Lies, Damned Lies and Pedagogy

Anne-Marie Deitering has a great post over at Infofetishist about the historical-hoax-as-pedagogy story that popped up in December. A professor at George Mason taught a course on historical hoaxes and had students create a hoax and spread it virally using social networking. It was so successful it fooled a lot of historians and got written up in USA Today before the spoof was revealed. According to the course website, “The purpose of this hoax was to spend time thinking about how easily information takes on a life of its own online, ethics in the historical profession, and the role of digital media in popular culture.”

Some people felt it was a great assignment for these reasons:

–It used social media for higher-order educational ends
–It involved students in original authorship with an audience beyond one teacher
–It asked students to be creative with their research
–It taught students to think critically about sources
–It was a lot more fun for the students than traditional research
–It got a lot of press and demonstrated the power of social networks to spread information

Others, including Dietering, were bothered by it. Here are some of those reasons:

–Putting false information on Wikipedia is vandalism and vandalism is wrong
–Deliberately creating an elaborate hoax violates established trust networks; this project gave the whole idea of trust among historians a big Bronx cheer
–It took an easy approach to inculcating skepticism. It’s not that hard to feel superior when looking at a hoax site. It’s harder (but a much more useful skill) to look at serious approaches to issues and analyze their arguments and evidence.
–It suggested that creating an elaborate lie is much more creative and engaging than historical research, which is boringly confined by facts

On the whole, I have to agree. You can be creative with history and invent events and people using historical information and learn a lot about history in the process. You can use social networks to expand your audience for your scholarship. You can learn how to be skeptical of hoaxes and appropriately critical of secondary sources. And you can do all that without concocting an elaborate “gotcha” in which the mechanisms of creative mendacity take center stage over doing history or critical thinking.

But Anne-Marie says it better than I could.

I just don’t see where the information literacy skills here translate into what most students need in their real work with online information sources. Increasingly, I just think that a focus on deliberate hoaxes isn’t a very good way to teach students how to evaluate information.

Now I get that the work done to create the hoax might give the students in this class a greater appreciation for stuff that could make them more information literate, and that knowing specifically what they did to create a fake site might give them some stuff to look for in other sites, but I don’t really see the larger benefit here beyond the reminder that stuff on the Internet can be fake and I honestly don’t think that our students don’t know that full well already.

Because here’s the first thing – helping students learn that there is stuff on the wild, wild web that was put there just to trick them, to punk them or to prank them – well, there’s not a lot of value in that. . . . Most people who put fake or wrong or misleading information out there on the Internet have an agenda beyond April Fool’s – they’re trying to do more than trick us and what our students need is help identifying those agendas. They need help identifying the information that isn’t flat out lies, but that is a particular kind of truth.

At its heart, I think information literacy is inherently linked to inquiry, and discovery. It’s about the ability to learn from information – not just to find the sources worth learning from but to use that new information to change the way you understand things, and change the way you approach the next question.

And yes, I get that she’s pretend, but the fictional process the real class came up with does suggest that historical research is difficult and tedious and one doesn’t make the great discovery by engaging with sources in an open-minded way. If the class had been engaged in a discovery-based research process I would hope that that would have come through in their fictional avatar’s narrative. It doesn’t. There is no doubt that this group of students were truly engaged – playing with history, creating a new world and the characters to fill it. . . .

If the skills they were learning were about creativity and world-building it seems like the resulting project could have taken the form of an ARG or a similar project where those creative muscles could be flexed in the service of creating a world for the rest of us to play in, too.

And that’s probably what bothers me the most. It isn’t that a fictitious version of reality was invented. It isn’t just that the implication is that history, done the way historians do it, is boring and lacks creativity, though that does bug me. It was the way it was marketed and performed, as if the real object wasn’t to learn how to be skeptical or to create something historically plausible, but rather how to pull off a kind of performative sleight-of-hand that would fool the most people and gain the biggest gotcha.

It seems to me we get a constant barrage of social media self-promotion and manipulation through the media; learning how to add to it doesn’t seem the most direct way to understand its impact, any more than doing something many would consider unethical (deliberately creating a hoax) is the best hands-on way to explore ethics.

photo courtesy of magic74

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

5 thoughts on “Lies, Damned Lies and Pedagogy”

  1. You’ve noted that the vandalism violated Wikipedia’s acceptable use policy. See

    The Wikipedia vandalism was a class requirement.

    This class requirement seems to violate GMU’s “Responsible Use of Computing Policy”.

    George Mason University
    Responsible Use of Computing Policy

    The Responsible Use of Computing (RUC) policy applies to all academic and operational departments and offices at all George Mason University (Mason) locations owned and leased. The policies and procedures provided herein apply to all Mason faculty, staff, students, visitors, and contractors. […]

    Rules of Use
    Rule 2: Do not use computer accounts for illegitimate purposes.
    Rule 5: Do not use Mason’s computing resources to violate other policies or laws.

  2. Great post, great topic.

    I assume the student created a new, spurious Wikipedia article about the fictional pirate. Somehow, that does not strike me as vandalism. To me, vandalism is marring an existing article, thereby ruining someone else’s work.

    One might say that creating a new, purposely untrue article is to mar Wikipedia as a whole. But come on, what’s not to mar about Wikipedia? It’s wonderful in many ways, but it will never be purely serious.

    I know that the Wikipedia element is only a small part of the argument against the hoax assignment, and Barbara and Anne-Marie make excellent points. But the history professor was trying a creative assignment that did elicit creative work on the part of students, so I applaud that.

  3. “Somehow, that does not strike me as vandalism. To me, vandalism is marring an existing article, thereby ruining someone else’s work.”


    I’m not sure whether you’re making a normative or a descriptive argument.

    If you’re arguing normatively, that is talking about shoulds and oughts, that’s one thing. But if you’re arguing descriptively, that is arguing about the actual contents of Wikipedia’s vandalism policy, well, then there’s a mistake.

    You probably didn’t read the link I provided above:

    I think that page spells it out pretty clearly. But for avoidance of doubt, here’s another page:

    Creating hoax pages violates published Wikipedia policy.

    If you want to argue that the existing policy ought to be changed, then you might make more headway doing that inside Wikipedia’s internal policy process. Because from an external viewpoint, Wikipedia’s policy is (a) not unreasonable, and (b) clearly noticed. It strikes me that it deserves respect and enforcement.

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