Beware Fake Quotes on Social Media

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.

How many of you saw this quotation attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.,  on at least a dozen people’s Facebook statuses earlier this week? After the news broke about the death of Osama bin Laden, this quote seemed to pop up everywhere, and its attribution to King no doubt increased its popularity.

The only problem is that King never said it. As it turns out, the above quotation came from . . . a 24-year-old grad student no one has ever heard of. The statement first appeared in conjunction with an authentic King quote, and in the process of being reposted and retweeted, the quotation marks got moved, and the entire thing was attributed to King.

Remember the stories of medieval monks putting a gloss on a text they were copying, and of later monks coming along and mistaking the gloss for the text, erroneously adding it to the original when they made their copies? Some of those additions hung around until the 20th century.

Or remember the Ronald Reagan speech from the early 1980s in which the speechwriter erroneously attributed a quote about “America being great because it is good” to Alexis de Tocqueville? That thing was endlessly recycled for years until some professor decided to scour Democracy in America for it, and came up empty.

Social media is great for spreading news quickly, but it can spread inaccuracies and misunderstandings just as rapidly. Word to the wise.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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6 Responses to Beware Fake Quotes on Social Media

  1. Matt Lee says:

    great post, i’m going to repost this on facebook and attribute it to myself

  2. worldtake says:

    Been watching this post for some time and waiting for your response my response to it above — was really curious as to your take on the subject and was frankly quite surprised that you did not respond.

    • Dr. J says:

      Your response?

    • Dr. J says:

      Oh, I see what happened. Your comment on this post got flagged for moderation because you had inserted links into it (standard WordPress thing), and I decided not to approve because you libeled me in it. If you’d like to have a civil discussion, which I’m all for, it’s best to avoid insinuating that I wish I could buy a slave today or making other wild accusations.

  3. worldtake says:

    Well,
    Now my response is not there, but it has been for the last two months for everyone to see?. And since you now took it off, I cannot look at that response to see what you mean about me supposedly libeling by accusing you of wanting to buy a slave. I am sure I did not say that exactly, but implied that your ancestors probably bought slaves. Does that mean you are now libeling me by putting words in my fingers?
    However, If you are white and you are from Alabama and your ancestors are from Alabama, then there is a likelihood that your ancestors did buy and own slaves along with a likelihood that they used the self-same arguments — using the same verses of the bible that the christian right uses today to argue that homosexuality is evil, to argue that verses in the bible support the owning of people. Of course along with that likelihood there is a tiny likelihood that you might not be white(what is white anyway? the whole idea of race is idiotic to me) or, if you are white, there is also a likelihood that your ancestors were poor and did not own slaves.
    Again, the text is gone, but I am sure that I did not accuse you personally of wanting to buy slaves in it.
    If I did make this charge, was it the charge of libel accurate? One can only be libeled by statements made by an expert in a given field and I am not a historian. If I were to make some sort of untrue statement about you as regards my expertise — the field of visual impairment, then you would have an argument there, but since condition of your vision was not mentioned, I did not libel you. I maintain that the REAL reason you did not answer my post, was simply because you don’t have a good rational answer for my conjecture. The reason for this is that none can be made for the outrageous irrational bigoted and downright evil arguments of the religious right. Again, bigotry is not a family value and never will be, no matter how many times the forces of the right dig it up, dust it off and present it yet again as righteousness.

    • Dr. J says:

      Your response was never visible to anyone but you. I don’t know why you can’t see it now; it’s still sitting in my moderation queue. I haven’t done anything to it.

      You used the word “predecessors,” which of course can be construed in ways other than “ancestors.” I think my interpretation of your remark was justified based on your previous comments on this post. (And in case you’re interested, I’m not from Alabama, and my family was in Illinois and Indiana during the nineteenth century. See how inferences on the basis of little to no evidence can invalidate all your theories about me?)

      I have perfectly good and rational responses to the other points you raised in your comment (which, by the way, had almost nothing to do with the original post). Is there any point in making them, given that you have decided a priori that those who disagree with you are “outrageous irrational bigoted and downright evil”? I’ll leave it to other readers of this blog to judge whether you have ever demonstrated through your comments that you are open-minded enough to make a sustained exchange on this subject worthwhile. To me, it looks like you’re only interested in performing the rhetorical equivalent of a drive-by shooting with all the ad hominem attacks. Those who disagree with you are not guilty until proven innocent of all the horrible crimes your imagination can conjure.

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