Anatomy of a Fake Quotation

Yesterday, I saw a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. fly across my Twitter feed:  "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." - Martin Luther King, Jr".  I was about to retweet it, but I hesitated.  It didn't sound right.  After some Googling, I determined that it was probably fake, which I wrote about last night.

Here's the story of how that quote was created.

It turns out I was far too uncharitable in my search for a motive behind the fake quote.  I assumed that someone had made it up on purpose.  I was wrong.

Had I seen the quote on Facebook, rather than Twitter, I might have guessed at the truth.  On the other hand, had I seen it on Facebook, I might not have realized it was fake, because it was appended to a long string of genuine speech from MLK Jr.  Here's the quote as most people on Facebook saw it:

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Everything except the first sentence is found in King's book, Strength to Love, and seems to have been said originally in a 1957 sermon he gave on loving your enemies.  Unlike the first quotation, it does sound like King, and it was easy to assume that the whole thing came from him.

So how did they get mixed together?

Thanks to Jessica Dovey, a Facebook user, that's how.  And contrary to my initial assumption, it wasn't malicious.  Ms. Dovey, a 24-year old Penn State graduate who now teaches English to middle schoolers in Kobe, Japan, posted a very timely and moving thought on her Facebook status, and then followed it up with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote.  

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." MLK Jr.

At some point, someone cut and pasted the quote, and--for reasons that I, appropriately chastened, will not speculate on--stripped out the quotation marks.  Eventually, the mangled quotation somehow came to the attention of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame.  He tweeted it to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and the rest was internet history.  Twenty-four hours later, the quote brought back over 9,000 hits on Google. 

The quote also went viral on Twitter, and since the 140-character limit precluded quoting the whole thing, people stripped it down to the most timely and appropriate part: the fake quote. That's where I saw it.

The speed of dissemination is breathtaking: mangled to meme in less than two days.  Also remarkable is how defensive people got about the quote--though admirably, not Penn Jillette, who posted an update as soon as it was called to his attention. The thread for my post now has over 600 comments, and by my rough estimate, at least a third of them are people posting that I need to print a retraction, because of the non-fake part of the quotation.  But I didn't quote that part; I was only interested in the too-timely bit I'd seen twittered.

Even more bizarrely, several of these readers, who clearly hadn't read too closely, started claiming that I had retroactively edited the post to make them look like idiots, even going so far as to scrub all the versions in RSS readers so that they, too, showed that I was talking about the truncated version.  Even if you think I am the sort of low scoundrel who would do such a thing, this seems like a lot of work for not much reward.  I'm not sure whether it's even possible to completely scrub an RSS feed, but even if it were, I'd have had to notify my bosses, who tend to frown on retroactive editing.

Meanwhile, several other people began confabulating a provenance for it.  Obviously, he was talking about Vietnam, and what sort of moral midget couldn't understand that?  This even though the latest citation for the true part of the quote was a book published in 1967, which would have been written earlier than that, when US casualties in Vietnam were still relatively low.  Moreover, the ambiguity with which the antiwar movement viewed the North Vietnamese makes "enemy" a hard fit.

It is, of course, not strange that people might look for possible confirming facts.  What's strange is that they were sure enough of themselves to make fun of anyone who disagreed.  Yet several other people on the comment thread had linked to a version of the quotation from 1957.  I am second to no one in my admiration for Dr. King.  But I do not think that he prefigured Vietnam by seven years.

Osama Bin Laden Which only illustrates why fake quotes are so widely dispersed.  Though one commenter accused me of trying to make people feel stupid for having propagated the quote, that was hardly my intention--we've all probably repeated more fake quotations than real ones. Fake quotations are pithier, more dramatic, more on point, than the things people usually say in real life.  It's not surprising that they are often the survivors of the evolutionary battle for mindshare.  One person actually posted a passage which integrated the fake quotation into the larger section of the book from which the original MLK words were drawn.

We become invested in these quotes because they say something important about us--and they let us feel that those emotions were shared by great figures in history.  We naturally search for reasons that they could have said it--that they could have felt like us--rather than looking for reasons to disbelieve. If we'd put the same moving words in Hitler's mouth, everyone would have been a lot more skeptical.  But while this might be a lesson about the need to be skeptical, I don't think there's anything stupid about wanting to be more like Dr. King.

Ms. Dovey's status now reads: "has apparently gone back in time and put her words into one of MLK's sermons. I'm somewhere between nervous and embarrassed and honored... I really hope I haven't said anything he wouldn't agree with.. Only what I feel in my heart."

A lot of us were feeling the same thing--and I think it's clear from his writings that MLK would have too.  There's no reason to be embarrassed about that.

This post has been updated with further details about the quote's journey through cyberspace.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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