or commands through the computer that result in physical injury. Damaging forms of "access" is referring to non-physical access, not just physically trespassing somewhere and stepping up to the computer: that's why trafficking in passwords is illegal for example.

To quote from a Justice Department document entitled Prosecuting
Computer Crimes
which also confirms that the CFFA isn't some relic from the 80s but is being continuously updated as I described above - besides criminalizing unauthorized computer-related acts
Congress also added a provision to penalize those who intentionally alter, damage, or destroy data belonging to others.
So definitely, at the very least activities like messing with Wikipedia are covered under this law.

Regardless of how much "gray area" there still is in cyberlaw, and there is in fact a ton, it still has absolutely zero bearing on what happens on a self-contained, volunteer-run, free, nonprofit website.

Totally untrue. Wikipedia and other volunteer-run, free, nonprofit websites are constantly the object of lawsuits and legal actions involving all sorts of laws in countries all over the world, including legislation specifically governing the internet and what happens online, because material on those web sites and other actions taken on those web sites are alleged to cause harm, destroy value, breach national security, or just be unpleasant or inconvenient. Wikipedia has to involve lawyers to shape its policy, guidelines, and practices because society and legal systems very much care what happens there even if it's self-contained, volunteer-run, free, and nonprofit, as do other similar web sites if they can afford it in their budget or through donated legal services.

If it's a bad idea to vandalize a nongovernmental, noncommercial website, we haven't enshrined that in law yet. No parallel can be made.

Right, so, even within your own argument, if an organization were doing the exact same things but trying to make a profit, then it would matter? But because Wikipedia is noncommercial we have another "bzzzt, doesn't count!"? This just seems like another expression of your personal opinion that the work done to produce Wikipedia has a material value of zero even if taken as "in kind" contributions to the project, rather than any valid illustration that legal action could never be taken against anyone for any amount of destruction or interference with the Wikipedia web site because the Wikipedia project is in some category that makes what it's doing inherently unimportant to society.

The reason why the interstate commerce clause is invoked in the CFFA is because that's necessary for the federal government to assert jurisdiction over these activities. But it is definitely intended to cover all the computers it possibly can and is not making exceptions for noncommercial computers so that law enforcement gets a door slammed in its face during pursuit or prosecution whenever someone uses a noncommercial private computer in the course of what they're doing. To quote from the Justice Department document again,
Note that the computer must be “used in or affecting” not “used by the defendant in”—that is, it is enough that the computer is connected to the Internet; the statute does not require proof that the defendant also used the Internet to access the computer or used the computer to access the Internet.

Several courts have held that using the Internet from a computer is sufficient to meet this element. See, e.g., United States v. Drew, 259 F.R.D. 449, 457 (C.D. Cal. 2009) (“[T]he latter two elements of the section 1030(a)(2)(C) crime [obtaining information from a protected computer] will always be met when an individual using a computer contacts or communicates with an Internet website.”); United States v. Trotter, 478 F.3d 918, 921 (8th Cir. 2007) (“No additional interstate nexus is required when instrumentalities or channels of interstate commerce are regulated.”) (internal citations omitted); Paradigm Alliance, Inc. v. Celeritas Technologies, LLC, 248 F.R.D. 598, 602 (D. Kan. 2008) (“As a practical matter, a computer providing a ‘web-based’ application accessible through the internet would satisfy the ‘interstate communication’ requirement.”).

Prior to 2008, this definition did not explicitly cover computers that were not connected to the Internet and that were not used by the federal government or financial institutions. For example, some state-run utility companies operate computers that are not connected to the Internet for security reasons. Congress remedied this gap in the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act of 2008 by broadening the definition of “protected computer” to include computers that “affect” interstate or foreign commerce or communications. 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(2)(B).
Ah, yes. Well, Google will get to it.

Knol has been discontinued as of May 1, 2012

Having failed at that, without producing content they even consider worth continuing to publish themselves as non-editable pages, they're now "supporting" Annotum, which will only focus on scholarly topics and doesn't have a Google domain name but has a note saying "Special thanks to: Google, ..." And which is a Wordpress installation.

If you were indifferent about the project you probably wouldn't think that person was an asshole. You wouldn't care.

This may be true for you but it isn't for me. I think that someone who kicks down someone else's sandcastle or snowman to make a point is an asshole, whether or not I built said sandcastle or snowman myself and whether or not there's a law against it. I think that the people who intentionally vandalize or steal from the exhibits in your museum are assholes and I don't even know what sort of museum you work in.

But their saying "You're an asshole because your anti-yarnbombing stance severely reduces the value of my yarnbombing" gives me no incentive to change my view.

No one is calling anyone an asshole for having an opinion or taking a stance on anything or for having lack of interest in anything. Indeed, the whole issue is with having enough interest in something to try to sabotage it/vandalize it/inconvenience the people working on it.

He's working on the public perception issue, which is that Wikipedia is an excellent resource that has transformed human knowledge, makes research a breeze, and is quite reliable as fair, knowledgeable and accurate.

I guess if I had the same belief as you apparently do that Wikipedia is the equivalent of the Emperor of Factual Accuracy in public perception when compared to primary academic or journalistic research I might see some extremely incisive exposé of it as justifying sabotage of it. But Wikipedia is not regarded this way: just search for "Wikipedia" in a Google News search and every article either prominently mentions the presence of incorrect information, misleading information, or advertising and misinformation, or is entirely about that topic.

In the latter case this is frequently accompanied by the author conveying without evidence that Wikipedia is a trusted source of information held in high esteem for its accuracy, while behaving as though he or she is being daring and iconoclastic to mention its flaws. Just to revisit the topic of "people with vested interests in promoting one storyline or another."

Obviously the people who made the hundreds of thousands of vandalizing edits to Wikipedia (see here for what are probably low guesstimates from 2009 based upon a subset of articles) do not think it's a reliable source of information.

I do not think that the people who uncritically repeat what they find in Wikipedia articles are doing so because they have somehow been persuaded that Wikipedia is an extremely accurate source of information. Those sorts of people probably don't assess the reliability of their sources at all and if Wikipedia wasn't there would just grab whatever else was the first thing they could get their hands on.

This discussion hasn't just been an argument over whether this guy was being a dick - as many commenters have been saying, Professor Kelly and the others who regularly expose the shocking truth that Wikipedia shouldn't be leaned on as the source for accurate information are being no more profound or revelatory or defiant of popular wisdom than they would be in loudly and fearlessly proclaiming "You can't believe everything you see on television."

Maybe, maybe someone who vandalizes or sabotages a museum exhibit for the first time in some transcendently striking, meaningful, and revealing way is doing a worthwhile thing, even if it could be followed by a night in jail or a hefty fine. But the guy who trashes an exhibit for the umpteenth gazillionth time to make the same point again, just for the benefit of his little tour group, is definitely an asshole no matter how indifferent you are to the museum's cause.
posted by XMLicious at 11:53 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


And, as regards academic or serious journalistic research, this is really false.

It is a system composed of human beings, and like all systems composed of human beings, it stands only so long as the individual humans are honest. Hoaxes can and are perpetuated in the legitimate science community, whether it's cold fusion or the Piltdown Man, and they set back the cause of progress greatly when they happen.

What you are giving hoaxers is a Get-Out-Of-Jail Free card. "Oh, I was always going to go public with this. Instead of me being ashamed, you should be, for having the terminal gall for trusting me!"
posted by JHarris at 5:39 AM on May 19, 2012


(And I just want to say that XMLicious is full of win today.)
posted by JHarris at 5:42 AM on May 19, 2012


I still do not understand at all why you think that's talking about physically harming a computer. It would appear to me that if you ask, "How is the perpetrator damaging the computer?" the answer in the bit you quoted is "by unleashing viruses and worms on it, transmitting to it, and accessing it the wrong way"

Yeah. Which is damage. Whatever. I tihink I'm accurate in stating that there's a standard of harm which essentially means "you compromised security and/or our computers don't work any more." And that NONE of this legislation, no matter how closely you read it, applies to websites like Wikipedia. So it really doesn't get us anywhere to discuss it further. The standard of harm under the law is simply not there. It's not illegal to mess up Wikipedia. There is no bearing on law here.

It is a system composed of human beings, and like all systems composed of human beings, it stands only so long as the individual humans are honest.

As a general truism of epistemology, sure. But when you say that the process of writing WP articles and the processes, verifications, checks and balances used in academic or journalistic research are "the same," you're as wrong as tits on a bull. If you take that line, the only retreat point you're leaving is "But gee, can we really know anything", which also means that Wikipedia is even more useless than I'm saying it is. The thing is that the standards of writing and research for Wikipedia are freaking lousy, and standards of fact assertion in actual research, depending on the venue or outlet, are far, far, far higher. If you don't believe that, you'll enjoy reading the Weekly World News or watching your favorite, Fox, just as much as the BBC , The Economist, or the New York Times. Why bother? It's all crap!

I don't happen to believe that.

But Wikipedia is not regarded this way

I do not think that the people who uncritically repeat what they find in Wikipedia articles are doing so because they have somehow been persuaded that Wikipedia is an extremely accurate source of information. Those sorts of people probably don't assess the reliability of their sources at all and if Wikipedia wasn't there would just grab whatever else was the first thing they could get their hands on.


So it both is and isn't regarded as reliable?

What would they put their hands on in the absence of Wikipedia? Nothing? A reference li

The thing is, speaking as an educator and a current graduate student, and even as a MeFite, yes, Wikipedia is regarded as reliable.

This discussion hasn't just been an argument over whether this guy was being a dick

Sure it has. That's the only thing I keep getting taken to task for in a serious way. Most people seem to agree about the way Wikipedia is, whether or not they approve of it. But the really problematic thing is that I won't condemn the guy.

Maybe, maybe someone who vandalizes or sabotages a museum exhibit for the first time in some transcendently striking, meaningful, and revealing way is doing a worthwhile thing, even if it could be followed by a night in jail or a hefty fine.

Yes, indeed this can and does happen. Lots of it. Museums are extremely frequent targets of political vandalism. I think sometimes you could argue the larger point - especially in cases where it was used to draw attention to things like women's suffrage or issues regarding the holding of Native American remains and funerary objects in museums. Vandalism can and does happen. Museums know it and do what they can to protect against it. Museums have no claim to being exempt from the moral conversations of their ages - they have roles as symbols of dominant culture, national authority, and identity and as such are definitely in the cross-hairs of all sorts of cultural issues. It's the way things are. Some of these issues are serious enough that I wouldn't automatically call someone an "asshole" for undertaking a pointed action aimed to construct a fairer, better world.

But the guy who trashes an exhibit for the umpteenth gazillionth time to make the same point again, just for the benefit of his little tour group, is definitely an asshole no matter how indifferent you are to the museum's cause.

Yeah, and nobody did that. Nobody did even an analogue of that. It's such an irrational exaggeration.

Though it is a pretty good description of some seventh-graders I have known.
posted by Miko at 4:26 PM on May 19, 2012


XMLicious, I also think you're really having trouble understanding what the law is saying about harm. I reread again where you point to things that happen on websites as subjects of lawsuits. Right, sometimes lawsuits deal with, cite, and take in things related to websites. But that's not because they're websites; it's because the resulting actions are able to shown by evidence to be fraudulent or libelous or what have you. In other words, they don't break laws about websites. They break laws applying to organizations and to actions and to people who sometimes have and use websites.

Right, so, even within your own argument, if an organization were doing the exact same things but trying to make a profit, then it would matter? But because Wikipedia is noncommercial we have another "bzzzt, doesn't count!"?

Yeah, of course, because it's not a business. I could imagine legal issues with WP if it were extracting donations illegally for its foundation, because that's fraud and would breach the charitable trust that holds it. And I could imagine legal issues if someone gamed WP in a way that created fraudulent content that shaped an investment or extorted money - which has probably happened already, and as we know has certainly come close to happening in a couple of famous vandalism cases. But you see, the reason it "doesn't count" is because nothing about the content of WP is governed by law. You can write any crazy, hate-speech, full-of-lies crap on a website you own or participate in, and it just doesn't become a legal issue. That's why it doesn't count. It's just random free expression, and nothing about it is touched on by law except what's been touched on in criminal law already. No special protections for website content, is my point. I actually have a pretty good handle on this and think you should continue reading up on why I keep saying inaccuracy/accuracy or content changes on Wikipedia that use its very own system and do not cause any other form of harm are not matters for law.

It would be like suggesting that we should be able to prosecute people on MetaFilter for making double posts or not giving a helpful answer to an AskMe. Those things break our internal guidelines, but by no means are they crimes. The law doesn't deal with them.

The fact that the site is volunteer and noncommercial doesn't mean it's not of value as a thing in life that people use and enjoy. But it does mean that nothing "of value" is usually harmed when the site has been edited, and that's talking about the legal sense of value. I talked about "value" because, to bring law into it, you have to show "harm." And harm has to be done to something of "value" - life, property. "Value" means something legally. You're using it to mean something different when you get upset that I don't "value" or, better phrased, "personally esteem" it. And the harm has to be something demonstrable as evidence. So the thing is, there's no legal way to bring an action against somebody for posting something otherwise nonfraudulent, nonlibelous, noncriminal but false on a website. Because there's no way to show any legal harm.
posted by Miko at 4:42 PM on May 19, 2012


Congress also added a provision to penalize those who intentionally alter, damage, or destroy data belonging to others. This latter provision was designed to cover such activities as the distribution of malicious code and denial of service attacks.

Stealing a trade secret didn't count.
posted by Miko at 4:50 PM on May 19, 2012


Yeah. Which is damage. Whatever. I tihink I'm accurate in stating that there's a standard of harm which essentially means "you compromised security and/or our computers don't work any more."

As someone who works in a computing field and has followed the pursuit and prosecution of hackers who vandalized BBSes and web sites for the past couple of decades, I do not agree with you and what you are saying contravenes everything I have watched happening in this sphere of society over the years.

This law journal, for example, was saying ten years ago that the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 allowed "easier prosecution and sentencing of computer hackers and web site vandals". It is you who have a misunderstanding of how harm is regarded legally if you think that there is some overarching legal principle or societal sentiment that altering, damaging, or destroying data just doesn't count as harm if it happens on a web site.

And that NONE of this legislation, no matter how closely you read it, applies to websites like Wikipedia.

This is being wilfully obtuse. The document I quote above explicitly says on its own authority and through citations to multiple courts that the CFFA applies to any computer connected to the internet, any contact or communication with a web site, and any computer serving a web site. Forget about how I read things, it looks like you need to go school the Justice Department.

So it both is and isn't regarded as reliable?

No. People who do not care about the reliability of their sources are not regarding anything as a reliable source when they take from it. The semantic acrobatics you have been trying to get away with in this threat are amazing.

What would they put their hands on in the absence of Wikipedia? Nothing?

No, probably the first search result that looked good. You may notice that Wikipedia is the first Google and Bing result for many searches.

The thing is, speaking as an educator and a current graduate student, and even as a MeFite, yes, Wikipedia is regarded as reliable.

If people you interact with actually argue that 1) any encyclopedia at all is a robust source next to all of the other stuff a graduate student has access to (because even I knew in high school before Wikipedia was a glimmer in Jimmy Wales's eye that encyclopedias were poor sources of information and likely to misinform in a number of ways), or that 2) a source where they can put up messages about how their classmates smell funny is a reliable source of information, then they are idiots, they would probably believe anything they saw on television too, and vandalizing or sabotaging video content produced by a television project will not do any good either even if it's video on a web site.

But the really problematic thing is that I won't condemn the guy.

Yes, to these invisible people who are calling you an asshole for taking a stance.

My biggest issue is that you are willing to laud sabotage and vandalism of things if they just aren't important enough to count "in the grand scheme of things", which apparently means anything online that isn't governmental or commercial. Particularly given that at least some of this attitude is based on their societal value as you think it's indicated through insufficient familiarity with how online acts are handled legally and by law enforcement. And this is actually a bit more bothersome to me if you are an educator, though in every other respect I have to imagine that you are a fabulous educator.

Yeah, and nobody did that. Nobody did even an analogue of that. It's such an irrational exaggeration.

Evidently nothing at all that could ever be an analogue of that. Even vandalizing a plaque on a museum exhibit that explains the exhibit using text from Wikipedia, which is something that I have seen, would not be an analogue for it, because the Wikipedia web site is this zone where nothing really matters and no one's time or work has any value. And treating it as anything resembling all the other things in the world would be total nuttiness and some sort of super-special exceptional consideration.

> But because Wikipedia is noncommercial we have another "bzzzt, doesn't count!"?
Yeah, of course, because it's not a business.

This is again just completely not true. Something that is built by volunteer effort or otherwise for noncommercial purposes does not have zero value in the eyes of the law or society. It is simply not the case that if vandalism occurs the victims are asked, "But are you doing this for profit?" and there are no legal issues if it's a non-commercial enterprise.

I am not using some notional concept of "value" here. I am saying at the very least that n hours of a volunteer's effort performed for a non-commercial project and the product of that labor have the same value under the law as the same number of hours of equivalent work done for a commercial or government entity.

You can write any crazy, hate-speech, full-of-lies crap on a website you own or participate in, and it just doesn't become a legal issue. That's why it doesn't count. It's just random free expression, and nothing about it is touched on by law except what's been touched on in criminal law already.

Print publishing is just free expression too but I have several friends and relatives deeply involved in that industry and I can assure you that inserting crazy, hate-speech, full-of-lies crap into printed material, even in the context of a non-commercial volunteer publication that incorporates writings from the general public, can most certainly have legal ramifications. The way you are talking about all of this continues to remind me of a 1980s or early 1990s attitude that nothing that's exclusively on computers or online is real and none of the principles or rules that apply "in the real world" are valid.

But they do matter, existing legal frameworks have been adapted to the "information age" for some time now, and many more things are sanctioned against online than offline. Any given citizen could never get in trouble for turning to the wrong page of a book she's holding and reading that page, but as the CFFA shows you can face severe legal repercussions for accessing the wrong parts of a computer you're otherwise allowed to get to and use.

Giving someone a password does not harm any person or computer, physically or non-physically, and is not in itself any kind of trespass or access, yet it is explicitly criminalized by the CFFA. I'm not certain about this bit but - I have never heard of giving someone a physical door key or telling them the sequence for a combination lock being illegal. (I mean, you could enter into a contract that would prohibit doing this and face legal consequences for breaking the contract but the CFFA is criminalizing trafficking in passwords independently of anything like that.)

I actually have a pretty good handle on this and think you should continue reading up on why I keep saying inaccuracy/accuracy or content changes on Wikipedia that use its very own system and do not cause any other form of harm are not matters for law.

Most if not all of the cases where the CFFA or other laws would be applied to people for intentionally altering, damaging, or destroying data would involve using the computer in question's very own systems. I of course think that I have quite a good handle on this, having dealt quite a bit in my life with property that's just data on a computer or web site, the work to create it, and the laws surrounding it, (albeit not through being involved in litigation, but by having to meticulously follow laws and regulations regarding this kind of property to avoid litigation and exposure to legal risk) and think that it's you who should continue reading up on it because you are repeatedly making characterizations about how this is handled by law and society that are demonstrably not true.

Stealing a trade secret didn't count.

If you read that blog post, the findings were that the CFFA didn't apply for the same reason it didn't apply in the Facebook case: because part of what was alleged was unauthorized access but the court found that the accused's acts did not meet the definition of unauthorized. The author of the blog post says "In fact, trade secrets appear to be exactly what Congress had in mind" when crafting the CFFA. And leafing through the other cases where the law has been applied show that both prosecutors and courts are willing to apply it to data considerably less substantial than a trade secret.

We got into this whole discussion about law because you were trying to categorically argue that Wikipedia is a type of thing that society has assigned a lack of value to by failing to make laws that protect or address web sites sufficiently, because I guess someone can't be an asshole if they're only vandalizing in a way that society doesn't sanction against. But I think it has been adequately demonstrated that not only are web sites and the data and information on them protected under the law - in some cases with much more force than physical things are - but there isn't some legal category of web sites that have no value under the law because they're too noncommercial or volunteer-oriented. Almost no one undertakes the massive expenditure of resources to conclusively prove and that a particular individual took it upon themselves to wreck part of a web site and prosecute them for it but this is definitely a type of activity that society sanctions against, even with the force of law.

And again, whether or not the vandalism is expected beforehand has nothing to do with it. Vandalism and even unintentional damage in this situation and in all the parallels is par for the course and no one has claimed otherwise. I have watched kids I'm acquainted with build snowmen with the full foreknowledge that some other kid is going to come around and smash it in short order. The ☃ smasher is still an asshole and still would be even if it was done in the course of demonstrating some lofty intellectual point about society.

Conversely, if smashing a snow man or vandalizing Wikipedia were to prevent the Nazis from getting to Anne Frank that would have some merit, but deny it as you might people are vehemently disagreeing with you because you are articulating a far, far lower and less noble standard than that for justifying sabotage and vandalism.

I feel somewhat proud of myself for Godwinning a thread at 195 comments with a serious statement involving smashing snow men and Nazis.
posted by XMLicious at 10:08 PM on May 19, 2012


"...trying to get away with in this threat..." above should obviously be "...trying to get away with in this thread..."
posted by XMLicious at 10:13 PM on May 19, 2012


Yeah, so, after reading so more about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, it continues to appear to me that it basically can be applied to almost anything done with any computer, which makes sense to me since I have difficulty imagining any law that could be useful and effective as a tool for law enforcement - that is, something I couldn't get around with some small technical tweak that would put things outside the bounds of the letter of the law - without also being written ridiculously broadly. Some quotes from the DoJ document:
In Shurgard Storage Centers, a self-storage company hired away a key employee of its main competitor. Before the employee left to take his new job, he emailed copies of computer files containing trade secrets to his new employer. In support of a motion for summary judgment as to the section 1030(a)(5) count, the defendant argued that the plaintiff’s computer system had suffered no “damage” as a consequence of a mere copying of files by the disloyal employee. The court, however, found the term “integrity” contextually ambiguous and held that the employee did in fact impair the integrity of the data on the system—even though no data was “physically changed or erased” in the process—when he accessed a computer system without authorization to collect trade secrets.

...

The statute defines “loss” quite broadly: “any reasonable cost to any victim, including the cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of interruption of service.” 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(11). his definition includes, for example, the prorated salary of a system administrator who restores a backup of deleted data, the prorated hourly wage of an employee who checks a database to make sure that no information in it has been modified, the expense of re-creating lost work, the cost of reinstalling system software...

...

“Loss” also includes such harms as lost advertising revenue or lost sales due to a website outage and the salaries of company employees who are unable to work due to a computer shutdown.

...

At least one court has held that harm to a company’s reputation and goodwill as a consequence of an intrusion might properly be considered loss for purposes of alleging a violation of section 1030.
Using an example (a hypothetical one?) rather than citing actual court cases, the authors of the document seem to think that under the "access" clauses a person wouldn't even necessarily have to do anything with what we would normally think of as the data and information which is the computer's purpose to store:
A computer network intrusion—even a fairly noticeable one—can amount to a kind of trespass that causes no readily discoverable impairment to the computers intruded upon or the data accessed. Even so, such “trespass intrusions” often require that substantial time and attention be devoted to responding to them. In the wake of seemingly minor intrusions, the entire computer system is often audited, for instance, to ensure that viruses, back- doors, or other harmful codes have not been left behind or that data has not been altered or copied. In addition, holes exploited by the intruder are sometimes patched, and the network generally is resecured through a rigorous and time-consuming technical effort.
EXAMPLE 3: The system administrator of a community college reviews server logs one morning and notes an unauthorized intrusion that occurred through a backdoor at about 3:30 in the morning. It appears to the administrator that the intruder accessed a student database that listed students’ home addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers. After calling the FBI, she and her staff spend several hours reviewing what occurred, devising patches for the vulnerabilities that the intruder exploited, and otherwise trying to prevent similar intrusions from occurring again. Still, the result of the technical review is that no offending code can be found, and the network appears to function as before. In the two months after the intrusion, staff at the community college report no known alterations or errors in the student database. he cost of the employee time devoted to the review totaled approximately $7,500.
And finally, another example that bears on vandalism:
EXAMPLE 1: Prior to the annual football game between rival schools, an intruder from one high school gains access to the computer system of a rival school and defaces the football team’s website with graffiti announcing that the intruder’s school was going to win the game.
In this example, the intruder has caused damage—the integrity of the information on the website has been impaired because viewers of the site will not see the information that the site’s designers put there.
posted by XMLicious at 2:14 AM on May 20, 2012


Oops, forgot one:
in Shaw v. Toshiba America Information Systems, 91 F. Supp. 2d 926, 931 (E.D. Tex. 1999), Toshiba manufactured computers with faulty software that improperly deleted data on diskettes used in their floppy drives, and Toshiba shipped the computers in interstate commerce. In that case, the court found that the shipment of the software by itself constituted transmission for purposes of the statute.
...so it appears to even be applicable to things done accidentally.
posted by XMLicious at 2:19 AM on May 20, 2012


This law journal, for example, was saying ten years ago that the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 allowed "easier prosecution and sentencing of computer hackers and web site vandals"

National security issue. Passes the standard of harm.

The document I quote above explicitly says on its own authority and through citations to multiple courts that the CFFA applies to any computer connected to the internet, any contact or communication with a web site, and any computer serving a web site.

...when used for specific purposes, if there has been demonstrated harm.

People who do not care about the reliability of their sources are not regarding anything as a reliable source when they take from it.

That statement falsifies itself. Of course they are, by virtue of the very act of using the reference. If they weren't seeking to back up a claim of some kind with an appeal to authority or to gather information, they wouldn't bother to reference anything at all.

then they are idiots

They're just uneducated. Educating potential idiots is the alternative to shrugging them off as unteachable. Many are young and had a relatively nonrigorous undergraduate research experience. Others are older and are may have gotten their BA fifteen years ago, when it wasn't possible to do research on WP; their relationship with the website until now has been wholly casual and guided by popular wisdom alone. The first research and writing methods classes in graduate school deal with sourcing and how scholarly information is built and transmitted. Believe me, I was as shocked as you are that we even had to have the discussion of WP that we did, but it was clear that even in a very bright class of people there were abundant misconceptions. Before that course is taken (not just in my school but in any graduate school), it's not uncommon for some people who have never before engaged in that level of research to think about Wikipedia as a source of information rather than as a general, beginning reference guide. There needs to be a focused discussion of what it (or any encyclopedia) is, how it is produced, and how and when to use it. That discussion needs to be sharp and needs to break through "You don't know what you're talking about, old person - this is the modern age, you academic fuddy-duddy!" prejudices that many people come in with. Doing it in detail at the undergraduate level and the middle and high school levels is a very good idea, too, and this project is a great close examination of how an encylopedia can be built and some of the flaws that exist in that process, and some which are unique to Wikipedia.

My biggest issue is that you are willing to laud sabotage and vandalism of things if they just aren't important enough to count "in the grand scheme of things", which apparently means anything online that isn't governmental or commercial.

Well, you're conflating two of my points there. I'm willing to laud some kinds of sabotage and vandalism in some cases if there is an ultimately positive end in mind. And as a separate point, I'm pointing out that vandalism to a recreational website isn't covered under law which covers specific purposes and uses related to governmental and commercial activities.

some of this attitude is based on their societal value as you think it's indicated through insufficient familiarity with how online acts are handled legally and by law enforcement.

I'm not as up on online law, but I understand the foundations of American law pretty well. I still have seen not one thing that suggests that placing a false article on Wikipedia breaks any law. It just doesn't break any law, no matter how many CFAA provisions we look at, because there is no place to demonstrate harm and no satisfaction of the protected computer/specific purpose clauses. I think I have sufficient familiarity to understand that these provisions flatly exclude most uses of Wikipedia.

Something that is built by volunteer effort or otherwise for noncommercial purposes does not have zero value in the eyes of the law or society. It is simply not the case that if vandalism occurs the victims are asked, "But are you doing this for profit?" and there are no legal issues if it's a non-commercial enterprise.

You misunderstand here and again conflate two different points. Wikipedia itself isn't a business. It's not doing financial transactions with people, so there's no financial harm to people, no potential for direct fraud or extortion. The foundation is a 501(c)3 and has to comply with law governing their activities and donations, but the service itself is just not covered under business law. Once someone is making money, the legal context does change dramatically as compared to enterprises where no money changes hands. That's just the way the law works. In this case, since the website is not a money-exchanging business, law applying to financial transactions just has no bearing here. Different provisions do apply to the ways in which the Foundation can make donation appeals, though.

But in the second aspect of what you're saying, with the "of value" part, the issue is that by putting a fake article on Wikipedia on an imaginary and non-essential topic, nothing "of value," in the legal sense, has been harmed. No one has lost private data. National security has not been compromised. Fraud has not been committed. No one has been robbed. No one has been libelled. Though people might really not like it, they can't show that there has been any harm to them or their livelihoods or their safety. That's the standard of harm, and since nothing of value - life, health, safety, livelihood, property - has been hurt, you just don't have any foundations for a case. Damaged information alone might be "of value" in some contexts where there is going to be a material loss, and some few where there's not, but not in this one, because situations on websites like this aren't covered under the provisions of the law.

Evidently nothing at all that could ever be an analogue of that.

You borrowed a Jimmy Wales analogy before about dumping trash in the middle of town. Like most analogies offered in this thread, that's so extreme as to be a bad analogue for the 2008 Mills Kelly project. A better analogue would be to drop a single apple peel next to a park bench. It's going to swiftly biodegrade or be eaten by an animal within days. If it doesn't, within a short, preplanned span of time, someone's going to come pick it up. And the entire time, the people who dropped it are going to be watching as nature and people interact with the peel. If it gets dangerous at any time, the peel will be picked up immediately. And the people will have learned something about the way others interact with the park, and that knowledge will improve their own use of the park. Meanwhile, a whole team of people is in the park 24/7, volunteering their time to pick up and clean the park. There is a lot of other trash and seriously hideous garbage in the park. By watching the apple peel, observers can see how effectively small trash deposits are discovered and cleaned up and what that says about the overall ability of the volunteer system to present a clean park - something the park users may (over)confidently expect them to do. If it appears at any time the volunteer efforts are inadequate to the task, the park's value to the public will definitely suffer. If the peel is picked up in a fast clean sweep along with other peels, the park has ably demonstrated its ability to maintain a healthy, functioning resource for the public. And no permanent harm is done to anything in the meantime. It's an apple peel.

hours of a volunteer's effort performed for a non-commercial project and the product of that labor have the same value under the law as the same number of hours of equivalent work done for a commercial or government entity.

Here is where we keep running into the weeds. You're trying to talk about two kinds of value at once. If you mean "societal benefit," yes, broadly, volunteer things and commercial things might or might not have similar kinds of societal benefit, depending on the project. I mean, there are plenty of hate groups that are nonprofits run by volunteers. At other times when I'm talking about "value" I'm referring only to things that can be harmed to the detriment of their owners and users which are demonstrable as evidence in cases of law. When you say that volunteer hours "have the same value" as paid hours, what do you mean? To whom do they have the same value?

I can assure you that inserting crazy, hate-speech, full-of-lies crap into printed material, even in the context of a non-commercial volunteer publication that incorporates writings from the general public, can most certainly have legal ramifications.

Ramifications? Yes. Coming from a family of newspaper editors, there are certain responsibilities - some legal, some ethical, some individual to the organization - to print or not print certain kinds of content. Much of that depends on the type of media outlet you provide, your funding structures, etc. But the existence of ramifications does not prevent putting hate speech into print. people are still able to go ahead and write crazy, hate-filled books and not be taken to court for it. Or print crazy, hate-filled papers. They do it all the time, and it's quite easy to find this material, in print and online. They should avoid calls to action and inciting violence, just as on websites, and avoid direct libel, just as on websites, which are actionable because of the potential to be shown as a proximal cause of harm. But they're allowed to say things most of us don't want to hear, and they're allowed to write falsehoods. It's up to the printer/publisher whether this stuff sees the light of day, but it's a mostly legal activity as long as it stays within prescribed boundaries.

Giving someone a password does not harm any person or computer, physically or non-physically, and is not in itself any kind of trespass or access, yet it is explicitly criminalized by the CFFA.

Right - but for certain purposes. Not on the principle of access itself; the criminalization of the act is dependent on certain conditions including whether the purpose for preventing access was something that could cause harm to an organization whose computer resources are protected under this law for the purposes of national security, private data, financial transactions, etc.

I'm not certain about this bit but - I have never heard of giving someone a physical door key or telling them the sequence for a combination lock being illegal.

You haven't worked a government contract, then, I guess. Yes, that's routine. Compromises national security.

think that it's you who should continue reading up on it because you are repeatedly making characterizations about how this is handled by law and society that are demonstrably not true.

I really don't think so. There are big things you are missing as you focus on the detail, and they mainly have to do with the stated purpose of legislation and with the standard of harm. Two fundamental principles of law: it spells out what it covers, and that gets tested in the court of law, and things not covered in the spelling-out and not found by the court are in an unprotected, unlegislated area. And to make something illegal at all, legislation also has to spell out what kinds of harm have to be shown in order to bring a successful case. I don't think we can discuss this productively until you are coming from that place of understanding these limiting structures of any law.

If you read that blog post, the findings were that the CFFA didn't apply for the same reason it didn't apply in the Facebook case: because part of what was alleged was unauthorized access but the court found that the accused's acts did not meet the definition of unauthorized.

That was the argument made, but as it turns out it didn't stand in the court of appeals. That case found that the CFAA did apply. The computers were protected under the law, harm was easily demonstrated, and the access was ultimately determined unauthorized. So I stand corrected as far as whether the government determined that stealing trade secrets could be prosecutable under this law, but the conditions - like authorized access - still had to be satisfied. The legal conditions matter.

Commenting on whether this ruling would mean that even falsifying your data on Facebook and the like could be prosecuted, "the court defended their ruling, noting that such benign behaviors lack the requisite conditions of "intent to defraud" and "furthering fraud by obtaining something of value" as required for prosecution under CFAA Section (a)(4)." Someone could still try it, though. However, WP doesn't have a terms of service agreement like FB so I doubt even in that eventuality you could make the CFAA apply to that issue.

We got into this whole discussion about law because you were trying to categorically argue that Wikipedia is a type of thing that society has assigned a lack of value to by failing to make laws that protect or address web sites sufficiently, because I guess someone can't be an asshole if they're only vandalizing in a way that society doesn't sanction against.

The question of whether the person is an asshole is a separate question, so I'll set that one aside for a second.

People (being very uncomfortably and oddly personal, frankly) created a lot of analogies to museums, and the analogy is imperfect because a physical museum is an entirely different regulatory environment with a totally different set of legal protections and consequences. It's a really bad analogy. That would be treated very differently, and breaking the law is its own ethical violation which the professor refused to do. So I wanted to separate out the law to point out that no laws were broken in the incident under discussion. Not one law. We would then have to proceed on another angle to show that what happened was a terrible, terrible thing. However, we're still trying to run down a trail to try to show that maybe what he did could be construed as illegal. We could do this until the thread is closed, and it still wouldn't be illegal, though. My hope was to dismiss the bad analogy, but instead we can't let go of the law discussion.

there isn't some legal category of web sites that have no value under the law because they're too noncommercial or volunteer-oriented.

Yes, there is - it's the category of all websites for which no legislation pertaining to actions on that website has been developed.

this is definitely a type of activity that society sanctions against, even with the force of law.

That's still unsubstantiated for websites with no pertaining legislation. We don't create legal sanctions in the absence of a compelling purpose: we've mentioned many times security, safety, libel, fraud. Compelling purposes providing the foundations to legislate. If nothing under criminal legislation touches on the activities taking place on the website, we can't say that law "doesn't sanction" it. The law is silent on those points.

If "society" sanctions it, but not in an expression of law, that's just opprobrium. That's a different kind of question and a more productive one: is opprobrium justified?

The smasher is still an asshole and still would be even if it was done in the course of demonstrating some lofty intellectual point about society.

I just can't agree with a broad statement like "a snowman smasher is always, categorically an asshole" without knowing the specific conditions.

people are vehemently disagreeing with you because you are articulating a far, far lower and less noble standard than that for justifying sabotage and vandalism.

Right, and WP is a far, far less important snowman. I can't do anything about whether people think the cause is "noble," because that's entirely a matter of opinion and personal priority. One person's noble cause is another person's yarnbombing.

I think the project is interesting, productive, not harmful, and not illegal. That's good enough for me.

Yeah, so, after reading so more about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, it continues to appear to me that it basically can be applied to almost anything done with any computer

No no, not "anything." Again: 1. Purpose. 2. Harm. Though the courts seem to be defining it pretty broadly, you still have to satisfy the conditions spelled out in the law, or the legislation doesn't have anything to stick to.

the employee did in fact impair the integrity of the data on the system—even though no data was “physically changed or erased” in the process—when he accessed a computer system without authorization to collect trade secrets.

Purpose: business. Harm: reduced the cash value of the company's data by giving it to a competitor.

The statute defines “loss” quite broadly...

Purpose: business. Harm: loss of money for paid time.

“Loss” also includes such harms as lost advertising revenue or lost sales due to a website outage and the salaries of company employees who are unable to work due to a computer shutdown.

Purpose: business. Harm: loss of money from ad revenue or sales.

At least one court has held that harm to a company’s reputation and goodwill as a consequence of an intrusion might properly be considered loss for purposes of alleging a violation of section 1030

Purpose: business. Harm: loss of future revenue due to changes in reputation and goodwill.

In the wake of seemingly minor intrusions, the entire computer system is often audited...holes exploited by the intruder are sometimes patched, and the network generally is resecured through a rigorous and time-consuming technical effort.

Purpose: business. Harm: loss of money for paid time.

EXAMPLE 3: The system administrator of a community college reviews server logs... he cost of the employee time devoted to the review totaled approximately $7,500.

Purpose: Educational nonprofit. Loss: $7500.

EXAMPLE 1: Prior to the annual football game between rival schools...In this example, the intruder has caused damage—the integrity of the information on the website has been impaired because viewers of the site will not see the information that the site’s designers put there.

This is an interesting one. But is it an actual case, or just a hypothetical description of how "damage" could be shown even if it's just altering content without being authorized to? I couldn't find this situation described in any legal case, though I didn't look that long. In any case, again, purpose: a governmental or nonprofit educational institution, probably, and harm: preventing access to a service already paid for.

One key issue in all these examples is "without authorization." Wikipedia (Metafilter, YouTube, Blogger) do authorize users to use and change the system. So none of this law would apply anyway, even if the purpose of the institution running the website was covered under the "protected computer" scope of this law (Section E, 2A and B).

So the whole legal question, while interesting and informative, still just doesn't apply here, at least not as things stand today. We aren't going to be able to make a law appear that makes the professor's activities illegal.

As far as Google Knol, really, I don't doubt that WP will be far superceded, whether by Google or someone else, and not that long from now. It's easy to envision a Web 3.0 context in which self-assembling sources weighted for quality are made more readily available and perhaps managed by paid editors and perhaps for profit, just as most journal databases are managed. I can only speculate, but the funny thing about WP is that as an idea, it's sort of already archaic. It was an idea that was out in front of a lot of thinking, but had it not happened, the same idea would have come together, though probably very differently. A lot of effort and time has been put in, in a very inefficient way, to assemble its structure. It may be that it remains a "good enough" resource for a long time to com and lives alongside other, sharper services, or concentrates efforts on building in other languages and cultural contexts some more. A few years ago there was a lot of coverage of the big decline in WP volunteerism - where does that issue stand today? Anyway, I definitely expect developments in the knowledge-reference world that vastly improve on it in quality and consistency terms in the next 20 years or so.

Which leaves the question: should Kelly be called an "asshole" or a "dick" for what he did? I'm not willing to do that. First, not willing to throw those terms around, but second, don't think it's justified to condemn in such harsh terms. Is what he did "wrong" because it involved deceit? Well, it's not always wrong to deceive except for some moral absolutists, so that determination comes down to what you believe might be the value of engaging in the deception (which I think for the purposes of education could be very high, and I wish I could be a fly on the wall in his classroom when they debated and structured the projects). For some that's not enough value, because they have different interests than I do and don't think it's very important. But I remain interested in the project and its fallout, including this, for what it reveals.

Is what he did "wrong" because it subverted the hoped-for purpose of the website he did it on, at least in 2008? Only if you start with the assumption that even though the website is structured to allow this kind of activity, people are supposed to take it upon themselves not to use the capabilities it provides. But that assumption is worth examining, which this project ecouraged people to do.

Things get pretty dangerous when we trust in people's ability to take it upon themselves to do the right thing. WP is already rife with misinformation and slanted information placed there PR hacks and lawyers for corporations and doctors and politicians and chemical companies.They not only intend to deceive, they profit from it. Despite the dream of neutratlity, its tone in historical articles is deeply influenced by the more common, dominant narratives of American and World history.

The reminder that good faith probably isn't enough to ensure aboveboard participation is going to continue to be welcome to many of us as long as the structure of WP, and public perceptions of the information on the site, stay where they are.
posted by Miko at 7:31 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is all super interesting for me in light of the holdkriss99 death hoax.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:17 PM on May 22, 2012


I presume Miko's take on that is that no actual damage was done and it inspired security measures, so on balance it's a good thing. Yay monkeywrenching!
posted by languagehat at 1:28 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


My take is that it doesn't really matter one way or the other. Doesn't change my behavior or feelings about the site, not sure it should change anyone's.

I really don't expect the straight dope from people all the time.
posted by Miko at 5:03 PM on May 22, 2012


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