Home Opinion Op-Ed ‘Fake quotes’ pandemic: Don’t always believe what you read

‘Fake quotes’ pandemic: Don’t always believe what you read

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Dr. Syed Talha Shah |

‘The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new,’ said ‘Socrates’. Interestingly, however, this Socrates is not the renowned historical Greek philosopher that you thought about! Rather, this quote is from a fictional ‘Socrates’ from a 1980 American book, ‘Way of the Peaceful Warrior’!

This was the point of mockery at Ivanka Trump, a couple of weeks ago, when she mistakenly quoted this ‘fictional Socrates’ as if it were the ancient Socrates! After realizing her mistake, she quickly deleted her tweet and added this line at the end: “Socrates (note: a fictional character not the philosopher)”.

However, this didn’t deter the social media users from withholding themselves; one such person tweeted:

The secret of misidentified quotes is to put a dash line before any famous person’s name immediately following the quote.”

-Abraham Lincoln (note: a fictional character but still giving the wrong impression)

This is not her first time! A few years ago, Ivanka misquoted the renowned Physicist Albert Einstein as saying “If the facts don’t fit the theory, changes the facts!”

Speaking of this quote, a Physics Professor at UC Berkeley, Richard Mulle, remarked (on Quora) “Einstein said just the opposite. If a theory disagreed with the fact, you had to throw out the theory” Thus when Ivanka misattributed this ‘quote’, Colin, an American author, tweeted “The fact that Einstein never said any such thing only makes this tweet that much more perfect.”

Is the Internet Making ‘Fake Quotes’ a ‘Pandemic’?

‘Misquoting’ famous personalities have been there since ages but it has remarkably grown since the advent of the internet and social media. Fancy looking posters with an ‘eye-catching image’ with a ‘quotation’ written in an ‘attractive font’ are the perfect recipe to go viral. If the quote ends with the name of a famed personality, the audience becomes even more ‘generous’ in spreading the words of ‘wisdom’ and ‘inspiration’! However, not all of these ‘quotes’ are reliably attributed!

Many fake stories and quotes attributed to George Washington (including the famous cherry tree story) stem from the book ‘The Life of Washington’ by Mason Weems.

Fun Fact: The famed British-American, John Oliver has created a satirical website ‘Definitely Real Quotes’, which contains ridiculous ‘quotes’ bearing the names and pictures of famous historical personalities. Speaking about it, Oliver said. “Either we care about the accuracy of quotes and make sure they’re correctly sourced. Or, we don’t care at all.”

How do these Fake Quotes Become Popular?

Writing the name of a popular personality raises the ‘credibility’ of the quote. Since many of these personalities were from the ‘past’ (or even ‘ancient past’), it is generally difficult to ascertain what they actually wrote and said in comparison to what is being attributed towards them.

Furthermore, many of them spoke languages that are different in which they are being quoted. This makes it even more difficult to trace the original sources (sources are rarely mentioned with most such ‘quotations’ anyways) considering the fact that the ‘translations’ could have paraphrased the original sayings, sometimes at the expense of ‘accuracy’!

Read more: The Gulf crisis: Fake news shines spotlight on psychological warfare

Speaking about why people frequently misquote the late American civil right activist, Maya Angelou, Rebecca Seales articulates this phenomenon in these words:

“Basically, it’s because the lines she did write were so good. Her quotability makes her a magnet for misattribution.” Got a sage, compassionate line with no recorded owner? Just say it was Maya, the logic runs.

Unless it’s too spiritual, in which case try Gandhi or Mother Theresa. Or too girlish – then there’s Marilyn Monroe; or too spiky when the obvious candidates are Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or Winston Churchill. All eminently quotable men and women – and too dead to disclaim the words they never said.

Words that sound nice, graphics that look nice and a name that strikes memories are enough for a fake quote to travel far and wide!

To rule out the existence of a ‘quote’, one has to comb through all the available speeches and writings of the person to whom the quote is ascribed which is obviously not an easy task.

Fun Fact: Many fake stories and quotes attributed to George Washington (including the famous cherry tree story) stem from the book ‘The Life of Washington’ by Mason Weems. In the words of Reader’s Digest “Weems endeavored both to inspire good behavior in young Americans via inspiring, largely made-up anecdotes, and to turn a tidy profit in the popular history market—which he did; his book was an instant bestseller”

Examples of Fake Quotes

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something – Plato.” Whereas the message in this quotation does bear some ‘wisdom’, Dr. Dave Yount argues that the attribution towards the ancient Greek Philosopher, Plato, is most likely false!

The name of Plato, along with some other famous ancient philosophers, people like Socrates, Aristotle, and Confucius, is frequently seen in quotes bearing ‘words of wisdom’ many of them are not rightly attributed! Same is the case with quotations from many other notables throughout the history such as Newton, Einstein, George Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Rumi, Buddha, Karl Marx, Lenin, Gandhi, and Mandela. (see some examples here, here, here, here and here)!

Read more: Fake news strikes again: Mob kill 5 in India

An article on New York Times made an interesting remark in this regard: “How fitting that the man (Mark Twain) often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” most likely did not invent the phrase”!

Fun Fact: They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions’ by Paul and John enlists a number of misquotations along with showing how “rightists and leftists, and atheists and evangelists all have at times twisted and even invented the words of eminent figures to promote their own ends”!

 

While the Silence may not be ‘misquoted’ indeed, safety from the ‘fake quotes’ is still not guaranteed!

Does it really Matter?

Some might think that what is wrong with sharing ‘inspirational and thought-provoking words’ even if they may be wrongly attributed! One may indeed share such ‘words’ for their ‘strong message’ but upon attributing it to someone, the things can become different! Apart from becoming a piece of ‘misinformation’, this can have consequences on how the people perceive that ‘personality’ to whom the quote got ‘attributed’.

You can also try checking some of the ‘famous quotes’ from people who are working on to ‘debunk’ the ‘fake quotes’. Gregory F. Sullivan (alias Garson O’Toole), who runs the Quote Investigator website, is one such figure.

This ‘confusion’ may be used by ‘some’ to ‘knowingly or unknowingly’ rally for their own cause and benefits (including, political and financial gains or spewing hatred against a community/group)! Thus, numerous misconceptions can possibly arise from some of these ‘innocent-looking inspirational quotes’! Fake news, bogus health messages and deceptive political advice can all stem from ‘misquotes’!

If the quotes are attributed to a personality that is ‘followed’, then the ‘followers’ might follow the ‘wrong instructions’ religiously! This very much applies to quotations attributed to religious leaders. Such ‘misattributed’ words can, therefore, be seen as ‘religious/spiritual injunctions’ by the ‘devotees’!

Hence, if a quote is being used to propound certain political, religious or financial causes, make sure to ‘verify’ them before believing or sharing it!

Read more: Fake News: an age old phenomenon

Fun Fact: Muslim scholars have compiled entire treatises that comprise of sayings that had been falsely attributed towards the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). By enlisting them, the scholars intended to caution the scholars and masses against such fabrications!

How to Spot Fake Quotes?

It can be difficult to check a ‘quote’ that doesn’t mention a source (which is actually the case with many ‘quotes’ nowadays). To rule out the existence of a ‘quote’, one has to comb through all the available speeches and writings of the person to whom the quote is ascribed which is obviously not an easy task. Thus, the ‘misattributions’ find it easier to creep into the speeches and writings of even learned men.

The safe way to avoid falling into the trap of misquotes can be to suffice on reading and quoting from ‘trusted’ sources only. Fancy sounding quotes without mentioning a source are likely to be misattributions. Also, if you see that same quote being attributed to various personalities, it’s a clear indication of ‘misattribution’! If you’re reading a translated quote, make sure that the translator is well versed with the language and, preferably, with the thoughts of the person being quoted.

 Quote Investigation

You can also try checking some of the ‘famous quotes’ from people who are working on to ‘debunk’ the ‘fake quotes’. Gregory F. Sullivan (alias Garson O’Toole), who runs the Quote Investigator website, is one such figure. He used to teach and research at the Johns Hopkins computer science department and now spends his time in writing.

Whereas the message in this quotation does bear some ‘wisdom’, Dr. Dave Yount argues that the attribution towards the ancient Greek Philosopher, Plato, is most likely false!

In ‘Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations’ he has published some famous misquotation along with examining what causes misquotations and how they spread (some of these ‘reasons’ can be read in his interview to NYT). While talking to the Vice news, he described a common way for the spread of ‘fake quotes’ on the internet in the following words:

“One reason that things get misquoted is that when people go online and they type in some phrase from a quotation, often near the top of Google or Bing will be one of these major databases, like Brainyquote. And it turns out that they’re filled with misinformation, but people don’t know to distrust the citations provided by these websites.

Read more: Indian charged over Commonwealth Games ‘fake media contingent’

So they simply repeat them. And sometimes they type in a phrase, and it appears that a thousand websites all say Mark Twain said it, and so they believe that it must be true. You’d think how can these thousands of people be wrong? But it turns out that they are.

Conclusion

So next time when you see a quote, especially on the internet, make sure you believe it only if it has been attributed to your ‘beloved’ (or ‘hated’) personality reliably!

This is definitely a real quote!

Syed Talha Shah is a Medical Doctor and takes a deep interest in international affairs. He can be contacted on Twitter at @Drsyedtalhashah. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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