Ken Jennings


May 28, 2010

A couple months ago, I introduced you to the Wikipedia article (now yanked) on Orange Julius namesake Julius Freed, which is full of all kinds of crazy trivia, like the fact that he invented a shower stall for pigeons. I was mostly interested in the article because (a) it had sat unchanged on Wikipedia for five years, and (b) it all seemed transparently phony to the trained eye.

I got two things wrong in the original piece: first, I said that only a mental_floss blogger had been fooled by the post. I totally missed the funniest development in this story: Dairy Queen, which now owns Orange Julius, inadvertently used the hoax material as the basis for a 2007 ad campaign! The ad firm space150 created a viral video on Julius Freed’s life, using all the amazing-but-true facts from the Wikipedia article. (Again, to review: they were amazing, but not true. So space150 was half-right.) Said creative director Riley Kane:

Our assignment was to push the original Orange Julius and we went to Wikipedia and found out about how he invented the pigeon shower… We couldn’t make anything that good up, so we decided to base the film on the real facts.

Second, I said the original hoaxer was likely one Bradly Johnson, a superfluous name in the original writeup. I now know that’s not true: Bradly Johnson was just the randomly selected name of the ex-boyfriend of a friend of the actual author, who is Joe Cassara, the operations manager at a Miami public radio station. How do I know? He outed himself to me as the hoaxer via email, after my blog post got his joke article pulled from Wikipedia and then locked when he tried to reinstate it.

I asked him why the prank, and he explained that, while he chose the Orange Julius founder at random, he decided to hoax Wikipedia with a very specific purpose in mind: to demonstrate to broadcast colleagues that the site wasn’t completely reliable. That strikes me as funny for some reason: you had to create your own error to demonstrate that there are errors on Wikipedia? Doesn’t that sort of contaminate the sample? You might as well sneak into someone’s office and remove a page from their dictionary to educate them on the non-100% reliability of Merriam-Webster. Or hire a one-armed man to scare your children into good Wiki-etiquette.

But Cassara did convincingly demonstrate how easy it is to create false information out of the wholecloth, keep it on Wikipedia for five years, and have the fake stuff officially endorsed by the entry’s corporate subject! How many hundreds (thousands?) of other articles like this are sitting out in the Wiki-ether right now, wreaking havoc and just waiting to be debunked?

Posted by Ken at 10:43 am