Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Unintentional MLK quote mangling on Facebook

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Mark Twain was supposed to have said that. But I can’t be sure — Mark Twain has been credited with all kinds of sayings that he may not have said. (Note the lazy “attributed” appendage to that last link.) But it’s true that with the increased speed of communication on the Internet, a mistake can spread worldwide and not get picked up.

A case of misattribution might have popped up on your Facebook wall, in light of a recent assassination.

Jessica Dovey did not intend to become the epicenter of an Internet-wide discussion about the nature of quotation, attribution, and Osama bin Laden. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Dovey’s Facebook-status sentiment — “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” — became entangled with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote she also posted. Within a day and through no fault of her own, Dovey’s words had gone viral, misattributed to King.

Since I’m the language guy, I got a call from RTRfm 92.1 to comment. Here’s the playback.

If you’re serious about avoiding the misattribution trap, don’t believe a quote unless it’s accompanied by a source, and then follow the source. It’s the only way to be sure.


  1. "The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity"
    – Benjamin Franklin‏

  2. "Confucius says man who quotes another will eat his own words."
    – Confucious.

    Yes, I got caught! Shame on me. I think I was just feeling so appalled by all the blood thirsty reveling and dancing on the (watery) grave, that when I saw the "quote" on a friends page I re-posted it without really thinking about it. Lesson learnt!

  3. Didn't I see you attribute the quote about the obituaries to Twain just the other day on FB?

    And how come you don't sound like an Australian?


    And you can quote me on that smiley face.

  4. God, I have read that quote… well, seen that quote probably 20 times (conservatively) on fb in the last few days, I think I used it twice (naughty M). I love it of course but what a quirky thing to have happened. I am very interested in this mis-attribution going on. I will be more careful ITF. I also saw the Mark Twain one about the obituaries on fb and read it out to T all impressed with the name attached to it. If it had had the correct person's name attached to it I don't think I would have paid as much attention to it. Very interesting. Are you going to post a link to this in you know where? If not, can I?

  5. I just checked out a quote that I had copied and pasted from facebook (naughty Maureen) and put under the title of my blog. It was "And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same." falsely and apparently commonly attributed to Nelson Mandela. It turns out that it was written by Marianne Williamson, a spiritual healer! So I have really learned my lesson now about checking quotes.

    It reminds me of the episode of Glee the other night where Sue got one of the kids to squeeze a tube of toothpaste and then said "Now put it back in the tube." The episode was about rumours.

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