Making its rounds on Twitter recently has been a “fake” quote attributed to Martin Luther King: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”
Some people — most prominently Megan McArdle at The Atlantic — thought it just didn’t sound right.
The problem is that you can’t prove he didn’t say it. A couple of people have tried, and have come up with a good partial explanation. But disproving something you can’t see is nearly impossible. This is a great example of a problem often faced by reporters — a problem that’s becoming even more vexing with the development of social media. As it turns out, people say a lot of stuff that just isn’t true.
A quick Google search of the quote turns up more than 10,000 results — almost all from Twitter, Tumblr, Blogspot or WordPress posts written since the death of Osama bin Laden. But as I try to teach my journalism students, popularity does not equal accuracy. Ten bad sources aren’t as useful as one good source. Google says that some date as far back as Feb. 1, 2001, but that may be a default date on the Tumblr micro-blogging platform. In any case, date-based search on Google is useless for this effort. (Similar searches on Bing and Technorati were also not effective.)
My favorite explanation, by tech writer Frederic Lardinois, points most of the quote to King’s 1963 book Strength to Love. He found that the one-sentence quote used on Twitter could also be found as part of a longer quote on other social media sites. Most of that quote — but not the first sentence — is directly from Strength to Love. But that first sentence remains a black swan. I can’t prove that King didn’t say it. But I can’t prove that he did. And I can’t figure out where or when in the contemporary digital folklore that the quote originated. As a recently popular book points out, just because you’ve never seen a black swan doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Europeans had only seen white swans. Until a black one showed up in Australia in 1697.
Taken as an isolated incident he harm from this misquote is pretty abstract. At worst it becomes George Washington’s cherry tree — a story that everyone hears, that has its accuracy questioned, but that cannot be disproved. It muddies our understanding of history and it contributes to a changing narrative that we tell about ourselves, our history and our heroes.
The problem in the era of social media is that these misquotes are rampant and pernicious. Fabricating the words of political nemeses has become an acceptable and common tactic. Check out the archive of fact-checking that Snopes.com has done on fake quotes attributed to a variety of political lightening rods from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton. There is a library of fake quotes and fake legislation that gets distributed via e-mail and social networks. They’re complete fiction. It’s bad enough that political leaders — from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton — make up stuff all the time and assert it as truth. But it’s as if we’ve suddenly corrupted the value of the First Amendment by acting as if the answer to bad speech is not less speech but more bad speech. Lies are no longer combated by the often difficult-to-ascertain truth, but by more easy-to-fabricate lies.
It’s possible that the person — and it was one person — who decided to “upgrade” the actual King quote with an additional line was unconsciously mashing up King with another speaker. There’s plenty of historical precedent for that practice. Or perhaps she just incorrectly remembered the real quote and didn’t look it up in the book before she posted it to her blog. That happens all the time. I swear my wife told me to get chicken at the store yesterday. She swears she wanted me to get fish.
This happens all the time, and double-checking things that we “know” is probably the hardest habit for my reporting students to acquire. Good reporters — like good scientists — don’t care so much about what you know as they do about how you know what you know. We want to see it. I teach my students that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” and I play for them a bit of Marvin Gaye — “believe half of what you see, some or none of what you hear.”
The real problem for our nation is the intentional lies that are spread — and spread in a very smart way that adds to the malice of the act. My favorite is the YouTube video that shows Obama talking about “my Muslim faith.” Here’s the clip…. and here’s the whole clip. The 12-second clip — both totally accurate and totally incomplete — has been viewed nearly a million times. The full clip has been seen nearly two million times. But how many looked for the second after watching the first?
With the advent of democratic media distribution anyone can report what they see and hear. But who will look at the world around them and wonder what is unseen? And who will take the time not just to doubt, but to check it out?