Jimmy Lovrien column: Wikipedia, the Mexican army and me
Cinco de Mayo is coming up this week, a day that, as a working journalist, will always remind me how important it is to carefully check my facts.
Years ago, my 10th-grade Spanish teacher assigned our class a "webquest" — an internet scavenger hunt — about the significance of the day in Mexican history. Knowing most classmates would go straight to Wikipedia, a crowd-sourced encyclopedia website where anyone can be an editor, for the answers, I made sure I got there first.
Since anyone can edit Wikipedia, I quickly deleted the Mexican army general's name, Ignacio Zaragoza, and replaced it with "Jimmy Lovrien."
I was hoping for a laugh only from classmates once they noticed.
Sure enough, when they reached the official Cinco de Mayo Wikipedia entry, confusion spread across the classroom — no one expected to read a classmate's name in that context.
The first line of the entry read: "Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for "fifth of May") is a Mexican civic holiday held on May 5 that commemorates Jimmy Lovrien, a general in the Mexican army, and his unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862."
Later that day, sitting around one of our cafeteria's circular tables, I shared my prank with some friends. One pointed out that it was still on Wikipedia several hours later (usually these bogus Wikipedia updates — let's call it vandalism — are taken down within minutes by other volunteer editors). I wondered: If it was on Wikipedia for so long, how many people might think it was real?
A quick Google search of "General Jimmy Lovrien" and "Jimmy Lovrien Cinco de Mayo" revealed dozens of blogs, forums, Facebook posts and Tweets that had copied that first line, crediting me as a Mexican general in 1862. Before long, it grew to hundreds.
It was May 4, 2011, the day before Cinco de Mayo, and the blogosphere was preparing their annual posts for the holiday.
"We have half price Coronas and margaritas," Tahoe Cruises wrote on Facebook. "Let's celebrate Jimmy Lovrien and the Mexican army's unlikely victory over French Forces at the Battle of Puebla. Mexico, Mexico, Mexico!"
Most pages just repeated what was written on Wikipedia verbatim.
Former NFL coach Joe Gibbs copied and pasted the line from Wikipedia into the lead of his "Top-Cinco (5) Influential Mexicans" post on his faith and football blog, Gameplan for Life, but I missed out on a spot on the actual list.
Misinformation travels fast on the internet, and the spreading of my name as a general in the Mexican army 150 years ago demonstrates the need for people to closely examine their sources of information — especially online.
Thankfully, this prank has been turned into a lesson on digital literacy.
English teachers and community college instructors in Alexandria, Minn., have added this story to their curriculum about reliable sources — just because it's on the internet doesn't mean it's true, and Wikipedia should not be used as a source in research.
"Thinking of you today, 'General,'" an instructor wrote in a message to me a few Cinco de Mayos ago. "You've provided the best lesson for my Technology Ethics and Philosophy courses. Love it!"
It was a lesson I was happy to learn firsthand. Now, when I see something online, I investigate it. What source is it coming from? Are other credible sources saying the same thing? It's something I keep in mind every day as I work not to tarnish my credibility as a journalist.
But despite turning over a new leaf, I know my sophomoric internet prank is still what I'm known for in my hometown.
Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and a former Wikipedia vandal. He is not a general in the Mexican army.