Here’s a fun fact: the guy on the front of a Pringles can has a name – Julius Pringles.
Here’s an even funner fact: Pringles only started using that name in 2013, after Kellogg’s acquired the company and trademarked it – before using it in a half-hearted social media push involving Jimmy Fallon and then sort of forgetting about it for a bit.
Here’s the funnest fact of all: the first fun fact began as a lie, until one day it became the truth.
Julius Pringles began his existence not in a marketing brainstorming session at Kellogg’s HQ in 2013, but in a college dorm room in 2006, when two freshmen quietly inserted the name into the Pringles Wikipedia page as an element of lighthearted vandalism:
The Pringles logo is a stylized cartoon caricature of the head of a male figure (commonly known as “Julius Pringles”) designed by Louis R Dixon.
Unlike most Wikipedia vandalism, it had a bit more effort behind it than simply whacking the edit button and dropping in a lie. One of the pair, Justin Shillock, was already a Wikipedia moderator with a fairly solid reputation, and the two immediately made a Facebook group – “Who knew he was named Julius Pringles?” – to help embed the claim further. After it was removed once, it was re-added, in a different format further up the page.
After a while, the name ended up just sticking around on the Wikipedia page, never quite getting enough attention to garner a “citation needed” tag, and eventually becoming such a longstanding claim on the page, only a total redraft by a dedicated editor would have had a chance of dislodging it.
Fake news travel fast
Such falsehoods haven’t been uncommon, particularly in the early days of Wikipedia. As much as the site has now outgrown its reputation among educators and experts as an untrustworthy den of calumny, it’s worth acknowledging that its reputation didn’t come from nowhere.
And while Wikipedia’s systems, both formal and informal, do generally work to expel low-effort vandalism, falsehoods can stick around if they start to interact with the world outside the site. Almost a decade ago, the webcomic XKCD coined the phrase “cytogenesis” to describe the process where by a fake fact on Wikipedia is copied by a rushed into a journalist article, which is itself used as a source to “prove” the truth of the fact .
For instance: a friend, whose anonymity I’ll preserve, once decided to add a fictional biographical detail to the page for Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexivitch – that she “briefly worked on Belarus’ first carp-fishing magazine”. The claim was alive for barely 15 minutes before an eagle-eyed editor pulled it, but that was still long enough for the claim to make it into a Deutsche Welle profile of the author.
But this is the first example I’ve heard of something that goes beyond mere cytogenesis. Here, a piece of Wikipedia vandalism managed to weave a true fact into reality, where it lay dormant until a viral tweet earlier this week.
It shows, I think, the inadequacy of so much conventional discussion around misinformation on the internet. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “fake news”: the claim that the pope endorsed Donald Trump for president really is, simply, false. But the internet isn’t distinct from the wider world, and sometimes it can do more than simply reflect reality. It can alter it, too.
That’s not to say that enough people believing in the Ghost of Kyiv will suddenly summon a fighter ace into the sky above Ukraine. But if enough people believe plucky tractor drivers are taking on Russian tanks and winning – well, that might be the sort of fact that begins as propaganda and blossoms into something else.
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