How a 10th grader in Alexandria, Minn., changed history

Cinco de Mayo is coming up on Wednesday Saturday, a day we honor the poor research abilities of America’s school children and some of the country’s businesses.

Can you spot the problem here?

Or in this blog from a cupcake maker?

There was no Jimmy Lovrien in the army of Mexico. But there is one in the newsroom of the Duluth News Tribune. He was in the 10th grade in Alexandria, Minn., in 2011 when his Spanish teacher assigned the class to write a paper on Cinco de Mayo and, knowing everyone would just lift it from Wikipedia, edited the page to replace Ignacio Zaragoza’s name with his own. Voila! A Gen. Jimmy Lovrien who lives in history.

Lovrien writes in his News Tribune column that it became a lesson in digital literacy:

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.

Lovrien writes that he’s still best known in his hometown for the prank. History is cruel that way.

(h/t: Jay Sieling)

  • BReynolds33

    The best part is, no one who lifted it thought to themselves, “Jimmy? In a 19th century Mexican army? Jimmy? Really?”

  • That. Is. Awesome.

  • Jeff C.

    My 9th grade son has been taught by his school to use Wikipedia as a source for sources. In other words, go there to see what sources were used for their article, but don’t use their article as a source of information for your research paper. This is a great reason why that is a good rule.

  • Greg W

    I remember the phony Mankato homepage when we were learning about trusting information on the Internet. I wish that was still around.

    • Jay Sieling

      It still is. I use that in class as well. http://city-mankato.us/ It has now fallen to the fifth hit on a Google search of “Mankato MN”

  • Jeff

    I checked the history (like I don’t have better things to do) and the edit only lasted for about 1 hour 15 minutes. So news travels fast. After another attempt to make the same edit in May 2012, his account was permanently banned from Wikipedia. His other contributions included numerous edits of the Jefferson HS page such as:

    The Cardinals represent Jefferson’s sports teams. They are a family of passerine birds found in North and South America.

    Many think Jefferson High School was named after Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s 3rd president. In fact, it was named after The Jeffersons, an American sitcom.

    • Jay Sieling

      Prior to the Cinqo de mayo edit, he also posted that Skania (a middle cambrian arthropod) was a Swedish punk rock band. And that a character from Grey’s anatomy invented the lightbulb.

      The edit in 2012 was made citing an actual source for Jimmy Lovrien being the general – the West Roxbury Patch – which had posted the 2011 error (it’s still posted https://patch.com/massachusetts/westroxbury/why-is-cinco-de-mayo-celebrated ) That edit lasted only 2 minutes and prompted the indefinite ban.

      • There should be a festival in his honor in Alexandria every year.

      • Jeff

        His spirit still lives on in the current Jefferson HS page:

        Jefferson Senior High School also had a music program, where dedicated and talented directors taught the art of music.

    • KariBemidji

      As an alum, I always thought it was named after the street it was built on. The powers that be in Alexandria are not that creative.

    • >>In fact, it was named after The Jeffersons, an American sitcom.<<

      Brilliant.

    • Joseph

      Although some edits can last far longer. My High School Librarian made himself the Dhali-Lhama on Wikipedia to teach the same lesson — that lasted for two months before being caught. And my friend and classmate edited the entry for the “East India Company” so its history reflected the plot of the Pirates of Caribbean movie franchise. That lasted about three weeks before it was caught. (We logged on every few days to see if the edit was still there, and marveled at how long blatantly untruthful information was allowed to exist on there.)

  • LieutenantLefse

    This reminds me of a story going around years ago claiming that the sounds ATMs make are artificial, generated by a speaker to reassure the user their cash is on the way. A whole bevy of sites propagated this idea in a confusing web of citations that all traced back to single line in a sidebar in a London newspaper, whose author apparently just completely made it up to flesh out a list.

    Also, as a fellow Jefferson HS grad: go Cards.

  • Amusing, but it’s hardly a service to the community to prank edit Wikipedia when fake news and alternative facts are already in ample supply.

    • James Roth

      It was before fake news and alternative facts took over the universe and served as a warning.