Fake Quotes: A lesson in how easily we can be duped

We all see the news: trolls are posting fake stories. We all think, “That’s terrible!” We worry that our students will be duped. Why do these falsehoods spread? Why do fake posts work? The answer to that can be found by taking a look at a very common practice on social media, posting/liking/retweeting nicely decorated quotes from famous people. You’ve seen this quote:

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.  Albert Einstein

Einstein never said any such thing. There are hundreds of nicely decorated versions of this available with a simple web search and even some classroom posters. All lies.

On Twitter I saw:

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.  Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin never said that. Total falsehood.

Here are four fun ones:

Which version is correct? None of them. They are all lies.

This drives me crazy. Intelligent people. Educators. Folks with degrees. All of these people get upset when they hear that Facebook is being used by troll farms putting out falsehoods that end up being widely shared, yet they are guilty of forwarding falsehoods themselves.

I think I know how these fakes get created. Someone somewhere thought, “These are nice words, but no one will read them unless I say a famous person said them. How about Steve Jobs? Ben Franklin? Wait, no! This has the word ‘genius’ in it, and when I hear the word genius, I think of Einstein! I’ll say that Einstein said it!” And I understand why re-posting and retweeting happen: the post includes some nice sentiments or an inspirational message, and we want to share them. We end up spreading lies.

Don’t be so harsh, right? The message was super nice so don’t be picky. So Franklin Roosevelt didn’t say it. Big deal. The point is that the words are inspiring! With that kind of thinking, you can see how troll farms succeed. Put out a message people like, and it will be shared whether true or false. Maybe the post includes something Donald Trump never said or Elizabeth Warren never said, but so what? I like the post! It reinforces what I already believe so I’ll re-post it. Be aware that it is very easy to create attractive but fake messages. Rather than take non-famous words and attribute them to famous people, I used Canva (https://www.canva.com/) to create a poster taking famous words and attributing them to me. The message is wonderful, right? Feel free to share it!

We need to model the behavior we want our students to emulate. We can’t mindlessly accept and perpetuate what we like online. Be suspicious. Think critically. Sometimes the red flags are obvious.

Sometimes it is trickier to detect fakes. You have to know about Ben Franklin’s writing to know the words above are not his style. You have to think that while the world thinks Einstein is a genius, he didn’t hold himself out to be a genius or a commentator on genius. Verify. Use Snopes, a fact-checking site (https://www.snopes.com/). Use Google. On the search line I typed, “Did Einstein ever say everyone is a genius” and got many results verifying that he didn’t including this one: https://www.history.com/news/here-are-6-things-albert-einstein-never-said.

This is all effortful, but necessary. Make it part of your behavior to think critically and never mindlessly accept or repost anything. Then share your skill with your students. To stop the spread of falsehoods online, we need to cure ourselves first. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

About Erik Palmer

The #1 language art is speaking. By far. I'm committed to promoting the teaching of oral communication in all of its forms.
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