Avast ye!
January 4, 2009 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Professor Mills Kelly of George Mason University had his History 389 class spend the fall semester on a class project about the intriguing figure of Edward Owens, the "Last American Pirate". They blogged about their research, made videos for YouTube, and gave Owens a Wikipedia entry. The story even got some media attention. There was just one problem: History 389 was a class on historical hoaxes, and Edward Owens was their fictional creation.

Professor Kelly actually warned readers of his blog in advance that the hoax would be coming, and argued that "we need to be playful sometimes in the study of history and that this course is a good way to do just that, even as we do some serious learning along the way." But others question the costs that the class's learning experience might have for the rest of us.

There's a good article at the Chronicle of Higher Education if you have subscriber access. (Via).
posted by Horace Rumpole (47 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
So, I guess they all got A+?
posted by dabitch at 3:19 PM on January 4, 2009

Sounds like the kind of great class you can teach exactly once.
posted by localroger at 3:34 PM on January 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

"By deliberately planting a hoax article—and inviting the Chronicle to write about how he and his students got away with it—he deliberately infected the entire garden with a credibility bug."

That's the whole point of citations, right?
posted by niles at 3:37 PM on January 4, 2009

A "class on historical hoaxes?" I don't buy it.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 3:43 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Vandalizing Wikipedia is an asshole move. (I'm looking at you, Stephen Colbert.)
posted by ryanrs at 3:50 PM on January 4, 2009

Stuntclass is stunty.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:57 PM on January 4, 2009

If anything I bet the students came away with a better sense of diligence when it comes to fact-checking (hopefully).
posted by starman at 3:59 PM on January 4, 2009

If anything I bet the students came away with a better sense of diligence when it comes to fact-checking (hopefully).

What's a "fact?" If it's this easy to manufacture false positives, what do you verify them against?
posted by FormlessOne at 4:05 PM on January 4, 2009

The larger questions are:

1. Will this class be offered next semester?
2. Will this boost admissions?
posted by parmanparman at 4:10 PM on January 4, 2009

What's a "fact?" If it's this easy to manufacture false positives, what do you verify them against?

Note what they did get the fiction published in: YouTube, Wikipedia, popular media.

Note what they didn't get the fiction published in: peer-reviewed journals.
posted by Jimbob at 4:14 PM on January 4, 2009 [10 favorites]

I guess this is why my Polisci teacher always admonished us "do not trust the weekeepeedia!"

But Youtube? Youtube? If it's on Youtube, it's gotta be true!

Seriously, if they just blogged about it, put it on Wikipedia and made a Youtube video, it really didn't get anywhere close to becoming "fact". A cursory Google search for Edward Owens gives 461,000 results, but most of them aren't about a pirate, they're about some CEO and other random people. Should be pretty apparent to any prudent researcher. Wikipedia is a starting point for research, not the "be all, end all" of it. A lot of people rely on it for knowledge, and most of the time it works out okay for them. It's times like this that you really should be checking the citations.

It does sound like an interesting premise for a class. I hope that professor is ready for the constant questions "So is this a real or fictional person?" in every single one of his future classes. He's forever going to be "the hoax guy".
posted by DMan at 4:18 PM on January 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Damn, Abbie Bartlett's sure to be thrown out of the DAR, now.
posted by thanotopsis at 4:26 PM on January 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Forgotten Silver.
posted by ageispolis at 4:28 PM on January 4, 2009

Professor Mills Kelly's upcoming classes:
History 393: Theft in the Past
History 382: Spreading Contagious Diseases in the Past
History 388: Mass Hysteria in the Past

"We need to be playful sometimes in the study of history and these courses are a good way to do just that."
posted by terranova at 4:39 PM on January 4, 2009

So has anyone written a song about Edward Owens yet? Because if not, I call dibs.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:50 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Quoted without comment from the lastamericanpirate.net blog:

I am happy to announce that my wikipedia entry made it through the night and the first major round of editting. Whew!!
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:00 PM on January 4, 2009

Sounds like the kind of great class you can teach exactly once.

You really think so? I bet I could set up a similar hoax today, tomorrow, or a year from now. People know they shouldn't trust info on the Internet, but they do. And they're not going to stop because of this hoax, the next hoax, or the hoax after that. I think that's one of the things that Kelly was trying to teach his students--that you really can't believe what you read on user-generated sites. The medium itself just makes it too easy to make stuff up. He didn't tell them this. Kelly showed them, or rather had them show themselves. That's good teaching.

In any case, the egg isn't on his face, but on the faces of the user-generation-changes-everything-and-will-make-us-all-free crowd. User-generation changes some things, and one of them is that it's now easier than it was to fool masses of people. (Full disclosure: I know Mills Kelly).
posted by MarshallPoe at 5:03 PM on January 4, 2009 [11 favorites]

I think that's one of the things that Kelly was trying to teach his students--that you really can't believe what you read on user-generated sites.

It doesn't sound like *that* useful a lesson, to be honest. I mean, in my first history class, the very first thing they had you read was EH Carr's What Is History which spends a fair amount of time and effort teaching us to be sceptical of the published work of real historians and questioning what constitutes a historical fact.

Once you've read that, you'd have to be a bit of a moron to then put any stock in user-generated online content.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:28 PM on January 4, 2009

I'm just wondering, did the page on Wikipedia look legit? Now it's all "They fooled etc etc but we here at Wikipedia knew it was a hoax".
posted by Cyclopsis Raptor at 5:34 PM on January 4, 2009

This appears to be the last revision of the page before people figured it for a hoax.
posted by Jimbob at 5:46 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by bardic at 5:49 PM on January 4, 2009

I was, but then I went to a dyslexic faith healer. He made me blind.
posted by jonmc at 5:58 PM on January 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

I heard that Owens was done in by a vampire watermelon.
posted by washburn at 6:15 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does George Mason University offer ethics courses?

Here are Wikipedia's guidelines: "Do not create hoaxes." "Please do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point. Please do not attempt to put misinformation into Wikipedia to test our ability to detect and remove it... A hoax is simply a more obscure, less obvious form of vandalism."

And here are pleas from two anonymous posters explaining why the Edward Owens entry should remain.

Reasons include:

"That one of the most popular bloggers at USAToday ran with the story of the Last American pirate seems sufficiently notable"; and

"The authors of this article were in no way trying to see how quickly their entry would be deleted, they were not trying to test the editors. Instead, according to the mea culpa the authors were encouraging readers to look carefully at the things they read online or are presented to them as fact because what they are reading may not be true. It seems as though Wikipedia would want the readers of this site to look at the information that they are being given and to check the facts themselves."

But a third poster notes: "The students may have thought what they were doing was instructive, but they quickly lost control of the information. So Wikipedia needs to retain the corrected article as at least a last resort attempt to correct the fraud and lead searchers to the truth of the matter."
posted by terranova at 6:27 PM on January 4, 2009

Here's the last hoaxed version of the article before Wikipedia caught on and labeled it as a hoax. Frankly, I'm disappointed in its lack of creativity. I would have liked to see a picture of the "pirate" and a fake quotation or two in pirate lingo at the very least.

The hoax version lasted a total of 3 days.

The only shameful part of this whole situation is this aforementioned quote from the last link:

By deliberately planting a hoax article—and inviting the Chronicle to write about how he and his students got away with it—he deliberately infected the entire garden with a credibility bug.

To suggest that (a) Wikipedia is some kind of community garden of credibility and that (b) a tiny hoax that lasted for 3 days could entirely undermine its credibility is the most ridiculous thing I've read in a long, long time. Wikipedia survived the Count Chokula hoax and the Colbert hoax, and a thousand others. This "infection" won't hurt it...
posted by mmoncur at 6:57 PM on January 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

List of Notable Hoaxes on Wikipedia, including length of time each eluded detection. Included are: fictitious clitoris research; the Baldock Beer Disaster; Porchesia the island that never existed; claims that Margaret Thatcher is fictitious; and the Township of Asstree, Alabama.
posted by terranova at 7:08 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was in college, way back before the Internets (okay, it existed, but virtually no one knew about it), I took a class in history where we focused on a single topic the entire semester. The professor deliberately started us off reading a bad book on the subject. We read the second book and said, "hey, wait a minute, the previous book said ..." It vividly made a point without poisoning the well or having us violate anybody's guidelines. It's not a perfect analogy, but you get my point. I don't think college professors should be deliberately putting out bad information.
posted by pmurray63 at 7:08 PM on January 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh, dear: By twenty-four, he appeared in his first "barrelled cereal" endorsement, as the Choukula family debuted "Ernst Choukula's Golden Wheat Muesli", a packaged mix that was intended for horses, mules, and the hospital ridden

A thousand thanks, mmoncur. I haven't laughed that hard in a while.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:25 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Um ... an encylopedia that "anyone can edit" , which appeals to the general public's sense of "fair play" to not game it, is actually expected to have any credibilty in academia, whatsoever? People with more than one operating nueron are not only surprised that this happens, but actually offended. A course intended to examine historical hoaxes announces that they are going to perpetrate a hoax, does so as a learing exercise in how easy it is to mislead the credulous, yes we're looking at you, Any Religion ; and people subsequently mange to get their panties all in a twist about the flamingly obvious ?

OOO ! You disrespected Wikipedia. OOOO !! You iterated false claims online on You Tube! Please.

Guess what? History is full of questionable "facts", generally written by the winners. Learning didn't begin with binary coding. You digital dipsticks really need to get over yourselves. Seriously.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 7:45 PM on January 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


[Have ye tried a Baltic Squid? They can suck the bolts out of a submarine's hull.]
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:47 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

(Full disclosure: I know Mills Kelly)

Why should I believe that's true?
posted by neroli at 7:51 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's great that Kelly and his class were able to point out that user participation does in no way improve the quality or reliability of Wikipedia (or Internet) content. It's irritating how sanctimonious Wikipedia-types can be, and how a Florida porn baron like Jimmy Wales can snap his fingers and receive nearly five million dollars in donations.

However Mills and his class deliberately broke Wikipedia's ruless. This lapse in ethics is far worse than Wikipedia's lack of accuracy or quality.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:26 PM on January 4, 2009

Kelly lectures in the GMU Center for History and New Media, which was instrumental in pioneering the field of Digital History. It makes sense that he would be teaching a course like this, because questions of veracity in digital media are central and yet weirdly invisible to many of their users. This is a paradox that's only going to get more glaring as we move more and more toward a user-generated, Web 2.0 information world while raising a crop of digital naifs natives who see no real difference between an anonymously edited online encyclopedia and a peer-reviewed journal. What better way to grapple with the issue of trust in user-edited sites than to participate in a course like this?
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:32 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

holy crap! mills is a friend of mine from ages old... i think i have to go email or something... thanks!
posted by eatdonuts at 9:22 PM on January 4, 2009

When I read Wikipedia's guidelines about not doing a thing to prove a point, not trying for hoaxes, etc., it very much says, "Do not pull the curtain aside."

And I'm not sure that not following some website's guidelines constitutes much of a lapse of ethics. It's Wiki-freakin'-pedia, not a sacred oath you swore to do no harm.
posted by adipocere at 10:00 PM on January 4, 2009

Well, this wasn't an exercise deliberately designed for the purpose of testing Wikipedia -- the article was just one of several channels they used. I'm annoyed they broke the rules of Wikipedia, because it really does make it harder for the community. Believe me, it's a known fact that there are non-credible Wikipedia articles. It's an unavoidable aspect of the wiki, just as Wikipedia articles are almost by definition perpetually unfinished. The point of having rules and having a community response, though, is to make the site as credible as it can be by engendering a social opprobrium against this sort of thing. So, yes, Wikipedians (especially those more active athan I have been of late) are certainly entitled to be annoyed, and their being annoyed is probably the only thing that keeps Wikipedia from being Encyclopedia Dramatica. Just like Metafilter, it needs to be a self-policed, self-reinforcing community. Call that sanctimony if you like, but really, it's a necessity.

Aside from the Wikipedia aspect, I think this was an interesting exercise, although it isn't really surprising that it's possible to bruit about false information. I think it's a really interesting approach for the students to deconstruct the idea of the hoax by constructing one themselves.
posted by dhartung at 10:10 PM on January 4, 2009


I don't exist.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:54 PM on January 4, 2009

In all of this discussion of Wikipedia, by far the least interesting aspect of this story, if you ask me, people have lost sight of the true wonder of this tale. The character they created, Edward Owens, "the last American pirate," is fucking awesome! I'd start reading a novel that had this text on the back: "He was an oyster fisherman working on the lower reaches of the Chesapeake Bay, who fell on hard times during the Long Depression that began in 1873, and took up pirating largely to survive the economic downturn. Owens' piratical activities took place primarily in the Maryland waters of the bay, where he was said to have robbed smaller commercial vessels and wealthy pleasure boaters from Maryland. Owens supposedly sailed in a bugeye, rigged with a punt gun -- a sort of super shotgun -- with which he and his small crew threatened their victims."

I wish that the class would turn their work into a faux-historical-treatise and publish it as a book.
posted by Kattullus at 3:41 AM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

I taught this class years and years ago. My students created a fictional historic character we named "George Washington" who we called "first president of the United States." We gave him all kinds of little quirks to make him more believable: wooden dentures, a childhood incident involving a cherry tree--heck we even had him set off and imaginary world war (which we dubbed the Seven Years or French and Indian War) when he was only 22 years old.

I don't see what harm we did.
posted by LarryC at 4:56 AM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sometimes when I've had a long day at work and my way home is packed with tourists visiting the Granary Burying Ground here in Boston, I pass out a few copies of the 'historical' pamphlet I wrote. I'm thinking about writing another one based on the Freedom Trail.

I'm all in favor of lies as history (history as lies) and wish there was more Hodgmanic Scholarship out there.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:04 AM on January 5, 2009

I love the inclusion of fiction into history, since narrative is such a powerful tool in creating and communicating history (as performed by such greats as Natalie Zemon Davis, but messing with wikipedia like that just disappoints me. Wikipedia can be a great resource to people without much else available to them. They'd have been better off including the details they learned into Wikipedia in other ways; I'd rather have a class make wikipedia better than be a part of making it worse. Professors have credibility within and outside of academia; abusing that credibility by deliberately misleading the public hurts both him, academia, and wikipedia.

Cool project, but irresponsible methods.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:10 AM on January 5, 2009

You almost had had me going for a minute there, but there really isn't any "George Mason" University is there?
posted by p3t3 at 5:18 AM on January 5, 2009

The book of Edward Owens could be published alongside McSweeney's Giraffes tell-all. I would enjoy that greatly. Much more than a DVD set of lonelygirl15.

Hoaxes are nothing new, and Colbert just pointed out the squishyness of Wikipedia. Now all you need to fake something is to photoshop a few images and set them free on the internet, claiming to have seen UFOs or something of the sort, instead of requiring time to forge fossils.

The internet is malleable and unreliable (as a source of truth), people are gullible and lazy (in terms of verifying information), so do your own research. No gardens of pure wisdom have been infested with aphids of untruths.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:17 AM on January 5, 2009

I don't know, if you're going to make up a fake pirate, make it more fun, y'know? Three days isn't very long for a fairly boring-ass article. Give me a picture, give me hilarious quotes.

rigged with a punt gun -- a sort of super shotgun
Doesn't this sort of give it away? Why link to punt gun and then explain it?

That Count Chocola article is how to do it right.
posted by graventy at 8:12 AM on January 5, 2009

I'm pretty sure the revised wikipedia article should actually read "This article is being considered for deletion, because it embarrassed the hell out of us."

As far as I'm concerned, anything that takes the wind out of wikipedia's sails and reminds the public that wikipedia is about as reliable as Mad Magazine, is a public service. It bugs the hell out of me that people actually use wikipedia as a definitive resource for anything other than television episode names.
posted by happyroach at 12:29 PM on January 5, 2009

wikipedia is about as reliable as Mad Magazine

That statement hasn't been accurate for probably two or three years, so I guess you're going to continue being bugged to hell, or perhaps continuing beyond hell, past the ice lake waving to a lounging Hades, while he chews on a few sinners.

Wikipedia is an astoundingly good resource given the incredibly lax entry rules for writing and editing articles, along with many users carrying personal agendas or attempting to own articles. Not to mention huge quantities of immaturity and ego stirred into the mix. In spite of all that, I am often surprised how well Wikipedia has evolved into an accurate and detailed source of information on tens of thousands of topics, many referenced daily from links on MetaFilter. Of course Wikipedia doesn't compete with, and shouldn't be measured against, peer-reviewed articles. I read informative newspapers, magazines, and books all the time that aren't peer-reviewed either, and somehow manage not to consider them the unvarnished and absolute truth.

Given the literally millions of articles that Wikipedia has, the surviving hoax count is a low percentage, which still allows for hundreds(?) of hoaxes getting past that the first line of anti-vandal patrols. Yet Wikipedia takes a lot of grief for these small number of hoaxes, well beyond what they should considering all the other conduits of misinformation. Somehow, pre-Wikipedia, I "learned" that Mikey died from eating pop rocks and soda, comic stickers were laced with LSD, and in winter you lose 40% of your body heat through your head, to mention just a few not-so-factual bits for information. Oh, and teachers and other people in "positions of authority" taught a lot that nonsense.

Were I interested in annoying a few more people, I would opine that Kelly quite possibly attacked Wikipedia because he feels threatened by the competition for historical attention and instruction. But, as attacks go, it was a pretty lame one. The hoax lasted, what, two months? I've successfully nominated a hoax article two years old for deletion, and I'm hardly a deletion hound.
posted by mdevore at 3:37 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said in this tread, but, hey, the story made me laugh.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:21 AM on January 8, 2009

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