Skip to Main Content

Evaluating Websites: Hoaxes


Not everything on the Web is what it seems!  Think before you accept a site at face value. 


Are there statements that go against common sense?

Do you find words that are made up or nonsensical?

Do any of the images look like they've been altered?

Does the tone seem ironic or satirical?

Be careful!  Even sites that look official might be fakes.

The Last American Pirate

USA Today thought the website The Last American Pirate was so good that they linked to the sight from their webpage.  Wikipedia had a page on it.  But the whole project was a hoax.  See what the professor had to say about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Teaching by Lying: Professor Unveils 'Last Pirate' Hoax


Fairfax, Va.

Did you know that a pirate roamed the Eastern Seaboard as late as the 1870s, and lived into the 20th century? Edward Owens haunted the lower reaches of the Chesapeake Bay after the economic crash of 1873 wiped out his living as an oyster fisherman. Owens robbed but didn't kill his victims, and when the economy picked up, he gave up piracy for good. He died in 1938.

Owens's exploits might have been lost to the mists of time if not for an undergraduate student named Jane Browning, who stumbled on the story in a cafe in Gloucester County, Virginia, and tracked down the man behind the legend. You can read more about Owens in his Wikipedia entry and on Ms. Browning's blog, The Last American Pirate. On YouTube, you can watch Ms. Browning visit the site of Owens's house and interview a couple of historians about his historical status.

It's a good story. None of it is true.

Edward Owens and Jane Browning are fictions, unleashed on an unsuspecting world by students taking an upper-level history course at George Mason University. Will they get in trouble with their professor now that the hoax has been unveiled? No. It was his idea.

T. Mills Kelly, an associate professor of history at George Mason and an associate director of the university's Center for History and New Media, thought up the course, "Lying About the Past," as a novel way to teach history, not to subvert it.

He wanted to get undergraduates to tackle detailed historical research, using digital-history tools as well as old-school archival work. He wanted them to become more sophisticated consumers of information—to learn when a source could be trusted and when to be skeptical of it. And he wanted them to enjoy it all.

"History classes aren't often as much fun as they could be," Mr. Kelly said. "An awful lot of history classes are the passive-learning model, where the professor dispenses and the students consume. It's an efficient model. There's no evidence that it actually results in learning."

As he put it in the syllabus for the class, "Maybe it's our conditioning in graduate school, or maybe we're afraid that if we get too playful with our field, we won't be taken seriously as scholars. Whatever the reason, I think history has just gotten a bit too boring for its own good. This course is my attempt to lighten up a little and see where it gets us."

Historical Fiction

The Edward Owens hoax went live on the Internet on December 3. The Chronicle sat in on the great unveiling. Students hovered over their laptops in a classroom at George Mason, making final edits and tweaks before unblocking the Jane Browning blog, its entries dated back into September. The Wikipedia entry they'd created a few days earlier was already up, having survived the online encyclopedia's vetting process.

The enthusiasm was infectious. "It's been the best stuff so far this semester," sophomore Kristen Motley said as a classmate uploaded "Jane's" YouTube videos.

"This has definitely been my favorite history class I've taken," said Kelly Kreis, a senior majoring in history and English. "I love to do things hands-on. I don't like to sit down and read out of a textbook constantly. The point of history is to explore it."

One or two of the perpetrators sounded a little nervous. "It has been a lot of fun, but it has been a little ethically queasy at points," said Rachel Dickson, a junior who is working toward a career in journalism. She wondered whether a future employer might hold her involvement in a historical hoax against her.

"A historical site might denounce us," said Tom Gow, a junior. He seemed unfazed at the prospect.

Ms. Kreis said, "Most of us have professional aspirations and don't want to tick off people." She didn't really seem worried, though, and neither did most of the class. They were having too much fun.

Early on in the semester, the students said, they talked for a long time about ethics and laid down some ground rules. 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.

"Nothing that would get me fired," Mr. Kelly said, half joking.

Historical hoaxes are easier to spread than ever, thanks to the Internet. They're also easier to debunk."People couldn't fact-check the Feejee Mermaid" easily, Mr. Kelly pointed out. (The mermaid, a hoax, was popularized by P.T. Barnum in his museum.) He and the students wondered how quickly the Owens hoax would spread—and how quickly they'd be found out.

With a link here and a post there, the students began to spread the Edward Owens story as soon as the Jane Browning blog went live. They Facebooked, Twittered, and Shoutwired it. Within a day, USA Today's Pop Candy blog picked it up, posting a link to Jane Browning's "simple-but-fascinating Web site." The Pop Candy blogger wrote, "Here's hoping she'll get a stake in the inevitable film rights to his life story."

Jane Browning's blog attracted about 1,200 unique visitors by the third week of December—modest, perhaps, but not bad for an undergraduate's blog about her research project. The YouTube videos got more than a hundred views each.

We will never know just how hard the world would have fallen for the story of Edward Owens, the last American pirate. When Mr. Kelly got wind that a colleague's spouse and a historian he knew at another university had bought into the hoax, he and the students decided it was time to pull the plug. Thursday afternoon, a prewritten "mea culpa" appeared on Jane Browning's blog. Now Edward Owens really is history.

Questions of Ethics

Is is unethical to ask students in a history class to fabricate? A few of Mr. Kelly's colleagues got a little squeamish when he described his plans for "Lying About the Past." Nobody told him he couldn't teach it.

"You have been warned," he told readers of his blog, edwired, in a post in late August in which he laid out the idea. "I've already been told that I'm violating some sort of historian's Hippocratic oath by encouraging my students to willfully mislead a possibly credulous public. Aside from the fact that I don't remember taking such an oath, my own view is 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."

You certainly could call it a teachable moment—or a whole semester's worth of them. For the first part of the semester, Mr. Kelly and his students explored dozens of historical and journalistic hoaxes: the Hitler Diaries, alien autopsies, the Feejee Mermaid, and the story (cooked up by H.L. Mencken in the Evening News in 1917) that Americans were reluctant to use the bathtub when it was introduced. Mr. Kelly's students concluded that a hoax story doesn't have to be possible, it just has to be plausible, and there has to be a market or potential audience of people willing to buy it. There's one born every minute, as the saying goes.

"I am very confident that those 15 students will graduate from college being much more critical consumers of online information, because they will never want to get caught themselves," Mr. Kelly said.

The would-be hoaxers kicked around ideas about what fabrication they might be able to pull off. They could invent some crazy sport and rules to go with it. They could dream up a lost Midwestern town, or spread the story of how a simple act—a sneeze at the wrong moment—changed the course of history.

Some topics, like the Civil War, were too well-studied, the risk of getting found out too high. What about a 19th-century Chesapeake Bay pirate? The idea was plausible, local and, post-"Pirates of the Caribbean," could catch some headwinds in the zeitgeist. (It didn't hurt that Somali pirates put piracy back in the headlines this fall.)

The class divided into working groups, one to create Edward Owens's plot line, one to handle Jane Browning's, another to pull together details to add texture to the story. The students pored over census records to come up with a name that was both plausible and common. They logged time at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. They located a house in rural Virginia that could be passed off as Owens's, and filmed "Jane" exploring around it. They created the blog and the videos and uploaded enough documentation—a scanned 19th-century document purporting to be Edward Owens's last will and testament, for instance—to make it seem as if there was some real evidence behind the story.

That's at least as much work as most college students put into a research paper, and maybe more. "You actually learn stuff in this class," one said the day the hoax went live.

"It accomplished all the things we say we want to accomplish in a history course," Mr. Kelly said. "They learned about primary sources, they learned about historiography, they learned how to construct an argument in a compelling way, and they learned some digital skills. They spent some time discussing ethics in the historical profession, and they had a great time."

Assuming he doesn't get fired (yes, he has tenure), Mr. Kelly intends to teach the course again. You have been warned.

Copyright © 2009 by The Chronicle of Higher Education