Anatomy of a Hoax: How Abraham Lincoln Invented Facebook

by Nate St. Pierre on May 10, 2012

Two days ago I told the internet that Abraham Lincoln Filed a Patent for Facebook in 1845, and the internet believed it.

This article will do two things: 1) give a short answer to the main questions generated by the original story, and 2) deconstruct the entire experience for anyone wanting a peek behind the scenes.

The Short Answer

The original story is 100% fabricated. It’s a tip of the hat to P.T. Barnum’s celebrated hoaxes (or humbugs) and Abe Lincoln’s tall tales. Absolutely nothing in it is true, except for the existence of the circus graveyard and the Lincoln Museum, both of which I would like to visit someday. The main image is a (very poorly) Photoshopped copy of a newspaper from Massachusetts. This was meant to be an easy one to debunk – there are clues throughout the entire article telling you it’s a hoax (detailed in the second part of this article).

I wrote it for a few reasons. Here they are, in order of importance:

  1. I wanted to do something fun that would make me (and others) laugh
  2. I was tired of all the same old boring blog posts rolling past me that day
  3. I was officially launching my consulting services the next day, so I wanted a bigger audience
  4. I wanted to illustrate one of the drawbacks to our “first and fastest” news aggregation and reporting mentality, especially online

This isn’t my first rodeo in the “poke the internet” department, but I only do it every 2-3 years or so. The last thing I did on this scale was when I hijacked the Fast Company Influence Project. The one before that I would prefer to remain anonymous on.

I actually spend the vast majority of my time (the bulk of the last three years) doing philanthropy work – building innovative platforms that allow people to make a difference for others. For instance, here’s what I spent 2011 doing, in addition to my day job:

In short, the whole thing was done to have some fun, illustrate a point, and help me with my work. I really do hope you enjoyed it and thought it was a fun read. If you have any other questions, leave ‘em in the comments; I’m sure I’ll respond to some. First one to give me a tl;dr gets a cookie. And if anyone actually reads the whole thing, I’ll give ’em a dollar.

p.s. Yes, that is me in the picture, and yes, that is how I look when I plan hoaxes . . . and eat in old diners.

The Deconstruction

I’m gonna warn you ahead of time – I’m pretty sure there will be verb tense changes throughout this deconstruction, because I’m going to be dealing with some weird time things, my brain will be jumping back and forth between what I was thinking and writing and what I’m currently thinking and writing, it’s late, I’m tired, and so I think I’ll just do the best I can and let it go at that.

Also it’s long, so here are some jumps to help:
Background | Foreground | Framing | Writing | Expectations | Execution | Results | The Point

The Background

I like hoaxes because they are complex (at least the ones that I enjoy). You know how it’s fun to pull a prank or practical joke on someone? For instance, you’re on a cross-country road trip with your family, and you stop at a fast food place for lunch. Your brother gets a call and puts his phone on the table when he’s done, instead of in his pocket. When he gets up to refill his soda, you slip the phone into your own pocket and tell the rest of the clan to keep quiet. He doesn’t notice, and you all finish lunch and leave.

In the car two hours later you ask him to GPS where you are. He goes to pull out his phone, and . . . hilarity ensues. Well, maybe not hilarity, since this is a very low-level prank, but you all get to have a little fun with him for a couple minutes while he’s uncomfortable, yeah? Then you give him his phone back, he’s relieved, you all repeat the best joke of the moment, and this time he laughs with you. No damage done, just a little fun.

That’s what a hoax is to me, except you get to work on a much larger scale. The challenge is to play a practical joke on as many people as you can. In this case, the entire internet.

Of course you also have to play by the rules, which adds to the difficulty. Because the prank version of a hoax is not a lie. It’s a short-term, reversible scenario, done for a specific reason (usually to make people laugh or think). You will be found out, hopefully by your own admission at the proper time, and the biggest trick of all is to not look like a complete jackass when that time comes. I made a mistake when I pulled the hijack a couple years ago, and came out looking less-than-stellar. Granted, that wasn’t a hoax, it was actually something I was trying to do for good, but it looked like a hoax gone wrong while covering the tracks of trying to win a silly game (that won’t make sense to most people, but don’t worry about it.) You learn as you go, though.

Once you’re done, the people you’ve sucked into the game shouldn’t be upset. They should be laughing along with you, or amused at your cleverness, or thoughtfully considering the point you made. Of course, some people are going to be angry because that’s how they are. But as we all know, haters gonna hate, especially on the internet, and there’s not too much you can do about it. Personally, I choose to ignore it. For the other 80% of us, however, we should all be smiling when it’s over.

The Foreground

Monday was an off day for me. Deals were falling through, people weren’t responding, income was slow, the internet was putting out a ton of lame posts, and I was in a perpetual state of crabbiness. By the time evening rolled around, I decided I was going to do something just for me. Something fun.

Earlier in the day I had been playing around writing funny dialogue for famous historical figures with a writer buddy of mine, David Duhr of WriteByNight. I had suggested placing said figures outside of their usual elements, for instance, interacting with modern-day technology. He said he didn’t want it to end up like Bill & Ted, and I agreed.

When I sat down at my kitchen table at 9:30pm, I was (crabbily) thinking about putting Abraham Lincoln in some sort of interesting scenario. For some reason he’s a really cool guy to write for (see: Vampire Hunter references). I took Duhr’s advice in not putting him in touch with modern-day technology, but I still wanted to play around with the idea.

I started doing some research on Lincoln, specifically Springfield, where I knew he lived and there was a museum dedicated to him. I think it was then that I came across the Springfield (Massachusetts) Gazette in Google Image Search, and I realized that I could probably mess around with it a little bit and turn it into a halfway believable early version of a Facebook page.

From there it was just a short leap to decide that Lincoln himself would be the original creator of Facebook, and had filed a patent for it way back in the mid 1800’s, belittling the arguments between Zuck and the Winklevi in the modern day. I loved it.

At that point I realized that I had more than a short story idea – I had the potential for a hoax.

The Framing

If Lincoln were responsible for creating the first version of Facebook, how awesome would that be? As soon as you turn the idea over in your mind, you realize how much you want it to be true, for so many reasons. The sheer fun of knowing that good ol’ Abe scooped the whole 21st century would be enough to make people giddy. So I already had the first element of a good hoax: something that people want to be true.

But if I wanted to turn this into something big, what would be the point? There always has to be a point. For my first global hoax (which I’m not going to go into here), the point was to get people to think about a very serious topic, and it worked. There’s nothing really serious about Lincoln inventing Facebook, though, so the other option is going for the laugh at the end. I thought about it for a few minutes and decided that if someone told me this story, and then I later realized it wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be terribly funny, just a bit disappointing.

So how would I get people laughing along with me at the end, instead of thinking I was just a douchebag who lied to them? As I mentioned, another way to get the good will at the end is to have people be amused at your cleverness. I then thought that if I could lead them to the “discovery” in such a way that was both interesting and entertaining for them, the final disappointment of it not being true in the end would be made up for in the fun they had in getting there.

Additionally, if I could get some of the “real” news outlets to believe it, most people would be amused to see them duped, and I could use it as a lesson as to the downside of the feeding-frenzy mentality of the social web. (Honestly, I didn’t think this would happen on a large scale, but you saw how it went.)

And finally, I had a blog post already scheduled for Wednesday officially announcing my new consulting stuff, so I figured landing with a big splash the day before wouldn’t hurt – I could use it as an example for blogger clients who tell me that they can’t do anything to attract attention without a big platform.

With all that going for it, I decided it’d be worth it to throw another hoax out into the world and see how it went. Now all I had to do was figure out how to present it.

If you just flat-out tell someone that Lincoln invented Facebook, one of two things will happen. The majority of people, used to seeing such stupid things fly by them in today’s information glut, will just say “No he didn’t. You’re an idiot. Go away.” The minority will believe you for a while, but then when they find out it isn’t true, they’ll say “You’re an idiot. Go away.” You have to find a better way to give them the (false) facts.

I decided to tell them a good story.

The Writing

Okay, the goal was to write a story that would lead people to the realization that Abraham Lincoln invented Facebook, and to get them there in a fun way. This recollection may come out a bit jumbled, because I’ll probably throw out some stream-of-consciousness thoughts that came to me as I started to think about writing. Bear with me.

First things first: as everyone knows, if Lincoln had invented Facebook, then he would have invented Facebook! Kudos to all the people who said that in their writeups. They made me laugh. But I couldn’t have him actually succeeding with this invention, because if he had, it would be common knowledge. And I know that most people wouldn’t really know or care, they’d share anyway, but I still wanted to make it something a little more obscure.

I decided on a failed patent application, because that would show his ultimate victory, and he would just end up being viewed by us today as way ahead of his time (I think I wrote something like that in the meta description for the post).

There. We have the final conclusion – we have the payoff for the reader. This is the nugget that they want to share (and we want them to share): Abe files a patent for Facebook in 1845, which pretty much means he invented it.
Now let’s work backwards. How do we bring the reader to this realization in such a way that they’re heavily invested in the outcome, and are not only happy about the payoff, but excited to share it? I thought the best way to go about it was in the “accidental hero” form, told in the first person, letting the reader walk with me (because obviously I need to be the first person, since it’ll be done on my blog) every step of the way, and share in my thrill as I discover it.

We need a series of elements that build excitement. The piece will be long for a blog post, but it’ll probably be too short for victories and setbacks, leading to comeback and ultimate victory. So let’s write it more in a stepwise progression, where each piece builds on the last. More like a treasure hunt.

I know there’s a Lincoln museum in Springfield that I could drive to on a day trip if I had to. A bit farther than is practical, but no one will know that. So I’ll take the day off, head down there, find the patent, and announce it to the world here on the blog (before the museum itself does – that’ll give everything a sense of urgency).

Now we have the basic framework for the whole story, so all that’s left is to build out the treasure hunt AND remember to play by the rules, adding in clues to the meta story (the hoax) as we go, because it has to be evident when people re-examine the story that the signs were there all along, like in a movie.

Also like a movie, you want the story to keep them engaged deeply enough that they A) read the whole thing and B) get to the point of willing suspension of disbelief, so by the end of it they’re rooting for you as they’d root for the hero of the movie. (All the better if the hero could just as easily be any one of them – make it relatable, nothing too fancy).

I was thinking about the clues I needed to put into the story when P.T. Barnum came to mind, because I knew he was a legendary hoaxer. I also knew that he had formed his circus somewhere in Wisconsin. I thought it was Madison, but I looked it up, and by happy coincidence, it was actually in Delavan, which could be right on my way to Springfield. Yes!

While researching the origins of his circus there, I found a link to the circus graveyard, which I thought was fascinating. I decided to make that cemetery my first stop after leaving my house that morning. So now I have my itinerary: leave Milwaukee early, hit the graveyard in the morning, head to Springfield by lunch, spend a couple hours there, then get back home by evening, write during the night, publish in the morning.

I start thinking about the clues I need to drop. There were a lot, but I’ll recount the ones that were in the actual writing:

“You guys are gonna love this story…” From the opening lines we know it’s a story, not a blog post.

“Here’s how it all started…” It’s like saying “Once upon a time…”

Everything P.T. Barnum. I thought the name would probably be enough, but I pulled the whole quote about him from Wikipedia, including him promoting celebrated hoaxes. Then I pulled the “sucker born every minute” quote, which I loved, but thought was over the top. Still, I left it in. And finally, I linked right to his article which, had you looked at it, would have showed you that he started the circus in 1871, well after Lincoln died.

“Bluffed P.T. and Honest Abe with a pair of deuces.” My favorite one. This line, and the accompanying scenario on the gravestone, is what gave me three things: the clue I needed to get down to Springfield, another clue to the hoax, and most importantly, a sense of mystery and adventure that would keep the reader engaged. However, I had to go back and rewrite the beginning to say that I left my phone at home, because I know that if I had really seen that gravestone, I would have taken a picture of it, and it would be shared in the post. Of course this came in handy throughout, as I had no photographic evidence of anything, and I could constantly mourn the fact that I didn’t have my phone this one day, easily relatable to anyone, and building the sense of camaraderie for the “hero.”

I mentioned bluffing one more time, and that was it for the obvious references. But when I got down to the actual patent section, I was going to delete the part where Lincoln was talking about privacy controls, because I thought it was way too over the top and obvious, but I decided to leave them in for good measure. Still didn’t matter.

So now we have our complete story: a random day trip, interesting locations, intriguing connections (Morty besting Abe and P.T. at poker was by far my favorite part of the story), hints at the meta story, a little bit of suspense, and, once the reader has invested probably 6 minutes reading all 2,000 words, and is ready for the hero to win out, they get the HUGE payoff of Abraham Lincoln inventing Facebook. It plays out like a movie! It’s awesome! And he’s one of us! Anyone could have stumbled across that! And he’s just rushed home to type up the story and share it with everyoneanditsgonnabebreakingnewsandeveryonewillbetalkingaboutitomg!!!

And so they click the Facebook share button. Because why wouldn’t you?

Here’s the thing: If you’re gonna go the hoax route, you gotta sell out and go all in. You have to do so much that when people see the first red flag and stop to think about it for a second, they say to themselves, “Selves, this has to be real. There’s no way anyone would spend so much time and effort on something that was fake.”

And that’s where you can be successful, because you do spend the time. It took me 5 hours to write that article. It took me 9 hours to write this one. As with anything else, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

I went to bed at 3:00am on Monday night, happy that I had taken the time to do it right. Tuesday promised to be a much better day. I had a fascinating story that was borderline unbelievable, but with just enough plausibility that it could quite possibly be true, all centered around hot tech and a beloved historical figure. It was a great recipe for shareability.

The Expectations

I thought that social media and bloggers would go nuts with this right away. It’d start spreading before anyone realized what was going on, and of course once that ball gets rolling, it doesn’t stop until further news on the story supersedes it, or the wave of opinion (usually from credible sources) turns it into a known hoax. I just didn’t know how long that would take.

From all the clues I put in there, I thought it would take maybe an hour or so for enough comments to be piled on the site calling it a hoax, and of course those would be voted up by people who actually read the article, and then any legitimate news source that read it would A) figure it out on their own just from reading B) see those comments there or C) do the 30 seconds of fact-checking it would take to debunk the story.

I figured I’d have a blast of a few hundred shares in the first hour or two, maybe a couple of bigger orgs would promote it for a hot minute, and then a few sources would report on the hoax, and the whole thing would rise and fall by afternoon, leaving me with a few thousand pageviews, some kudos from around the web, and nice little day.

I’m not an optimist by nature. I’m much more practical, and these things just don’t usually get that big. It turns out that my expectations were way low. This thing got a lot bigger than I thought it would, and the reason why was one of the original points I came up with while writing it.

The Execution

This part was super simple. I already knew I had gold with this article, since I’d spent so much time crafting a quality piece. I figured it would sell itself as soon as I put it out there. So at 10:00am, my normal posting time, I set it live and put out one tweet, facebook, etc, on my few social media platforms. I also threw out a dozen or so DMs to friends, just for good measure. The message was something along the lines of “Want to have some fun with the internet today? 😉 [link].”

After that I observed strict radio silence about the post. I didn’t know how big it would get, or how fast, so I wanted to get a feel for where it was going before I said anything about it. I carried on with most of my normal (public) activities.

Throughout the day as it got bigger and bigger, I knew I’d have to address it. It was becoming “a thing.” But I think I did something really smart, and decided not to say anything about it except to a credible news source (I was getting emails, tweets, and calls from reporters by that time).

I knew I wanted to give it two full days to circulate, then write a follow-up article (this one) for Thursday. My “official” thoughts would be here, and if I decided to speak publicly about it apart from my site, it would only be with the big players, so I could be sure that it was done professionally and hit the most people.

Between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, I did an interview and a podcast with CNN, a phone interview with The Atlantic, and another one with the Washington Post. I figured those would give me all the “official” coverage I needed.

Then I shut down again and started work on this beast of an article. So here we are. Would you like to see the results?

The Results

Pretty much the whole internet picked this thing up and ran with it. I was really surprised that the first shouts of “hoax” didn’t come in the comments section until the 3rd hour or so. One guy questioned it pretty severely, but then he deleted his own comment. I think he wanted the fun to continue.

In addition to social media and bloggers, it ran as fact on a lot of big-name sites and news aggregators. That’s the thing that surprised me the most. I knew it would happen, but I thought only one or two would run it without fact checking, and the rest would shout it down. But only one or two actually caught the joke, and the rest just kept promoting it! It was crazytown for a good long while.

I can tell you that virtually nobody checked with me to ask if it was true. I think I got a few tweets and one email the whole day asking about the veracity of the article. I didn’t answer them because they weren’t from a big news org. The first email I answered was from The Atlantic late in the day, and that turned into an interview in the early evening. The other interviews I did all emailed and/or called me.

That night, with one interview in the bag, I answered a few tweets with short comments saying that I’d post more on Thursday. I did the same all day yesterday. Once this article is live, I’ll start interacting more everywhere.
I ignored all comments on the post, and will continue to do so. Big posts always get big haters, although some did make me laugh, and I did/will email them personally to say hi.

I commented, tweeted or emailed a few of the bigger orgs that ran the original story, telling them that I’d be giving the explanation on Thursday, so they could have a heads-up to update their article. I’ll follow up with them once it’s live, so that their posts will include links to both my original piece and this one, closing the loop on the story.

I emailed the curator of the Lincoln Museum to say I hope I didn’t cause too much trouble (they got a ton of calls from all over the world – news coverage here). He said it’s all good, and invited me down, which I would love to do.

In terms of numbers, it’s pretty staggering. I posted the original at 10:00am on Tuesday, and I grabbed a screenshot at 10:00pm on Wednesday. Here are the numbers after 36 hours live (minus the 2 hours the server crashed from traffic overload), for that one page:

16,000 Facebook Likes

104,463 Unique Pageviews (click to enlarge image)

And that’s just on my website. There are a lot more on all the news sites that reposted their own stories and links. This story definitely went into the millions. Not bad for a quick idea and a five-hour writing session, I think.

Links! Here we go:

If you search any combination of the keywords, you’ll find TONS of sites that linked to the original or discussed the story, etc. I saw hundreds of links on just the second day.

This one was my favorite, from Breaking Copy: Lincoln, Facebook and Journalism. I thought it had the best analysis of what was going on.

My second favorite was from Mashable, who played it cool and waited for the dust to settle before running this article (with video!)

And here are the articles where I actually talked to the reporters on the phone:
[was actually on the front page of CNN for a while]
[best line: “Lincoln never envisioned creating a way for his contemporaries to share cute pictures of their cats, much less play FarmVille (which no doubt would have seemed less exotic in rural 19th-century America).”]
[this whole article is a great read]
[best line: “So while the Internet, today, is disappointed in St. Pierre … St. Pierre, for his part, is sort of disappointed in the Internet.”]
[glad she told people not to send me hate mail]
[best line is the title: “Abraham Lincoln didn’t invent Facebook, says the guy who wrote the piece saying he did”]

As of the time of this writing, it hasn’t even been live for two days yet, so I’m sure some even better articles will come up. And I’ll tell you something else – I’ve done stuff like this in the past, and I’ll do it again, just because it’s fun and I enjoy it. But while I’m here, I may as well make another observation . . .

The Point

Amazing content sells.
You can create it.
I can help.

And that is my final homage to P.T. Barnum, a man who, in addition to being a showman, businessman, hoaxer, author and philanthropist, also knew the value of a little well-placed self promotion.

Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen.

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