But another, more compelling answer, has to do with trust. Kelly’s students, like all good con artists, built their stories out of small, compelling details to give them a veneer of veracity. Ultimately, though, they aimed to succeed less by assembling convincing stories than by exploiting the trust of their marks, inducing them to lower their guard. Most of us assess arguments, at least initially, by assessing those who make them. Kelly’s students built blogs with strong first-person voices, and hit back hard at skeptics. Those inclined to doubt the stories were forced to doubt their authors. They inserted articles into Wikipedia, trading on the credibility of that site. And they aimed at very specific communities: the “beer lovers of Baltimore” and Reddit.
That was where things went awry. If the beer lovers of Baltimore form a cohesive community, the class failed to reach it. And although most communities treat their members with gentle regard, Reddit prides itself on winnowing the wheat from the chaff. It relies on the collective judgment of its members, who click on arrows next to contributions, elevating insightful or interesting content, and demoting less worthy contributions. Even Mills says he was impressed by the way in which redditors “marshaled their collective bits of expert knowledge to arrive at a conclusion that was largely correct.” It’s tough to con Reddit.
The loose thread, of course, was the Wikipedia articles. The redditors didn’t initially clue in on their content, or identify any errors; they focused on their recent vintage. The whole thing started to look as if someone was trying too hard to garner attention. Kelly’s class used the imaginary Lisa Quinn to put a believable face on their fabrications. When Quinn herself started to seem suspicious, it didn’t take long for the whole con to unravel.
If there’s a simple lesson in all of this, it’s that hoaxes tend to thrive in communities which exhibit high levels of trust. But on the Internet, where identities are malleable and uncertain, we all might be well advised to err on the side of skepticism.
Sometimes even an apparent failure can mask an underlying success. 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’s also an interesting coda to this convoluted tale. The group researching Brown’s Brewery discovered that the placard in front of the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History lists an anachronistic name for the building in which it was sewn. They have written to the museum to correct the mistake. For those students, at least, falsifying the historical record may prove less rewarding than setting it straight.