How Reddit debunked an elaborate Wikipedia hoax

In a matter of minutes, Reddit users were able to detect foulplay in Wikipedia's account of an alleged serial killer. 

Mar 3, 2020, 6:01 am*

Internet Culture

Wikipedia is ridiculously easy to manipulate. Just ask Nimrod Kämer, an Israeli prankster that used the site to create his own form of celebrity extortion.

To some, the solution to information verification and accuracy on Wikipedia and elsewhere lies in the collective hivemind of social-media communities. For proof, look no further than social news site Reddit.

As described in The Atlantic, Reddit quickly exposed a hoax that was created by a college professor and his students, who were seeking to understand how the historical record can be distorted. As a final project, T. Mills Kelly asked his students to create a work of fiction involving a serial killer named Joe Scaff, complete with fake documents, fabricated images, and Wikipedia pages.

It was not the first time the George Mason University professor trolled the Internet with this sort of trickery. In 2008, Kelly started teaching a class purely on historical falsehoods in hopes that “by learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we all become much better consumers of historical information.”

The first the time that Kelly launched the experiment, the hoax was nothing short of a success. The tale of the great American pirate Edward Owens who terrorized the Chesapeake Bay in the 1870s spread quickly around the Internet and even made it USA Today’s pop culture blog.

The trick garnered admirers and critics, including Jimmy Wales who compared the act to dumping trash in the streets to test the willingness of a community to keep it clean.

But the lifespan of the serial killer Joe Scaff, one of the latest experiments put together by the class, was not to enjoy the same success as its pirate predecessor.

To start off, the class identified and created individual Wikipedia pages for four women who were actually murdered in New York City between 1895 and 1897. The class then wrote a realistic and lengthy account of how documents found in an old trunk might implicate the fictitious man Joe in the murders.

The hoax went live when the class opened the Reddit account DisturbedThrowaway and posted the following question to Redditors: “Opinions please, Reddit. Do you think my ‘Uncle’ Joe was just weird or possibly a serial killer?

Other users quickly started analyzing the mystery of Joe Scaff and the four victims. But within a matter of minutes, redditors sensed something was amiss.

“I know I’m probably being cynical, but does this seem like viral marketing to anyone?” HatesRedditors wrote in a comment attached to the Joe Scaff thread that reached 570 upvotes. “The fact that the ‘Alice Walsh’ wikipedia article was created 2 weeks ago, and the way the articles in the picture look, it’s like they’re falsely aged.”

“It looks like the person who created the Alice Walsh article also created the Diamond Flossie article last week,” toolsonparade replied. “What a coincidence…”

After only 26 minutes, the gig was up. Joe Walsh was a bunch of malarkey.

While the accuracy of most information will ultimately be verified by professionals and journalists in the future, online communities like Reddit perhaps add another safeguard with their aggregated opinions and knowledge.

Photo by Images_of_Money

Share this article
*First Published: May 17, 2012, 3:41 pm