Just how fast do bad family trees spread?

+10 votes

I’ve come to the conclusion that allowing people to copy other ancestry tree’s to theirs, actually does more harm than good. In fact it allows for quick spread of bad trees, much like a disease.   Just yesterday, I found that someone had attached an extra child to my GGG grandfather.  What makes it worse, everyone ignores that fact that now they have his wife having a child a month after giving birth to one.  But now there are at least 10 trees, with this extra child.


I’m tempted to try an experiment.  I look and find a brick wall that a lot of people seem to be facing.  Then I create a tree  on ancestry with that brick wall ancestor and then simply make up parents, grandparents and siblings.   I could even purposely include some obvious errors, like having children born within 5 months of each other or wild jumps in birthplaces of children.  I of course would include no sources what so ever.  Or I could make things interesting and include a made up source.   Such as a reference to a book that does not exist.


I would then wait and much like a scientist, simply watch and see if anyone takes the bait and adds it to their tree.  I think it would be interesting to monitor just how quickly and wide this made up tree would spread.  Of course, I would monitor how many people would question the authenticity of the tree. 


It’s not ethical of course, but I think it would make for an interesting experiment.  


Of course the last part of the experiment would be to email all people with this bad tree, inform them that the information is completely made up and see just how many people delete it. 


I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, but you have to admit a person could actually write a paper on it. 



I’m saying this because, recently a fellow genealogist broke a brick wall that I was facing.  They really did their homework and with all the evidence, including DNA they have, it convinced me it is right.   Of course, I discover much to my dismay, that everyone else with this brick wall ancestor has either no parents or the wrong parents.   Just an example of a bad tree, being copied over and over again.  I’ve even emailed a few of them, telling them about this exciting new discovery.  Not a single person has responded. 


So I’m feeling rather cynical and somewhat depressed about it, hence this theoretical experiment.  What’s the use of doing your homework, using sources and being careful, when 30 other people, mindlessly copy whatever they find.  I really want to know just how fast a bad family tree could spread.

in The Tree House by Craig Albrechtson G2G6 Mach 7 (77.4k points)
Well disconnect the bad apple, anyway. Collaboration allows us all to do this
It is obvious that doing genealogy to most people is simply collecting what is found on the trees on the internet.

When I got a computer for doing research I read a warning that said there was a fifty percent error rate for posted trees.  I find it more of an 80% error rate now days.  In fact, for one couple in the WorldConnect site there were over 1,200 listings of which about half had the wrong parents listed and about the other half said the parents were "perhaps" or "maybe" or  "appeared to be" so and so.  Only  two or three trees had the correct information.  When you have over 1 thousand trees, unless they give a source, how do you know the info is correct?

This is why WikiTree has such great merit, because it emphasis sourcing.  This is why the internet is scary, it has become the new "bible".  Everything can be found on it and it is all true, so why waste your time reading "how to" books on researching, or attend a class or lecture or join a genealogy or history group.  From reading queries on the internet it is obvious most "genealogists" have not done the basics.
Susan, I want to, I really, really want to "disconnect the bad apple," particularly since "the bad apple" is sourced only by a book which everyone seems to think is the authority on this and "first-hand information remembered by the profile manager" (about someone who was born in 1763.) One other cousin and I (he's not on WikiTree) believe this is incorrect--the way it's laid out one of my gggs was born two years after her mother died. We have an alternate hypothesis, but we can't prove it. I left a message on the profile, which hasn't been touched by either PM in two years. I'm hoping that may, at the very least, get them to look more closely at the likelihood of what they've got. I started to change my Ancestry tree this a.m. to match what "everybody else" has, but I changed it back. I may be out of step with "everyone else" but that is just the way it is.
Hi All,
I am very new to WikiTree and the reason I joined was to try and correct some bad and un-sourced data related to my family tree. I have been researching my tree for over 30 years on a different platform.
I can tell you that bad data associated with WikiTree is finding it way into other family trees not associated with WikiTree.
Hi Shane, Thank you for joining WikiTree to improve some data quality issues in your ancestral lines. I guess if bad data flows from other tree platforms,  it can flow from WT too. Please do speak up whenever you find bad WT data if collaboratively fixing it yourself becomes too much. There are a lot of venues, projects and processes in place to ensure data integrity here is as high as possible.

12 Answers

+23 votes
Best answer

Don't do the experiment! You would never be able to retract that made-up tree, no matter how many emails you sent to people saying it was only pretend.

And the 'tree' would get copied and copied and copied - and think of all the misery of future genealogists when they encountered it!  I feel sick at the thought.

by Ros Haywood G2G6 Pilot (720k points)
selected by Diane Hildebrandt
+17 votes
Well, I suspect your experimental tree would spread as fast as any new flu virus - and that it wouldn't be stopped by your concluding email.

Somehow bad trees seem to spread faster than good ones  ;-)
by Eva Ekeblad G2G6 Pilot (312k points)
+10 votes
This is just another example of why I do not use Ancestry.  I tried for a 6 month period and saw so much bogus info it was not worth my time.
by Kevin Conroy G2G6 Mach 3 (36k points)
And I use it almost daily In addition to using it for genealogy, it holds  images of records that I have been using for an MA dissertation. The ones that I'm using are not indexed. I suspect many users don't realise the wealth of scanned records available.

 Don't shoot it as a repository. The trees need to be evaluated individually; are the sources cited really evidence of the'facts' they are attached to?
I agree Helen about the difference between the repository and the "trees" on ancestry.  

So many garbage trees!  However, I will continue to use Ancestry daily.  Just last night I found an image of the bounty land warrant given to my 6x great grandfather in 1786.  I read about its existence in a compiled family history but wanted to see the document.  I tried to find a copy that was not behind a subscription pay wall as I perfer to use that in my citation on wikitree but I could not find it anywhere.  It was not indexed on ancestry so I went to the repository for PA land warrants and began searching through the images and it was image 78 out of 700.  I got a little lucky there ;)  So now I have the image saved and referenced and without Ancestry I would likely not have found it and would have to rely on the secondary source.
I use Ancestry for the sources, ignore the trees

I ignore my own tree there, as it contains incorrect links, but I stash sources there, and correcting the links would sever them, and I'd lose what I've saved

One day, when I've used that information, I'll fix it, I suppose
Caryl, and I have found clues to similar sources on ancestry trees.
FamilySearch similarly have many scanned images that haven't yet been indexed or fully indexed.

My only frustration with Ancestry is that they don't correct scans when there are problems. I pointed out on three separate occasions that they were missing a section of the 1851 Census of England for Cornwall and then just gave up, and it took several emails back and forth for them to accept they had only scanned about 30 pages of a much longer book, and even then there was no guarantee it was going to be fixed. I just found the book elsewhere.
+10 votes
You are correct in all of your assumptions!! I do agree with the other respondents here that it would be a very bad idea to purposely put out a false tree of any kind. It will spread with the speed of light and can never be retrieved.

I have an Ancestry tree and I try very hard to keep it up to date and with correct information in hopes people will copy it. Some have but others, even though I have tried writing them, never change their erroneous information. It is too difficult for some to let go of what they believe even when presented with viable sources. I call these folks the "gatherers" rather than the "researchers". We should all strive to be researchers!!
by Virginia Fields G2G6 Pilot (194k points)
+10 votes
The bad tree info would spread like fire - very fast.

For me, the value in Ancestry's membership is access to the source documents they have. Everything Ancestry has is not available on Family Search for free. There are sources and resources on Ancestry that are not on FS and vice versa.

I do agree the family trees on Ancestry can often be terrible, and the errors multiply and conflate very fast. Family Search trees are just as bad in my opinion. Geni trees too, are, in my experience terrible.

I frequent these other places to see what is there and whether I feel any of the clues they contain are legitimate and worth my attention. If I can find a source to back up the clue I found, that's a plus. Descending from 'best sourced' 'worst sourced', I'd say my impression is for a particular line, I am more apt to find a sourced Ancestry tree than a sourced Family Search Tree, and I've rarely seen sources on Geni for profiles of interest to me.
by Susan Keil G2G6 Mach 4 (42k points)
+8 votes
Hi Craig,

I'd like to propose a different, but similar experiment: seeing how fast a "good" tree would spread. I'm sure it will be even faster than a "bad" tree! :)

I do of course know your frustration, as I'm sure a lot of Wikitreers do. But I think there's hope here on Wikitree! Although it requires a mindshift (on your "own" tree, you can guard it and keep it perfect, but Wikitree will never be perfect), it has a lot of mechanisms in place that give it a bias towards improvement (the stress on sources, discussion towards agreement, dna-evidencing, ...). This bias makes Wikitree unique, I think. Although it might not always seem that way, because WT grows at the same time as it improves (and for now maybe grows faster than it improves), this bias gives it a lot of potential on the long term. The growth rate will inevitably decrease someday in the future (there's only so many people/records to add), and the rate of improvement will increase, because good habits tend to spread just as easily as good (or bad) trees!

So while I do often share the frustration, I don't share the cynicism or depression :)
by Filip Beunis G2G6 (7.3k points)
I don't think so.  Confirmation bias is too strong.  When correct information conflicts with strongly-held incorrect information, the wrong stuff wins out.

I'll bet you could put up a tree with Pseudolus Mendax as an ancestor, and people would insist he was their 17x grandfather
+12 votes
Don't do it! I say this because I did it myself, although it was unintentional.

Years ago I had a private tree on Ancestry, which was a "working" tree. I randomly added people that "might" have been connected, with all the intentions of going back and doing real research and add sources.

Somehow that tree accidentally got set to "public", either by myself or a family member, and it was months before I realized it. And sure enough, it spread like wildfire and is now all over the Internet.

I messaged several of the people who copied it to no avail. They either didn't respond, or sent me nasty messages saying I had no idea what I was talking about.

Even though it was a stupid accident, I get sick every time I come across one of those bogus relations that are probably still being copied.
by Frances Weidman G2G6 Mach 1 (15.9k points)
+8 votes

The idea reminds me of the Sokal hoaxhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

I agree that it would spread quickly but putting the lid back on the box would be difficult; few would read your paper.

We are still dealing with frauds such as some of Anjou's pedigrees and he died almost 80 years ago.

by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (231k points)
+7 votes
You don’t need to put up a bogus tree - thousands of them already exist and they do spread like wildfire. There are at least four potential errors in my own tree that I see regularly copied into other trees. Put up the correct tree - and see how quickly that is copied. I’ve seen some changes in other trees based on what I’ve posted here.
by Fiona McMichael G2G6 Pilot (117k points)
+8 votes
Fiona is right.  You don't need to do the experiment because it's been done thousands of time already.  Countless times I have seen a series of trees that have copied each other right down to the typographical errors.

Even more commonly, I see Ancestry profiles for which the manager has accepted every hint, no matter how outlandish.  Wrong century, wrong continent--what do they care?  If you ask, they might tell you that they do that because they want to evaluate them later, but that is ridiculous because you can evaluate your ignored hints on Ancestry any time you want to.  Meanwhile, people with the most sources go to the top of the list when Ancestry provides other trees in hints, and that makes it ever harder to find anything useful.

Nevertheless, I do the best I can with my own tree.  Every now and then I get an inquiry from a conscientious user who wants to share real information (or sometimes I contact them).  That, plus Ancestry's good record collection, makes it worthwhile.
by Julie Kelts G2G6 Mach 7 (74.1k points)
+13 votes
Confession coming up. When Ancestry was new I got involved when I bought their software, cause what I'd written just didn't do the job. Then I found out it was connected to this internet place. Got to work, bliss. When I had a woman with unknown LNAB I called her Query. It never crossed my mind that anyone would copy what I had done and it was quite helpful being able to search for my Querys. A decade later they were everywhere, except on my tree. I cringe whenever I spot one.
by C. Mackinnon G2G6 Pilot (194k points)
+5 votes
Hi Craig,

Good intentions, but not a good idea. Rot spreads like wildfire. Accurate and sourced genealogy takes time. A scientist wouldn't 'sit back and see what happens'. That would be bad science and the spread of misinformation. Perhaps we should encourage new members and maybe some not so new members to review the Board for Certification of Genealogists "Genealogical Standards."
ago by Carol Baldwin G2G6 Pilot (102k points)

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