J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Calling Off the Alert

Back in November I posted an “Alert for Historical Hoaxing,” picking up Prof. T. Mills Kelly’s plans for a course titled “Lying About the Past.” One assignment for the class was “to create an online historical hoax that we will then turn loose on the Internet to see if we can actually fool anyone.”

That posting was, I suppose, my own experiment to see if publicizing the possibility of a hoax would make people more skeptical. It prompted some criticism of the whole project in my comments section, and some replies from Prof. Kelly.

Last week I received word from him that the project had run its course; the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about it. Alas, I can’t access or link to that story since the site’s subscription-only. But I now know the topic of the hoax was “Edward Owens, the Last American Pirate,” and it took the form of (fictional) undergraduate Jane Browning sharing her (fictional) research on Owens through a blog.

This seems like the best introduction to the project, the profile for blogger “Jane Browning.” Other aspects of the hoax included a handwritten will, a Wikipedia entry (check the pre-exposure version), and a YouTube channel.

A USA Today blog picked up the story, showing that it’s indeed possible for this hoax to fool someone. However, it’s also notable that that was only on the paper’s website, not the print edition, and that it was part of a general, barely examined round-up of pirate news. More discussion at Bavatuesdays.

It doesn’t look like anyone of us in cyberspace voiced skepticism about Edward Owens or Jane Browning before the class exposed the hoax themselves. So we can’t treat this as an example of how more eyes makes hoaxing harder. On the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to an undergraduate’s research, even with the sexy topic of pirates. So this isn’t an example of how easy it is to fool the masses, either.

I guess the scariest part of the experiment for me are the encouraging comments “Jane Browning” received on her blog. Whether they came from genuine believers or students helping to perpetuate the hoax, they have the same vacuous, cheerleader, you-against-the-world quality of comments about fanfiction or vacation snapshots or real blog posts.

Comments on Boston 1775 excepted, of course!


Mills said...

I'll try to avoid sounding like a cheerleader here...

Almost all of the comments on the Last American Pirate blog were put there by the students in the class in the hope that the comments would come off exactly as you describe them -- cheerleaderish -- which is just how one would expect blog post comments in a class to sound (because they do). Their hope was that in this way they would make the blog seem more "credible" as a student project.

That the other comments came from academics who thought the blog was what it purported to be seems to indicate that their strategy worked.

J. L. Bell said...

Those comments definitely seemed genuine, and therefore well done. I couldn’t figure out what worried me more: the possibility that complete strangers were getting that excited by the “research,” or the students’ ability to replicate that level of commentary for something they knew was fake.