In the last few years, fake news and other misinformation has become a serious issue. With all the viral memes, hoaxes, phony news sites, and troll farms, even the most diligent internet users can be fooled. It's getting harder to know what's really true and who can be believed. You almost have to treat every day as April Fool's Day.
It's a big and growing problem, but it's not completely new. Hoaxes, fake photographs, and inaccurate news articles have been around a long time, and Colorado has seen its share. Consider, for example, the case of the mammoth potato. In September 1895, Scientific American magazine--a prestigious publication then and now--published the picture above, showing a farmer holding a potato of stupendous dimensions. The "Mammoth Potato", as the headline called it, was an 86-pounder, grown just up the road in Loveland!
The following month, Scientific American mentioned the giant spud again. This time the article read:
The photo picture of the mammoth potato we published on page 199 proves to be a gross fraud, being a contrivance of the photographer who imposed upon us as well as others. An artist who lends himself to such methods of deception may be ranked as a thoroughbred knave, to be shunned by everybody.
The genie was out of the bottle, though. Perhaps that's why the editors used such strong language--they knew the original article would be out there forever. Over a century later, DPL has a copy in our closed stacks, where we are preserving the mistake for posterity. Sorry, Scientific American.
As so often happens, the original article got far more attention than the retraction, and several other publications also published the image, thinking it was real. J.B. Swan, the potato farmer, was deluged with requests for cuttings from people who wanted to grow their own mammoth spuds. Others offered handsome sums for his prize, but as the Loveland Reporter noted:
A few days since J.B. Swan received a very favorable offer from a large firm of potato handlers for his mammoth 86 pound potato. It was wanted for exhibition--or the parties would buy it outright.
This offer brought about the fact of the disappearance of the wonderful potato--which theft was doubtless committed some three weeks ago.
[...] Mr. Swan, still wearing his smile, has visited Fort Collins, Greeley, Berthoud, Boulder, and Denver in search of his pet--but up to this time he has not succeeded in finding a trace of the thief or the spud.
A likely story. Was Mr. Swan, in fact, a thoroughbred knave? It's hard to say. The photo seems to have been made as part of a scheme by W.L. Thorndyke, the editor of the Loveland Reporter, to promote a local fair and help Swan sell some potatoes. With the help of photographer Adam Talbot, the pair created a fake image of Swan holding his giant potato, which may have been a wooden cutout of an enlarged image of a potato. According to Rick Padden, who wrote a play based on the incident called "The Great Loveland Potato Hoax", the picture seems to have started as a joke. Copies of the photo were passed around town and pinned to walls because people thought it was funny. Somewhere along the way a copy found its way to New York, and onto a desk at Scientific American.
Reading through the old newspaper articles, you get the impression that Swan,Thorndyke, and Talbot were buddies who all enjoyed a good prank. Perhaps they didn't realize the power of human gullibility, and never expected the joke to get out of hand. Or...maybe they really were knaves.
In any case, Alex Boese, who runs the online Museum of Hoaxes and has written a book on historical hoaxes, believes the photo was the first example of a viral image. It was a meme before the word "meme" was ever coined. Today, of course, false and misleading images go viral all the time. Some originate as innocent jokes, but others are purposefully misleading and malicious, and do real harm.
The best way to minimize that harm is for people to learn how to spot fake memes, phony news articles, and other misinformation. If you would like to learn more about detecting such thoroughbred knavery, come to one of our How to Spot Fake News classes next year!
Great post, Ross. The background on possibly the first viral photo was fascinating!
Thanks for the great post Ross. Looking forward to all these classes next year!
A great reminder that hoaxes and fake news have been with us for quite some time! And retractions remain largely ignored....