Fact, fabrication, and the Internet

I love pondering issues like this. The Atlantic headline and subtitle pretty much explain it:

"How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit"

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

Yes, truth. And the Internet. As the article points out, trust is often built in (or is lacking) in the types of communities depending on it to get the hard facts, the real truth, about things like, oh, history. And with the fractured and anonymous nature of communities and identities online, the entire process of garnering truth and facts from the Internet poses problems; there is a lack of distinct trust.

This is what Reddit, the social news website, does have compared to a website like Wikipedia. Reddit users, with their internal community and forum-based responses and discourse, were able to see the clues and suspicious bits surrounding T. Miles Kelly's students' fabricated experiment in Internet deceivery--an intentional task aimed at exactly this point: who and what is the source of the information you find online?

The Georgia Mason University professor spends a whole semester on this point, in a course he teaches called Lying About the Past. And even though, this time around, Reddit broke open the whole faked case in a matter of hours, the lesson was still there:

The students may have failed to pull off a spectacular hoax, but they surely learned a tremendous amount in the process. "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. He defends his creative approach to teaching the mechanics of the historian's craft, and plans to convert the class from an experimental course into a regular offering.

There were certainly people, like the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, who are enraged by this kind of flagrant misuse of a website like Wikipedia--where the point is to fabricate on purpose, adding plausible, if slightly far-fetched, tidbits to historical Wikipedia entries and seeing how much they can get away with.

But the whole point is to think more carefully, more deeply, about the source of information. His approach is stunning to me, who until very recently had been a constant student of history courses over the span of two degrees. It is essential to make sure young historians understand these lessons. So I am all for his unorthodox methods. After all, with an online encyclopedia that is built on trust, and especially, on goodwill and a common interest, one can spend a bit of time ruminating on what might occur if someone sought to sabotage such an effort, with tiny and insidious bits of fabricated "history." It is an extreme example of what we know to be existent in many other kinds of sources too, including the heralded Ink-and-Paper-Book.