Alan MacMasters: How the great online toaster hoax was exposed
November 20, 2022 12:33 AM   Subscribe

For more than a decade, a prankster spun a web of deception about the inventor of the electric toaster. His lies fooled newspapers, teachers and officials. Then a teenager flagged up something that everyone else had missed.
posted by Pyrogenesis (26 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Yet if I try to make a very small correction to an obvious mistake, some officious git deletes it in seconds.
posted by Phanx at 3:12 AM on November 20, 2022 [20 favorites]

I am really tired of the "don't believe everything you read on the internet" line, and doubly so when it's used as an attempt to excuse this sort of vandalism. As the past few years have made abundantly clear, trust is an incredibly important resource, and one our society needs to run. The canard belies a paucity of communal spirit, an attitude that it is somehow wrong to look to trust others.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:31 AM on November 20, 2022 [20 favorites]


One Scottish primary school organised a day of activities in his memory - children were invited to write journal entries about MacMasters, paint slices of toast, and build pretend toasters out of building blocks.

My kids have been at Scottish primary schools during the timespan of this hoax. This is all too close to home (appliances).
posted by rory at 4:01 AM on November 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

Also Wikipedia has a comparable rate of factual errors to that of Britannica. But the wrong stuff in Britannica isn't like, teen edgelord funny, so it doesn't get continually undermined in the press.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:24 AM on November 20, 2022 [3 favorites]

There is, as always, a relevant xkcd.

I do think we're in a weird era historically where both our ability to spread nonsense and our ability to detect nonsense have increased significantly, and it's really unclear what the net of that is, or where things will land in the future.
posted by wesleyac at 5:31 AM on November 20, 2022 [8 favorites]

So with this article, does the real Alan MacMasters pass the test for being notable now? Get that man a Wikipedia entry stat! (fake it till you make it)
posted by Meatbomb at 5:33 AM on November 20, 2022 [3 favorites]

Nah, [[WP:BIO]] is a high bar. The prank itself may be notable, but that doesn't mean the guy gets his own article. C.f. The Giant Penguin Hoax.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:50 AM on November 20, 2022

That guy’s reputation is toast.
posted by Ishbadiddle at 6:05 AM on November 20, 2022 [14 favorites]

I am really tired....

Trust but verify.
posted by BWA at 6:45 AM on November 20, 2022

Toast but verify
posted by solotoro at 7:28 AM on November 20, 2022 [17 favorites]

SaltySalticid: Also Wikipedia has a comparable rate of factual errors to that of Britannica.

If I read an article about a topic I know a lot about in Britannica, it’s usually done reasonably well, but if I read about the same topic on Wikipedia, it’s a total crapshoot whether the article is good or not. For instance, I looked up the Sagas of the Icelanders on Wikipedia and Britannica, the former is an incoherent mess with some wildly incorrect information, while the latter is a good short introduction to the genre. It wasn’t something I’d looked up before, incidentally, it was just the first thing that came to mind just now.
posted by Kattullus at 7:51 AM on November 20, 2022 [4 favorites]

The smugness of that guy is infuriating.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:52 AM on November 20, 2022

There is, as always, a relevant xkcd.
Huh, that's the first strip I've noticed that has a typo. Does Randall have a comicpedia?

(To encourage people to be on their toes, I'm not going to say which word or panel.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:00 AM on November 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

Those kinds of typos are really easy to miss.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:19 AM on November 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

The actual disinformation is in the BBC article, not Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article was false in the obvious way, but this BBC article is false in the more modern, more insidious way that online disinformation is false.

Factually, there is an Alan MacMasters hoax. Meaningfully, there isn't.

Oh, there was a fake Alan MacMasters Wikipedia page. You can view it on the Wayback Machine. It's a tiny Wikipedia article with a few references (none of which mention "MacMasters") back in 2014. It gets expanded, but with later references just being the same as the first three. The only solid external reference is the list of people being considered for the 50 pound note (it's a simple PDF of over 900 names).

Let's look at who was fooled by this hoax according to this article (while the 8 billion of the rest of us never heard of it):

* The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, has a clickbait listicle of British inventions (I love how a Scot's invention gets listed as an innovation "which put British genius on the map."
* That Bank of England PDF and no where else on the Bank of England site that I could find. The Bank of England did not want to comment on this story, but confirmed MacMasters had been dropped from the longlist after extra checks were made.
* "A lot" of random school kids: "A lot of people actually replied: 'I have used that picture in a presentation for school,'" Adam [the hoax exposer] recalls.
* Edinburgh-based chef Scott Smith also created an elaborate dessert in his honour, while taking part in Great British Menu, the BBC cookery show. Smith says MacMasters' name was suggested to him by the producers, but they didn't respond to our requests for comment.

And that's all.

Let's talk about how media spreads disinformation by misleading without lying.

When you read this article (or, as many do, just read the headline: "Alan MacMasters: How the great online toaster hoax was exposed") you come away with not so much information but a vibe: Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information because anyone can edit it. This one guy made up an inventor of the electric toaster and fooled a bunch of people.

This vibe is not true. There was no "great" online hoax: a forgettable tabloid, a PDF of submitted names most of which had no chance of being realistically considered, a chef on a Great British Bake Off knock-off show using the name in some unmentioned way (was it even broadcasted), and some unnamed school kids.

Who exactly was being taken in by this "great" hoax?

Debunking articles are great. You get to feel smarter than other people, like you have the secret information and know The Truth. This is the same emotional core that drives conspiracy theorists and armchair... well, armchair everythings. And if there is no "great" hoax to debunk because this is just some random guy's Wikipedia vandalism that was so insignificant it went unnoticed for years (and then taken down within 24 hours of an editor noticing it), this BBC article just has to manufacture one. Look at some of the rhetoric the article employs (with my sarcasm that I just couldn't hold back):

"And that was because Alan knew the truth: he was there when the toaster hoax began more than a decade ago."

Oh, more than a decade ago, you say? Wow, such a longstanding conspiracy. How elaborate. Oh me, oh my.

"I just changed it so that it said that my friend, who sat next to me, Alan MacMasters, had in fact invented the toaster in Edinburgh in 1893. We had no idea who invented the toaster." Internet history had just been made, but Alan was not bothered.

INTERNET HISTORY HAD JUST BEEN MADE. Yes, the great Alan MacMasters hoax surely is up there with ARPANET and Hampster Dance. Who could forget?

"But it is a huge job. On English Wikipedia alone, there are more than 6.5 million articles and fewer than 125,000 regular editors."

You fools! You foolish fools! Oh the hubris. How could you think your Tower of Babel could fly so close to the sun! 6.5 million is a number so much bigger than 125 thousand. It could never work! Wikipedia is probably riddled with hidden traps of falsehoods!

"But the internet does not forget."

Very intriguing sounding, but I'm already getting bored of this article.

"Soon, the name "Alan MacMasters" would spread rapidly around the world as the inventor of the toaster. Over more than a decade, his life story was retold by major news outlets, official bodies and even a US museum".

It spread RAPIDLY and AROUND THE WORLD. And if it spread through fibre optic cables, this hoax spread AT LITERALLY THE SPEED OF LIGHT.

Oh, by the way, the article doesn't mention which U.S. museum was duped. The article writer Marco Silva interviewed one museum curator for a couple quotes, but doesn't mention them ever even hearing about "Alan MacMasters" or the hoax. And I guess The Daily Mirror tabloid counts as a "major news outlet"?

"The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, tells the BBC it takes hoaxes and misinformation "very seriously". It accepts hoaxes take place "from time to time", but says the site is protected "through a combination of machine learning tools and human oversight from volunteer editors"."

Oh?! They take it quote-very seriously-quote, do they? These pencil-pushers at the Wikimedia Foundation are asleep at the wheel! I am outraged! Thank you, BBC, for making me outraged!


I don't give a shit about the "Alan MacMasters" hoax. What does concern me is the BBC publishing tabloid-level clickbait stories trying to stir up false narratives for clicks.

Facts are objective but on their own useless. "50% of marriages end in divorce" can be just as true and misleading as "50% of marriages end in death". It is the interpretation that we take away from these facts that is important. And interpretations are easily manipulated by deciding on which facts to leave in and which facts to tuck away out of sight. And this BBC article is a great example of how pundits, advertisers, and mainstream media outlets tell lies with facts.

Factually, there is an Alan MacMasters hoax. Meaningfully, there isn't.
posted by AlSweigart at 9:35 AM on November 20, 2022 [18 favorites]

an attitude that it is somehow wrong to look to trust others.

Not "wrong," but as we've seen time and time again, perhaps "unwise," especially if you are a journalist? When I was teaching university back in the Dark Ages, I always told my students that Wikipedia was an okay place to start to look for an overview and links to reliable sources, but that everything there needed to be fact-checked. You'd think people and institutions that set themselves up as trusted sources of news and information would do the same. Amusing as this is, it should never have gotten this far, and the fact that it did is not on a couple of college kids for making a glib joke.

Tl:dr as solotoro says above, "toast but verify."
posted by rpfields at 11:27 AM on November 20, 2022

And that's all.

Well, you could have googled it to see whether "that's all".

But this is classic metafilter: a smart, well written and on point debunking and critical commentary, but one that inevitably does itself what it strives to critique.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:28 PM on November 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

I still believe. This is a plot by Big Toaster.
posted by scruss at 2:07 PM on November 20, 2022

Very funny. I live in Stillwater, Minnesota, which also claims the inventor of the toaster, though if you drill down it's specifically the pop-up toaster.
posted by look busy at 2:28 PM on November 20, 2022

I am reminded of the Street Sharks hoax, where fake episode descriptions for a forgettable 90s cartoon circulated for years because who had the time to check
posted by Merus at 3:02 PM on November 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

Well, you could have googled it to see whether "that's all".

I mean that's all the article pointed out. That's why I wrote "Let's look at who was fooled by this hoax according to this article."

But sure, let's Google "Alan MacMasters toaster"...

...and all the hits I see are about half a dozen sketchy content farm sites, a YouTuber with 17k subscribers, and a mention in the Food & Drink section of The Scotsman 8 years ago.

That last one is worrisome, but I have to point out that that's an example of a traditional mainstream media outlet publishing misinformation, not Wikipedia.

And while my trust in the Food & Drink section of The Scotsman has been shaken to its core, this is not the "great hoax" that this BBC article is trying to manufacture it to be.
posted by AlSweigart at 6:26 PM on November 20, 2022

I found it interesting that, as per Wikipedia, one of the first appearances of a toaster - not the electric kind but the the "press toaster" used to hold bread to be toasted over a grill - did indeed appear in Scotland back in the 17th century (citation!) - maybe something like this. Further down the rabbit hole of the Scottish love of toast: a huge thread (Threadreader) from Andy Arthur about the Scottish love of "Plain bread", the differences between that found in Scotland and England and the religious reasons underlying those differences..
posted by rongorongo at 11:32 PM on November 20, 2022

Factually, there is an Alan MacMasters hoax. Meaningfully, there isn't.

All fair criticism, Al, and I'm sure that there are plenty of occasional (or even hardcore) Wikipedia editors in this thread. I'm actually reassured to know that there are so many hardcore Wikipedia editors, because that means they only have to keep an eye on an average of 52 pages each.

But I'm still slightly perturbed by the thought of those primary school kids having an Alan MacMasters day of toast activities. Here they are. A minor Wikipedia hoax ended up in a bunch of kids' jotters in January 2022.
posted by rory at 5:47 AM on November 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Years back, when LiveJournal was still relevant, I noted in my LJ that I had been reading the Wikipedia article about cassowaries. And I couldn't find any references to the zookeeper who was disemboweled after "taunting a cassowary from what had previously been considered to have been a safe distance" except in the article, which made me wonder if someone had made it up. But that I was going to decide to keep believing it anyway.

Several years later, after that line had been deleted, I got a message from someone who'd been googling himself and his family, who mentioned that the zookeeper in question had been his uncle. Who wasn't a zookeeper, had never been disemboweled and was alive and well, and, in fact, had never seen a cassowary, but the person who messaged me had decided that he wanted to put his uncle in Wikipedia, and hadn't realized that the line had stayed up for literal years and been quoted other places.
posted by Xiphias Gladius at 5:48 AM on November 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

The Scotsman appears to have taken down its page about it, but a UK-based Google search turns up some others:

Made up in Britain: Alan MacMasters 1893 Last updated 1 December 2020. Made up? That sounds as if it's in on the joke, but the other pages on the site refer to real inventions.

Who Invented the Toaster: A Brief History (7 October 2022) - some blog.

Scot-study, 20 May 2020 on Facebook - an educational consultancy with 1.7k followers.

The First Electric Bread Toaster - a "writer, editor, and digital storyteller" riffing off the Wikipedia page to "fill in the blanks". Date uncertain.

And the 12 August 2022 story that may have sparked the BBC's interest:
A long-running Wikipedia hoax and the problem of circular reporting.
posted by rory at 10:00 AM on November 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Well, don’t I feel superior now—I knew this was a hoax since learning the name of the electric toaster’s inventor from Martin Scorsese’s 1973 classic Goncharov.
posted by ejs at 9:48 PM on November 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

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