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The Lesson from a Hoax

Something shocking has happened in the world of information. It turns out that there was an error in the Wikipedia, a deliberate error introduced into an article for fun by a couple of stoned college students. This is as shocking as the time that other factual error was found on the Internet.

The hoax, such as it was, concerned the fictional character Amelia Bedelia, stating that she was based upon a maid in Cameroon where her author spent some time growing up.

She was instead based on a maid in Equatorial Guinea, so you can understand why exposing the hoax was so important.

No, actually the whole Cameroonian maid thing was completely made up, and the person who helped put it into Wikipedia now feels a little bad about it, not so much for what it says about her, but for “what it says about the future of information in the digital age.”

Trigger warning: Nazi reference coming up.

Joseph Goebbels once said that if you tell a lie enough times, it makes it true. I always thought that was the bullshit self-justification of a sociopath and professional prevaricator, but now that I’ve seen the process of a lie becoming fact firsthand, I think there’s some credence to it.

That’s not the lesson I would draw from this. First of all, the Goebbels quote isn’t accurate, and the way it’s phrased is absurd. Telling a lie enough times doesn’t make it true, period.

The real quote is: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

That at least makes more sense, and it’s definitely true, at least for some people. There apparently are people who believe that President Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States, because some people will believe anything.

But, at least according to Wikipedia, the Goebbels quote might not even really by a Goebbels quote. It was attributed to him by a 1946 publication of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Supposedly, no reliable source has been found.

In cases like this, we have to make a judgment, believe Wikipedia or believe the HUAC. I’ll go with Wikipedia any day.

As for the hoax, nobody saw a lie become a fact. A lie was quoted as a fact. People believed said lie. Apparently a number of gullible people repeated that lie in writing as a fact, but it was still a lie.

To draw that lesson, we’d have to think of every repeated untruth as a fact. The birthers and the flat earthers aren’t stating facts. They’re just babbling untruths.

I also don’t see anything especially relevant to the future of information in the digital age. Goebbels wasn’t living in the digital age, and yet Nazi propaganda techniques were pretty effective.

But we could go back throughout history for plenty of examples of such stupidity. Politics and war are both areas that tend to generate a lot of stupid claims that people believe, and always have been.

Whatever side people are on during a war, they’ll happily believe in stories of atrocity committed by the other side, while ignoring any evidence of actual atrocities by their own side.

The same goes in politics. Today’s gullible simpletons go on about the Muslim dictator in the White House. But political losers always whine about how awful the sitting President is, and they’re happy to believe anything bad they hear, no matter how implausible.

A few years ago there was the hoax about Presidential IQs, claiming George W. Bush has the lowest IQ of any President in the last sixty years, at 91, and that his father has an IQ of 98. I’m sure plenty of gullible liberals lapped that story up with glee.

Whatever it is that IQ supposedly measures, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bill Clinton had more of it than George W. Bush, but you’d have to be pretty gullible to believe either Bush had so low an IQ.

Lying about Presidents and Presidential candidates is as old as the United States. Brace yourself: George Washington might not have chopped down a cherry tree.

So is this an example of the way a lie becomes a fact? Or maybe an example of how people should check their sources, as good librarians should tell them to? Even worse, it is a lesson about Nazis? I hope so, because I hate those guys.

Instead, I think it provides just another example of how a lot of people are gullible and lazy.

Librarians might talk about information literacy and the importance of finding reliable information, but people only want reliable information when something really matters, unlike their political opinions or who a fictional character in some children’s books is based on.

When people are going to pay money for something, for example, they want reliable information about it.

Oh, wait, except for all the people investing in subprime mortgages or buying lottery tickets. Okay, I take it back. People don’t want reliable information. They want comforting information.

That’s it.

People are gullible and lazy and prefer comforting, easily found, and easily assimilated information to reliable information. That’s why librarians are always fighting a losing battle.

The Internet might proliferate misinformation faster than ever before, but people have probably been like that since there were people, so for the last 6,000 years.

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Comments

  1. Peter Ward says:

    Great, great piece. Critical thinking – any thinking at all – is in short supply in this age of information glut. Not enough folks can differentiate between opinion and fact. I remember one of the first things I read on the Internet (way, way before Wikipedia) was that JFK was killed because he was about to spill the beans about the UFO coverup. Absolute poppycock! Everybody knows that an Amish hit squad did the job. Why? Well, I forgot that part.

  2. David says:

    You’re right about people wanting easy info. Another problem is that people sometimes actually want to be shocked and to be in disbelief at a piece of information – part of the gullibility seems to stem from wanting to be part of an “exciting” idea or counter-culture movement. I’m thinking of the conspiracy lunatics who don’t believe that we landed on the moon. Or on a much smaller scale, the oft regurgitated lie that we eat eight spiders a year in our sleep. Telling people the spider “fact” is tempting to believe because its pretty great to see people’s grossed out reaction when you tell them (just like when I mashed up my JELL-O in third grade and showed it to the girl sitting next to me and yelled, “Brains!” Overall, I think that we get so much information that some of us want stranger and stranger factoids and conspiracy theories just to keep us entertained – and this makes those people worryingly gullible.

  3. jack winderberry says:

    a losing battle? why not give up then? then finally the truth about many things, like abraham lincoln’s homosexuality, and crisis actors, can come out into the open.

    people are indeed predisposed to believe baloney, but the TRUTHS are sometimes even stranger than what we’ve been indoctrinated to believe.

  4. that Amelia Bedelia hoax sounds fishy. the hoax’s author claims it was posted in 2009 and that the current Amelia author wasn’t aware of it. according to the April 2009 news story cited in the hoax story, “[Herman]Parish said his aunt based the lead character on a French colonial maid in Cameroon.” so he was aware of the Cameroon lie in 2009 when the hoax was posted. which means he read the Wikipedia article before the interview so he could give the journalist that tidbit.
    so the hoax altered the nephew’s knowledge (apparently he nothing about the origin of the character) which he then repeated in the news article which turned the hoax into fact. fyi, the wayback machine confirms the appearance of the hoax.

    • TK says:

      I’m a little confused what you find “fishy” about the situation. The sequence of events you laid out seems pretty logical to me as to how things happened. According to links on the Wikipedia talk page, the edit to the article was made (“hoax was posted”) in January 2009, and the interview was in April. It does seem a little odd that the nephew repeated the made-up information from the article wholesale, but not wildly outside the realm of possibility.

  5. David Farrar says:

    The reason why Obama didn’t hand over his long-form Hawaiian birth certificate early in his campaign, because it too, like his short-form birth certificate, doesn’t prove anything by itself. It doesn’t supply one bit of independent, corroborative evidence on its face. Birth certificates that have no probative value are worthless for identification purposes, as Obama well knows. Even the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General tells us relying of state certified birth certificates to “PROVE” identify is an abuse of the document.*

    Since the object here is to authenticate the information contained on Obama’s birth certificate, any records that uses the Hawaiian Health Department index files of Barack Obama cannot be used. If you take away that one document, there is nothing left to prove Obama was born when and where he states.

    ex animo
    davidfarrar
    *My source: http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-07-99-00570.pdf

  6. dan cawley says:

    this, from the master of the english language…

    “See in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”

    George Herbert Walker Bush (twice-elected american presdient)

    • me says:

      George H.W. Bush was only president of the US for one term. I believe you’re thinking of his son. one George W. Bush.

    • dan cawley says:

      egregious error; my apologies. i got the former-spook confused with the decider.

  7. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    “Should we one day scorn authoritative sources of information, and become content to accept the word of any anonymous whackadoodle who can punch a keyboard, we shouldn’t be shocked when it turns out we’ve been misinformed” -George Washington Carver, during his Nobel acceptance speech after inventing the Peanut Butter Sandwich, 1938.

  8. Development Arrested says:

    Love two things in this blog post
    1) Dropping the creationism reference in the end
    AND
    2) Linking to Conservapedia to prove your point about the need to question sources

  9. Michael says:

    This whole “Goebbels quote” appears to be a case of mis-attributing a commonly-known quote from _Mein Kampf_, by Adolf Hitler. My library’s copy of _Mein Kampf_ is out at the moment, so I have to rely again on the wikipedia page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_lie#Hitler.27s_use_of_the_expression (which appears to contradict the page you’ve cited). It looks accurate to me, speaking as someone with a graduate degree in German history, but, yes, one should always confirm one’s sources.

  10. Library Observer says:

    Even though Joseph Goebbels and his kind were evil monsters….
    he said one thing that we all should keep in mind and be wary of.

    ” Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated
    are confident that they are acting on their own free will. “

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