How Do We Stop Spreading "Famous Quotes" That Are Totally Fake?

Fake quotes grow like fungi across the Internet, but people just won't quit using them. Harriet Tubman is only one recent example.
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April 25, 2016
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harriet tubman, hoaxes, quotes, HIllary Clinton

Last week, the Treasury announced that it would be replacing Andrew Jackson's face on the U.S. $20 with Harriet Tubman's, honoring the famous abolitionist. It's a decision that a lot of people got very excited about, though some members of the Black community have pointed out that it comes with extremely loaded and complex social implications.

Almost immediately, Harriet Tubman quotes started circulating, and one in particular made the rounds at lightning speed: "I could have saved thousands — if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves."

Here's the thing, though: There's no historical evidence to suggest that she actually said it, and as W. Caleb McDaniel points out, it's actually a troubling thing to attribute to a former slave turned advocate for abolition.

The idea it expresses even seems perilously close to proslavery ideology as it existed in the early American republic. In his book, In the Name of the Father, Francois Furstenberg shows that many paternalist masters in the founding generation rationalized their slaveholding with the idea of 'tacit consent.' Having just overthrown a government to which they did not consent, American patriots told themselves that if enslaved people did not rise up and resist, they must consent tacitly to their enslavement.

If the idea that people are to blame for their own oppression rings an uncomfortable bell, it should.

He also noted that Tubman, like other Black abolitionists, was subject to considerable pressure to say things that white abolitionists would like, rather than speaking for herself. The perpetuation of fake quotes and falsehoods about her life, along with those of other slaves and freed people who fought America's "peculiar institution," is really more offensive than it is commemorative.

Fake quotes, however, are insidious on the Internet: They're constantly popping up in memes featuring heartfelt inspirational lines with images of famous figures or pretty landscapes as backdrops. Quote Investigator actually dedicates itself to tracking down the origins of common quotes and determining whether they're bunkum or not, and a lot of them are totally false.

When it comes to lighthearted and fun quotes, these misattributions are irritating, but the prevalence of fake quotes can also be quite sinister, as in this case. The above words were falsely attributed to Tubman by Robin Morgan, a radical feminist who commented in 1973 at the West Coast Lesbian Conference that: "I will not call a male 'she'; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title 'woman'; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain?"

You'll find that quote, incidentally, in Going Too Far, which was a pivotal text in second wave feminism. Morgan was a highly regarded feminist at the time, and continues to be, and much of her work surrounding the trans community was used in the roots of trans-exclusionary radical feminism. Morgan, it turns out, is a big fan of defining other people's experiences — and in this case, putting words into the mouths of Black women.

So who else is being misquoted in the name of activism or making a point? A whole lot of people, that's who.


Mahatma Gandhi

Everybody loves a pithy, wise Gandhi quotation — which gets into a whole world of Orientalism that we'll set aside for a moment — and a huge number of the quotes in circulation are wrongity wrong wrong. Take: "Be the change you wish to see in the world," which Brian Morton at the New York Times illustrates is actually a paraphrase of a much longer quote.

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.

The meaning of this quote is rather different than the shortened version, another example of how the words of a person of color are snipped and rearranged for mainstream and white sensibilities. This isn't just about "being" the change, but making it, which is something much more dynamic.

Hillary Clinton

Periodically, a claim involving an alleged quote by Clinton and its similarity to a comment supposedly made by Adolf Hitler pops up all over the Internet again. Godwin's law aside, sometimes people come up with similar phrasing that means something very different in context, and in this case, it's particularly telling that this quote has become so popular, because Clinton is everyone's favorite person to hate.

Clinton: "We must stop thinking of the individual and start thinking about what is best for society."

Hitler: "'Society's needs come before the individual needs."

In fact, neither actually said either of these things. Both fabricated quotes are being used to suggest that Clinton is equivalent to one of the most horrific figures of the 20th century, as yet another argument targeting both her campaign and Clinton as a person. It's worth noting that when you take a step back, neither statement is actually inherently evil: Examining the structural inequalities that create injustice isn't actually a bad thing, and focusing on individual rather than systemic problems doesn't actually address these issues.

Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton

Jefferson in particular is a perennial victim of fake quotes, but a Washington legislator hit a three-fer in a piece of legislation that included fabricated quotes from all three on the subject of gun rights. He claimed that Washington once said: "Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty, teeth, and keystone under independence," and attributed the quote "Those who hammer their guns into plowshares will plow for those who do not" to Jefferson. Meanwhile, Hamilton didn't say: "The best we can help for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed."

All three instances were examples of quotes that should have felt too good to be true — they dovetailed incredibly neatly with the interests of the speaker, almost as though they were made to be. In this instance, the false quotes contributed to the Founder Worship that persists in the United States and continues to do considerable damage as people argue that the "intent" of the founders should be weighed in all legislation and court cases. Had the Founders believed in individual gun rights, they probably would have said so.

Albert Einstein

Another common victim of misquoting in the name of Internet memes, Einstein has a whole host of incorrect quotes to his name, making it difficult to pick just one. Many are designed to draw upon a desire to frame Einstein as a deep, wise man — but an ultimately uncomplicated one, with bright, simple lines between good and evil. Like everyone else, he didn't go around spouting touching aphorisms, and his thoughts can't be reduced to quotes like: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

That's actually from Informal Sociology: An Introduction to Sociological Thinking, written by William Bruce Cameron and published by Random House in 1963. (The trend of taking a quote from a lesser-known public figure and attributing it to someone else entirely is a persistent problem.)

Charles Darwin

For starters, Darwin is often framed as the sole, and most important, figure of modern science and understanding of evolution, which was actually a subject under investigation by a number of people at the time. But he's also commonly misquoted in service of various things, with the University of Cambridge noting that this quote in particular makes the rounds on a regular basis: "I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science."

Sounds like Darwin didn't believe his own theories, eh? Except that it's actually part of a larger quote, and a larger conversation in which he was acknowledging that many people were disparaging about his approach to the problem of evolution, using outlier data in an attempt to disprove him. It's also of note that scientists routinely test the "bounds" and doubt their work — it's why they rely on hypotheses and research to explore their theories instead of just asserting them as true, and long-standing theories can always be disproved.

So how do we solve a problem like fake quotes on the Internet? This is an issue that predates the Internet, of course — in fact, a fair number of false quotes in circulation today come from texts that themselves made up or distorted quotes long before the advent of the modern Internet. The problem is that in an era where quick likes and shares of content that leaves people feeling tingly are extremely common, it's hard to get people to examine Web content.

That goes not just for fake quotes, but hoaxes, sometimes even dangerous ones. Which is why you should take every story, quote, and meme you encounter with a grain of salt. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Try Googling it to see if you can track down an original source (for example, rather than relying on McDaniel's citation of Morgan, I searched for the quote and found it in Going Too Far to confirm that it was correct). Use time constraints — if a quote didn't appear on the Internet until a week ago, or a day ago, that's a warning sign (if it's older, that still doesn't mean it's legit, but time-based searches are a start).

And if you see something, don't be afraid to disprove it, though frustratingly, the backfire effect means that sometimes facts make people cling to erroneous information even harder.

Photo: Gary Stevens/Creative Commons