Having an online presence—and a social media account—is a must nowadays, especially if you’re running a business. The internet expands your reach, widens your market, and makes it possible for you to communicate with people around the world in just a matter of minutes.
One of the strategies highly recommended by online marketers and social media experts (e.g., Social Media Examiner, Search Engine Journal) to increase social media followers is quote sharing. You’ve probably seen how effective it is, at least in terms of getting shared, based on how many quotes you see daily on your feed.
Posts like this, for example, are common in Twitter:
Or in Facebook:
Wait…what? Did Abraham Lincoln really say that?
The photo was meant to be ironic to underline the message it was trying to deliver.
Irony, however, can a risky proposition online, because you never know who your audience might be and what their capacity for comprehending irony is. In the right space — i.e., a site that usually shares off-color jokes and satire — this could be a good quote. For a site that’s trying to look sober and professional, it won’t do.
Sometimes, however, even such obviously fake quotes are shared far and wide. Quotes, whether sent as simple text or given fancy fonts and pasted on photos, often go viral because they are so easy to share. That’s the reason why online marketers love them.
You glance at the text, and you laugh, get inspired, get motivated, or think. Then you click share. You can relate to it, and you want your friends to see it, too.
However, do you take the time to double-check if the quote is legit? Or do you make sure that the person it was attributed to actually said it?
Most people never bother.
Therein lies the problem. A widely reposted fake quote gains authority the more it is shared. After all, you might rationalize, the million people who shared it can’t all be wrong, can they?
The tendency to misquote people—and to share those quotes without skepticism—may be due to our need to boil down complex thoughts into slogans.
Indeed, who wants to post these words by Gandhi…
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.
…if you can just quote this?
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
It sounds Gandhi-like, it’s short and pithy, and it’s guaranteed to go viral.
The problem is that when you do a deeper analysis, the two quotes, while seemingly giving the same message, don’t say the same thing at all. Personal transformation is not enough; for Gandhi, personal and social changes go hand in hand.
In 1997, Kurt Vonnegut’s so-called commencement address “Wear Sunscreen” became widely shared and credited. It’s a lovely piece of work: poetic and profound while using simple words that anyone can understand:
It also wasn’t Vonnegut’s speech, but rather a column written by Mary Schmich for the Chicago Tribune. If Schmich had been credited correctly from the start, would the piece have become viral as it did when it was thought to be Vonnegut’s work?
Misquoting famous figures is nothing new. Academics, journalists, and other discerning people have been fighting the spread of fake quotations for years.
With the current ubiquitousness of social media, however, it has become so much easier to spread misinformation. Misquotes can now reach thousands and even millions of people in just a matter of minutes, making it sound truer every time someone shares it on his or her profile.
The good news is that while it’s easy to spread fake quotes online, the internet also makes it possible to double-check the real source. As Hollis Robbins in Inside Higher Ed says, “With so many texts online, it may be easier than ever for amateur misquotations to breed, but it is just as easy for professionals to set the record straight.”
The key here is to be discerning. Be skeptical, especially if you are sharing quotes as part of your social media strategy. When you come across a quote attributed to someone famous that sounds too pithy or too Hallmark-y, check first before sharing.
The easiest way to check your source is Google the quote. If there are conflicting entries, check Wikiquote’s List of Misquotations, Garson O’Toole’s Quote Investigator, or even Snopes, which is a treasure trove of urban legends and rumors spread online.
But why should you care? What’s it to you if you spread false information online? After all, everybody is doing it, right?
Well, for one thing, spreading fake quotes can have an impact on your credibility. It says a lot about your professionalism—even your business—that you don’t bother to make sure that what you’re sharing is true.
More importantly, however, we should all care. We have the power in our hands to spread the truth, and we should take advantage of it. We don’t always have the opportunity to correct our mistakes, but in the case of perpetuating misattribution, we do.
As Sherlock Holmes said, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Or did he?
Aleah Taboclaon is a solo traveler who's currently backpacking in the Middle East. She's planning to go to the Balkans next, always in search of the cheapest countries with the best Wifi connection. She funds her passion for travel by writing and editing other people's work. You can check out her travel stories at Solitary Wanderer and follow her adventures on Facebook and Instagram.