Silent Killer, Mr. Anonymous

The Fake Quote Pandemic
and How to Fight Back

Anonymous.

No, I’m not talking about a computer hacker with a Guy Fawkes mask trying to steal your identity. I’m talking about the single most widely quoted person of our time.

If a quote’s any good, share it on the internet.            -Anonymous

Yes, the word anonymous has long been a convenient place holder to avoid the effort of tracking down an original source or to add some air of credibility to an inspiring text overlay. Yet this seemingly harmless act of attributing quotes to Mr. Anonymous has wide-reaching implications for the way we process information on the web. In the age of Fake News, internet users may be more gullible than they realize, and the problem starts off small.

Inspirational quotes remain one of the most ubiquitous categories of social media posting, garnering likes and shares no matter how many times viewers have heard the line before. Many marketing websites actually recommend sharing quote images as the number one way to engage with new followers, and the practice is not inherently bad—anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I do it too. Yet here’s where Mr. Anonymous makes his entrance. Sometimes anonymous gets slapped on to a popular saying or maxim that doesn’t require any citation. (At least people are making an effort to list some kind of source, even if it’s a meaningless one.) But the ease of anonymous presents a real danger, and that’s a lack of basic fact checking or common sense. While researching for this article, I stumbled upon this gem:

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How is this anonymous? It’s a Bible verse. Matthew 6:34 is in the quote! Unless maybe this person is making a statement here by doubting the authenticity of Matthew’s gospel, but then I’m struggling to reconcile any subversive attack on religion with the clear reference in the background image to the God’s-Carrying-You-Footprints-in-the-Sand poem. Either this is just ridiculous, or it’s part of some Matthew/Footprints conspiracy—we’ll probably never know for sure. (As an aside, “Footprints” has its own raging authorship debate with various claimants to the throne. Check out an article from the Gospel Coalition to see the full controversy.)

The problem, however, gets more serious when people leave out Mr. Anonymous and valiantly look for a real human being to whom they can attribute the quote. Not all wise people are equal, and a quote belonging to the likes of Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, or Abraham Lincoln will see far more shares on social media than those from less notable public figures. In fact, most people trust these names so much that they’ll accept a wise or inspiring quote with one of their names on it, no questions asked.

Consider these quotes, all of which I’ve found published on the internet.

“A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
-Albert Einstein

So the great frizzy-haired physicist was really into boats? Although it’s a clever saying, this line predates Mr. Einstein.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt / -Marilyn Monroe

Misbehaving in different ways, I suppose. Sadly, the saying gained popularity several decades after these two women.

“A house divided cannot stand.” -Abraham Lincoln

To be fair on this one, he did give a famous speech in which he quoted this Bible passage. So maybe we could write it like this:

“A house divided cannot stand.” -The Bible -Abraham Lincoln

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Too much of Mr. Anonymous teaches people that they either (1) won’t find a source or (2) shouldn’t bother looking, and these are horrible habits to develop online. It often takes less than a minute to double check a source, whether it’s for a simple quote, a news story, or a compelling infographic. Don’t stop there, either. Comment on posts with misinformation, and respond when people unknowingly share hoaxes or fake stories online. I’ve posted three of my favorite fact-checking sites below, and feel free to join the conversation and comment with more. Before sharing anything on social media, unmask Mr. Anonymous and demand that the source provides its real name.

Some of my favorite resources:

Quote Investigator – Great site for uncovering quote origins
Snopes – investigating rumors in online stories
Politifact – fact checking politics
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