“The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.”
– Oscar Wilde
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
– John Adams
I have come to the conclusion that everything I read on Facebook is a hoax. Well, maybe not everything — I’m sure your post about your granddaughter’s birthday, and mine about my home repair project are perfectly on the level, but it seems that every meme, quote, and shared “fact” about Congressional pay, historical events, or pop culture tidbits, turns out to be false when fully investigated. Companies know that click bait works, and it generates visits to their web pages, thus driving up ad revenue.
We can take some solace, however, in the knowledge that neither hoaxes, nor hoaxes built on top of other hoaxes, are anything new, or are a creation of the internet age. Social media simply makes it easier to share them and spread them, though also easier to research them and debunk them. One hundred and twenty years ago, one of the greatest newspaper hoaxes of American history first hit the pages of four papers in Denver, Colorado.
The incident started because reporters of the four major Denver newspapers — the Post, the Republican, the Times, and the Rocky Mountain News — all ended up standing on the platform of the Denver Union Station in 1899. They were all there for the same purpose, and for no purpose at all. They had a deadline to meet, they had no story, and they were simply hoping that something would fall into their laps.
But it didn’t. Absolutely nothing happened at the station. No one interesting arrived, and their story deadlines still loomed. The reporters began to walk down 17th Street toward the Oxford Hotel (then relatively new, and still in business today), when Al Stevens of the Post told his compatriots that he was simply going to “fake it” and make a story up completely. The other three reporters, Jack Tournay, John Lewis, and Hal Wilshire, agreed to go along with the plot.
They arrived at the Oxford and originally dreamed up stories about a New York kidnapping, or a major oil development, but quickly realized that those stories could be fact-checked and disproved too easily. They needed something with a foreign angle that no one could verify. That’s when Lewis hit on the idea of doing a story about the Great Wall of China.
They concocted a tale that American engineers were on their way to China to give the Chinese government a quote to tear the landmark down. The Chinese, the story went, were eager to open up more European trade, and the wall was in the way. They left the Oxford, went to another hotel, signed in under four fictitious names, and paid the clerk to tell anyone who asked that east coast engineers had been through. The next day, headlines in all four newspapers blared the story that the Great Wall was coming down.
Not only did the citizens of Denver buy it, but soon newspapers in other cities began latching on to the story, even adding fake quotes from supposed Chinese officials. The Denver reporters swore each other to secrecy, and their role remained hidden for more than a decade until Wilshire was the only surviving member of the group, and told the tale of their ruse.
Now, that would be quite a hoax on its own, but this is a hoax squared. It would likely have died in 1899, except that a Denver songwriter named Harry Lee Wilber remembered it, and wrote an article about it in 1939. Wilbur, however, decided to make the story a wee bit more interesting in the second telling. The way he remembered it, the news stories reached China, and triggered the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. There is zero evidence that the story ever made it to Asia, and the causes of the Boxer Rebellion were numerous and complex. But the Boxer Rebellion part of the story wouldn’t die. It was reprinted in “Great Hoaxes of All Time” (1956), “More of Paul Harvey’s the Rest of the Story” (1981), and “One-Night Stands with American History” (2003), the latter being where I first saw it.
I recently saw it online as well, which triggered me to do some research. It took less than five minutes on the web to find multiple sources debunking the Boxer Rebellion connection. Of course, I then lost an hour learning about the real causes of it, but that’s my fault, not the hoax.
Our ability to be fooled is amplified by our desire to believe the underlying story. And that makes these kinds of internet hoaxes and misdirections all the more dangerous in a polarized political era where people with nefarious motives produce things that are intentionally misleading and inflammatory, but contain just enough truth to make us want to believe. Our saving grace is that the internet now puts the ability to debunk, to fact check, and to verify, just a few clicks away.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.