Plausible quotations and reverse credibility in online vernacular communities.
Article Type:
Online social networks (Ethical aspects)
Quotations (Ethical aspects)
Weblogs (Ethical aspects)
Weblogs (Forecasts and trends)
Weblogs (Authorship)
Schultze, Quentin J.
Bytwerk, Randall L.
Pub Date:
Name: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics Publisher: Institute of General Semantics Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Languages and linguistics Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Institute of General Semantics ISSN: 0014-164X
Date: April, 2012 Source Volume: 69 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks Advertising Code: 91 Ethics Computer Subject: Market trend/market analysis
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Cyberspace includes information that lacks vetting by traditional gatekeepers such as editors and librarians. One growing type of online information is unsourced quotations attributed to well-known individuals. After summarizing the history of textual fabrication as semantic misinformation, this article traces the origin and rapid spread of a quotation misattributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The quotation spread from online sources to print and even at least one peer-reviewed academic journal--all without ever being sourced. The same quotation was widely used by both the political Right and Left to support opposing ideologies. Cyberspace provides an arena for creating seemingly credible but unverified persuasive messages that confirm the existing assumptions of online communities of discourse. The essay concludes with suggestions 16r verifying unsourced online quotations attributed to otherwise "credible" people.

The above quotation appears on a rapidly growing number of Internet pages. In 2002, it was on about a dozen pages; by mid-2008, it was 14,000. In mid-October 2009, the total was 47,900; on April 1, 2011, it reached 333,000. By December 1, 2011, the total surpassed 500,000. If one allows for partial quotations or minor variations, the figures are even higher. Forty thousand pages attribute it to "Joseph M. Goebbels." "M" was not his middle initial.

As best as we can determine, Goebbels never said it. Proving a negative is impossible, but we have read a wide range of Goebbels's writings and speeches without finding the quotation. (1) No one who cites it online or in available printed sources--including academic works--provides a source. The quotation also appears on over 400 Internet sites in German, sometimes with the note "retranslated from English," and sometimes with the wrong middle initial. (2) No German Internet page or book that we can find provides a source.

How can it be that new, unsourced, even fabricated, quotations attributed to historical or current figures can suddenly appear and then be rapidly distributed online with few, if any, skeptical responses? Does the Internet fundamentally alter how or at least how quickly quotations are used publicly to label people and movements? If so, what are the implications for discourse in the age of cyberspace? We use the above quotation as a case study to address such broader questions.

In this essay, we offer preliminary observations about the online use of plausible but sometimes fabricated quotations. We first briefly review the history of literary fabrication and contrast it with the use of fabricated quotations. Next, we consider the history of collecting and employing quotations. Then, we consider the role of quotations in conferring credibility on speakers and writers within "vernacular communities." We examine the case of the protean Goebbels quotation, especially its use within online vernacular communities to achieve what we call "reverse credibility"--that is, credibility conferred upon writers by virtue of the negative ethos of the person quoted. The case of the Goebbels quotation suggests what the spread of unchecked but plausible quotations reveals about the nature of public discourse, especially argument, in the Internet age. Finally, we suggest ideas and practices to guide responsible online communication in the age of such potentially protean quotations.

Textual Fabrication in History

The practice of literary fabrication--intentionally misattributing written words to particular persons and institutions--is ancient. Anthony Grafton writes: "Forgery of a kind is as old as textual authority." (3) The U.S. Library of Congress catalog heading for books on the subject is the charming phrase "literary falsifications and mystifications."

Major forgeries have obvious intent, and are useful in a limited range of situations. The Donation of Constantine purported to be a document by Emperor Constantine I giving control of Rome and the western Roman Empire to the Pope. It had clear and restricted application, and was not likely to be used to settle a dispute between France and Germany about control of Alsace-Lorraine. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a product of the Russian secret police, is still used today to argue that Jews are engaged in a nefarious conspiracy to rule the world, but could not easily be applied to, say, Koreans.

The use of fabricated quotations has functioned somewhat differently. They do not require the care necessary to make a forged document (or work of art) appear credible. They are generally brief from one sentence to a short paragraph. Readers today are used to seeing and hearing quotations attributed to a well-known person, but with no information that reveals the precise source or original context. That makes them easier to accept and harder to prove or disprove, particularly if readers are only vaguely familiar with the quoted authors and/or texts. These characteristics are especially true in the age of cyberspace.

Quotations in History

Given the ways that manuscripts and legal documents once were hand-copied and recopied from place to place, and given the disparate ways that ancient and modern readers have considered textual originality, it is difficult to know when and how human beings began intentionally associating particular quotations with familiar persons, respected movements, or accepted canon. But it is likely that there has always been some positive ethos, particularly credibility, from this practice regardless of a quotation's veracity.

The "commonplace" books (locus common's) dating back to the fourteenth century were individual collections of whatever sayings and information the owner found interesting. Many included quotations. There were other collections intended for preachers.

With the widening of literacy and the rise of printed books, collections resembling modern dictionaries of quotations began to appear. One of the earliest in English was John Cotgrave's The English Treasury of Wit and Language: Collected Out of the Most, and Best of our English Drammatick Poems; Methodically Digested into Common Places for Generall Use. (4) It was organized by topic, but without sources; all quotations were "anonymous." The most successful early collection was David E. Macdonnel's A Dictionary of Quotations in Most Frequent Use. Taken from the Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian Languages. (5) This was a literal dictionary of quotations, with entries only in foreign languages and indexed by the first word of the quotation. It was intended for those unable to translate quotations they found in their reading, not as a tool for locating quotations. It was an instant hit, remaining in print for at least 60 years. In the forward to the fourth edition (1803), Macdonnel wrote:

In short, quotations had become separated from their context, and now were "classic flowers" (vi) suitable for common use. Collecting and distributing de-contextualized quotations had become a popular art, akin to collecting interesting or compelling scientific facts that seem to speak for themselves, without need for understanding the underlying scientific theories and methods.

Other dictionaries of quotations quickly followed, until today hundreds are in print, and countless collections of various sorts are available on the Internet. Many contemporary public speaking textbooks encourage consulting them. People have grown used to finding quotations that fit their immediate needs, regardless of the quotations' original contexts. Speakers and writers have pleased, informed, and inspired readers who assumed that the quotations were both accurate and correctly attributed.

Charlotte Brewer says in The Oxford History of English Lexicography, "Today we take it for granted that a dictionary of quotations is as likely to be used as a source of a pithy and apposite quotation for a speech or presentation, as it is to offer us the attribution for such a quotation as used by someone else." (7) If this is indeed the case, why do such compilations often fail to provide references that would prove the veracity of attributed quotations?

Conferred Credibility in Online Communities

Clearly, using quotations from such credible sources made it easier for speakers and writers to add credibility to their own ethos. By "credibility" we mean the apparent trustworthiness and believability of a source resulting from reasonably objective criteria such as the speaker's credentials and the credentials of the speaker's sources. From what we can tell, scholars rarely assume that such compilations were credible enough to be worthy of citation. The general public, however, has relied upon the use of unsourced quotations to make arguments more credible as well as interesting. So have leaders in business and government. Most trade book publishers do not require authors to source quotations by famous speakers and writers, providing a means for even relatively unknown writers to easily confer some credibility on their own arguments.

The semantic value of using quotations to achieve greater credibility depends partly on the audience's assumption that a particular quotation is literally and referentially accurate--that is, accurate both in terms of the wording of the quotation itself and in terms of the person (the referenced "author") to whom the quotation is attributed. In other words, fabricated or not, such "authoritative" quotations can add credibility to written or spoken words--credibility that the same words would not possess on their own, without the authorial reference.

Such referential credibility is probably enhanced by the use of quotations attributed to historically important persons. References to famous figures as sources can confer credibility even when posthumous quotations have been intentionally or unintentionally misused. John Maynard Keynes's influential General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money includes an important misquotation of material from Keynes's reliance on an erroneous secondary source. (8) Paul F. Boller, Jr.'s Quo temanship has a chapter on "spurious quotations" that presents a wealth of popular but apparently fabricated quotations. (9) Probably because of his sustained credibility, Abraham Lincoln is most likely the most unintentionally misquoted as well as the most intentionally quoted person in American public discourse. Albert A. Woldman wrote in 1950, "Like the Scriptures, Lincoln's words are quoted to prove or disprove almost every political, economic, and social issue of the day. The only difficulty is, a lot of the words aren't Lincoln's." (10)

Finally, such conferred credibility is used most effectively in specific "vernacular communities" whose members collectively hold similar views toward the quoted source and the issues that the speaker or writer is addressing. (11)

Protean Quotations for Reverse Credibility

From what we can tell, the fabricated Goebbels quotation is one of the first quotations attributed to a well-known deceased person that has been spread widely, quickly, and almost exclusively online through various kinds of Internet-based communities. Even if the quotation first appeared in an undocumented print source (which we think unlikely), its distribution is a product of the Internet age, without any extant references to an original printed or recorded source. Moreover, the quotation has now moved from the Internet to print--not the other way around.

The quotation is also an interesting example of what we call "reverse credibility"--that is, credibility conferred on a speaker or writer because of the alleged reference's negative ethos. Its words gain immediate semantic power because they are plausibly associated with a widely disliked source about whom few people know much. If Goebbels said it, it must be bad indeed; he was an evil person. After all, the quotation sounds like something people expect Goebbels would have said. Were not Hitler and his comrades proponents of the "big lie," the totalitarian charade that led to the deaths of millions of innocents? Was not the entire Nazi system based on falsehoods?

Although it is true that Goebbels was willing to lie when he thought it productive, he preferred not to. He realized that clear lies--statements intended to deceive--are awkward when discovered. (12) Once uncovered, lies call for explanation; people want to know why they were misled and are more likely to challenge other messages from the same sources. He also recognized that outright lies are not usually necessary to persuade; one can generally select information to give a misleading impression without technically lying. In public, Goebbels repeatedly insisted that his propaganda was truthful. At the 1934 Nuremberg rally, for example, he claimed: "Good propaganda does not need to lie; indeed, it may not lie. It has no reason to fear the truth." (13) In fact, even Hitler's statement on the "big lie" is generally taken out of context. The passage comes from Mein Kampf, in which he is discussing the Jewish press in Vienna:

Hitler, in short, is accusing his enemies of the tactic, not recommending its use. He, too, was entirely willing to lie--but only an incompetent propagandist warns his audience that he actually lied. In sum, although people widely believe that the Nazis brazenly proclaimed their duplicity, they in fact proclaimed the opposite, which makes it implausible that Goebbels said what this quotation alleges that he said--particularly since the first citation that we have been able to locate is over 50 years after his death.

One way to evaluate the modern use of undocumented quotations is to examine the communities out of which they emerge. In other words, the "truth" of a quotation is not the same as its referential usage by particular groups that might be predisposed toward accepting or rejecting its apparent credibility. We cannot determine with certainty that Goebbels never uttered the quotation, but we can assess whether or not the quotation seems like a good fit with the ways that he and colleagues publicly used language, including how they said that they used persuasive language at that time. But, it is also possible to examine how contemporary vernacular communities use the quotation regardless of its likely accuracy. In spite of some technological limitations, the Internet is potentially a valuable resource for such research.

Emerging Online Uses of Quotations

Where and when did the fabricated quote first appear? We have attempted to find its first appearance, with limited success.15 The earliest use we can date is in an online article from the political right on March 11, 2002, that raised questions about the commercial airliner that was flown into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.16 The next use is three days later, this time in a reader comment on an article from the political left criticizing consumer protection policies. (17) The quotation was probably already in circulation, given that it was cited within a short period by two Web sites representing contrasting political vernaculars with opposing political standpoints and most likely separate readerships. The fact that both of the "original" online citations attribute it to "Joseph M. Goebbels" also suggests a common, and unreliable, source, and that it was first used on the Internet rather than in print. Many subsequent online users did not use the incorrect middle initial.

After the first use we can identify, the quotation spread gradually until a dramatic increase began in 2006. During the presidency of George W. Bush, it was widely used in attacks from the left on him. A Google search finds 307,000 hits for a key phrase from the quotation and Bush. (18) A typical example from 2006 was prefaced with the quotation, then began: "Propaganda machines are dangerous, even more so in a democracy than in a totalitarian regime, because their goal is to confuse, disinform, lie, raise fear and manipulate the opinions of the people" [original underlined]. It continued with a critique of Bush's Iraq policy. (19) The usual claim was that Bush and his administration were employing Nazi principles of propaganda to deceive the public into supporting his policies.

With the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, political opponents quickly adapted the quotation to support attacks on his policies. The result by December 2011 was also 307,000 Google hits, many of which accuse him of using Nazi principles of propaganda. (20) A typical example had the quotation at the head of a discussion of Obama's health proposal. The article began: "It looks like Barack Obama is well aware of this. ... " (21)

The quotation can be employed universally against any government, and any government action, making it particularly useful in any anti- or pro-government vernacular community. Since Goebbels is a reviled figure for all but a few neo-Nazis, and since the political right and left squabble about whether Nazism ("National Socialism") was of the right or left in its essence, both can use his alleged statement. It can be employed not merely for argument or elegance, but to make an ad hominem attack that will appeal to a particular vernacular community: "If my opponents are acting in a way consistent with Joseph Goebbels's advice, they are so evil as to need little refutation." One fabricated quotation used in the right semantic context can immediately transfer negative ethos from an earlier public figure to a later, even living one. Presumably such negative ethos attributed to enemy leaders also contributes reverse credibility to the vernacular community's own contrasting leadership.

Publishers without Editors

Today, every person with Internet access can be a publisher--usually without an editor--with a potential audience the size of the Internet itself. In one sense, the Internet represents inexpensive self-publication, although even book self-publishing is now fast and affordable. Still, a writer who desires an online readership most likely will have to write for a specific community that holds consonant opinions, perspectives, and interests.

In order to determine the likely communities employing the Goebbels quotation, we reviewed the top 30 Google hits for the quotation on April 8, 2011. Google's general Web-search algorithm is known only to a few company insiders, but it is known that rankings are based partly on previous successful searches for the same topics (i.e., the hyperlinks that searchers click on after they receive their search results on a Google results page). Therefore, our top search results probably reflect some of the actual diversity of search results that Web searchers would discover upon their own searches with similar terms. The results show that the quotation is used to support the most disparate and conflicting positions within particular kinds of vernacular communities.

The first hit is an Internet dictionary of quotations that is the source of a significant number of uses. Although the site provides no information about its operators, it receives about 1,500,000 visitors monthly. (22) It is not possible to determine exactly how many hits the page with the quotation receives. The second hit is a page on false Nazi quotations maintained by a co-author of this article; it argues against the online tide that the quotation is fabricated. The page receives about 5000 visitors a month, and has not had noticeable impact in reducing the frequency of the quotation. (23) Six other hits are quotation pages of varying sorts.

The remaining hits run the range of opinion. One site uses it to accuse the U.S. government of concealing the facts on 9/11, another to argue against vaccinating dogs. One uses it to evidence the similarities of George W. Bush to Hitler, another to suggest that Barack Obama is following the example set by Goebbels. The quotation, in short, is used to attack any conceivable opponent, but in most cases the opponent is part of a government, political organization, or movement.

A broader review of pages is also interesting. A review of the top 200 finds most are polemical sites that juxtapose the quotation with the object of attack. Many are either blogs or comments responding to Web articles or blog posts. The basic claim is that George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or the government, or occasionally Moslems, Christians, or others, are just like Joseph Gocbbels (although occasionally, the quotation is attributed to Hitler). In many ways, people use the quotation in ways consistent with Richard Hoftstadter's analysis of the paranoid style in American politics--beginning with a conclusion that some entity is involved in a hidden, deceitful plan to secure ignoble ends, then assiduously searching for any and all evidence that seems to support it. (24)

We can find only one refereed scholarly article that cites the quotation, but with no reference. (25) A Lexus-Nexus Academic search provides three published articles employing the fabrication, two of which are from Business World, in the Philippines, and one from The Washington Times. (26) None of the three dozen books citing it on Google Books has a publisher with a reputation for editorial diligence.

Internet Argument via Memes

The Internet age is also the age of instantly distributed quotations both accurate and inaccurate ones, from text quotations to media sound bites. Before the Internet's advent, the spread of quotations was more tightly restrained at least by the financial, temporal, ethical, and editorial limitations of scribes and print. Print editors could be gatekeepers for good as well as bad, and in tune with their own vernacular readerships as well as according to their own ethical standards for sourcing. Some reviewers for scholarly publications still check the accuracy of references and quotations, working with well-equipped libraries. Trade books and popular journals were never seen as editorially careful as scholarly publishers, but they still suffer embarrassment when faced publicly with errors. The editor of Science News printed the following letter from a reader: "Your article on fossil fuels contains a horrible mistake. You not only misquote Shakespeare from Macbeth but also attribute the quote to the wrong character." The editor's printed response? "Sorry! Its [sic] 20 years since we played in Macbeth. We won't forget about literature, but from now on we will check our memories." (27)

In cyberspace, any quotation can quickly go "viral," taking on a life of its own as people quickly pass it along to bolster existing vernacular views about public persons or issues. In a sense, quotes can become like Internet-spread urban legends, which sometimes reference and even quote well-known persons. As with all previous media, the person who does the initial quoting has the advantage of first say--as well, now, the advantage of initial Google indexing. Theoretically, there are more opportunities online than in print for people to respond to others' use of quotations (such as on blogs or in the "discussion" section at the bottom of online news reports). In addition, the Internet can support hyperlinks to online copies of original sources or even to online disputes about the credibility of sources. The Google Books project is scanning millions of volumes from paper copies and making them available for online searching. Moreover, thanks to the Internet the average person today probably has more and quicker access to contradictory sources that might shed light on the veracity of quotations and related rhetorical claims. Corrections, too, can become viral--but not as easily.

Quotations as Texts in Moral Communities of Discourse

Textual critics such as Richard A. Lanham see no literal way out of the authorial uncertainly being created by the expanding quantity and variations of digital texts. He wonders what "the text" is when so many people can alter, comment upon, and redistribute texts. He contends that the "blurring of the creator/critic distinction ... finds a direct legal and financial manifestation. Our ethics of quotation, and the stylistic formulas that embody it, is called into question by electronic media." Lanham suggests that compared with the printed word the electronic word "has no essence, no quiddity, no substance. ..." The electronic word "is volatile both in how it is projected onto an electronic screen and in how it works in the world. In both places, its essence is dynamic rather than static." (28)

On the one hand, we agree that digital copies of texts challenge some of the traditional rhetorical practices and ethics of quotation. The moral weight of distributing unchecked quotations online may seem to bloggers to be less than distributing errors in print. Much of the Internet is more gossipy than literary, scholarly, or journalistic. Certainly the Internet fosters more ambiguous moral contexts than does a book, magazine, or journal with an identified author, publisher, and community. The blogosphere, in particular, does not suggest to users quite the same community-centric, moral gravitas as other forms of publication and interaction.

Rather than like hearing a speech or reading an essay--both relatively discrete, bounded rhetorical events--arguing online tends to be conversationally protean. The protean conversation can occur almost immediately or it can take place asynchronously, with people adding to a discussion minutes, hours, weeks, or even years after its initial appearance. High-energy and strikingly protean social networking services (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) along with blogs are the most popular online activities 29 Online, people can more easily address audiences they do not personally know, and the anonymity and distance of online behavior leads to what has been termed the "online disinhibition effect" in which "people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world." (30)

It may be that online contributors are often hurried, perhaps borrowing ideas or quotations that they quickly discovered on another Web site or in a mass e-mail posting. As with the passion of the moment in a conversation, the online communicator is more likely to simply want to make a point in order to participate; he or she needs a bit of information, a quotation, or a turn of phrase. Anything can potentially "work," whether facts, feelings, or even fabrications taken for facts. User statistics for Web sites generally find that many users visit briefly, and if they respond, it is often hurried, based on partial reading., before hurrying on to the next site. (31)

To help them participate in such protean discourse, online interlocutors often look for what are now called "Internet memes," rhetorical cousins of the Aristotelian enthymeme. (32) Richard Dawkins introduced the larger idea of a meme in his The Selfish Gene, proposing it as "a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation." (33) Memes, some suggest, live in an environment of selection, in which some spread and mutate, others quickly disappear, mental analogues of physical genes. Online memes are dynamic. Henry Jenkins argues that a static concept of meme "fails to consider the everyday reality of communication--that ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand. ..." He adds that the ideas which survive might be "those which can be most easily appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities." Jenkins contends that the "repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use." Jenkins contrasts this semantically fluid appropriation of media content with the older models of "centralized control over distribution and attempts to maintain 'purity' of message." (34)

We are not so quick to accept arguments about the suddenly disappearing text and "new" media of dynamic communication. To some extent, cyberspace merely reflects the age-old reality of communication gaps, misunderstandings, confusion, and distortions which have always marked human intersubjectivity. We agree with John Durham Peters that "communication is a trouble we are stuck with" and "failed synapses are a major source in modern dialogue and life." (35)

With respect to the use of quotations, the difference between printed and online text communication seems to be a matter of degree, not substance. When memes circulate quickly online, across so many different discourse communities, they are not likely to be particularly well known by members of any group. For a time, they become free-standing information, unconfirmed in terms of their original or fictional sources, and separated from previous vernacular discourse about those texts. Online, there is a period of rapid distribution before more careful, informed vernacular criticism has a chance to form. Human beings will still need to participate in discourse that at least potentially equips them to engage others wisely and well. Some of these communities are public, such as schools, bookstore discussion groups, and town hall meetings. Others are private and more parochial. Both can contribute to a Tocquevillian sense of self-interest that is moderated by neighborliness. Both can be fostered online as well as in local institutions.


We suggest, first, that the online distribution of unchecked quotations is sloppy. Even though this practice appears to be increasingly the norm in the blogosphere, such misrepresentation seems, relative to printed texts, to be more a matter of degree than kind. Items published online that are not useful or are proven inaccurate or untruthful will likely disappear from much discourse. Effective search technologies do allow a once-buried meme to be re-discovered and given new life, as is the case with our protean quotation. After several years of obscurity, it quickly gained epidemic spread. The originator, whoever he or she was, lost all control over the original fabrication once it fist appeared online. Originals can easily beget more copies of the fabrication no matter what the first author later intends. Books-even academic tomes--can disseminate historical fallacies and commonplace factual errors.

We speculate that the rhetoric of online quotation represents a shift from persuasion to semantic reinforcement within communities. Traditional public rhetoric sought to change attitudes to win over adversaries. That required an understanding of the audience, of the rhetorical situation, and at best, knowledge of historical continuities that lend wisdom to seemingly novel situations. That is not to say that rhetors were always patient, rational, and ethical. Surely not. The goal, in theory, however, was to persuade, to reduce the differences between opposing positions so that the audience could move from their position to that of the rhetor. Electronic use of unchecked quotations seems a different species, aimed more at reinforcing existing attitudes than changing the attitudes of those who disagree. Instead of "identification," in Kenneth Burke's term, the goal is separation: the rhetoric of fabrication seems to assume that the other side is so incomprehensibly wrong that there is no point in trying to persuade on the basis of any common ground. The likely result is enhanced polarization of existing positions that grow increasingly dichotomous.

In this kind of public discourse, Hitler and the Nazis can serve as semantic equivalents of Satan and his hosts. Just as calling one's theological opponents "tools of the Devil" produced discord rather than amity, so, too, comparing one's opponents to Goebbels and the Nazis is the argument to which no satisfactory answer is possible, putting them (from the rhetor's viewpoint) outside any boundaries of civilization. Since the charge is unanswerable (anyone as evil as Hitler would surely deny being as evil as Hitler), it stops the conversation with opponents. (36)

Second, the spread of this quotation (and others like it) evidences a significant change in the self-regulation of public rhetoric. In the past, media discourse was more likely to occur through gatekeepers who often went by the name "editor" and were more likely trusted. Editors are fallible, but the fact that printing a newspaper, magazine, or book, or producing a radio or television program required significant expense encouraged both care in the product and an approach calculated to secure an adequate audience for the survival of the institution Mainstream media, at least in the free world during the last century, usually exercised some editorial control. Cranks, crackpots, and passionate political partisans always existed, but they usually lacked the resources to reach a mass audience. (37) Today, Wikipedia calls anyone who contributes to its articles an "editor," hoping that the joint efforts of many will produce quality--although even Wikipedia is beginning to doubt that universal editorship produces that desired quality. (38)

Third, the medium that makes it so easy to spread unchecked quotations is also a medium that provides ways of holding each other accountable. It is increasingly easy to access online the content of books (e.g., Google Books) and periodicals (e.g., MagSearch and TheFreeLibrary) that assess the veracity and attempt to determine the sources of quotations. Respected dictionaries of quotations make extraordinary efforts to determine the accuracy of the quotations they provide, even if a few carefully researched books can hardly offset hundreds of thousands of people citing a dubious quotation. (39)

Fourth, the viral spread of plausible quotations reinforces their credibility. Even before the Internet, fake Lincoln quotations were printed so frequently that attempts by Lincoln scholars to disprove them were of limited success.40 The quotations sounded like something Lincoln would have said, and his name gave the words far more force than they would otherwise have had. In the same way, the protean quotation we have considered sounds like what people think Goebbels would have said. The quotation has even infected German Internet pages, with people believing that an unsourced quotation credited to Joseph Goebbels in English is so obviously credible as to translate it into German rather than attempt to find the German original.

Fifth, Internet memes such as plausible quotations can be quickly transformed by people able to put them to almost any semantic purpose for any vernacular community or for their personal amusement or argumentation. Users of an Internet meme can do anything they wish with it. When George W. Bush was president, millions of pages compared his methods to those of Goebbels. When Obama became president, an entirely different group of people found the quotation applicable to him. There is little ideological overlap between the two groups. One who thinks Bush and Goebbels are rhetorical cousins will generally not think the same of Obama and Goebbels (although there are some outside the normal political spectrum who apply the comparison indiscriminately). The target of the quotation varies, but the semantic use is the same: my opponent uses Nazi methods, and is therefore despicable.

Finally, the speedy spread of such a dubious quotation demonstrates the need for a renewed public sense of rhetorical ethics. Passing along plausible but unsubstantiated quotations does not necessarily constitute a lie since the transgressor might not have intended to deceive. Nevertheless, quotations ought not to be distributed without at least using search engines to determine if the validity of the quotation has been addressed by those who might have reason, knowledge, and resources to do so.

Experts can be wrong, but they can also collaborate online to provide the general public with their own assessments of various rhetorical claims. Jan Brunvand, perhaps the best-known scholar of urban legends, notes that sites like have had significant success in diminishing belief in doubtful tales: "Because they have been publicized so much people no longer believe most of the classic urban legends." (41) There are now Web sites where informed people--experts and amateurs who are intimate with historical figures and their texts share their knowledge of valid and likely fabricated quotations. Perhaps more scholars need to develop ways of making their knowledge available to the broader community. A scholarly article, even if its text is accessible electronically, reaches far fewer people than does a well-designed Web site.

Coupled with the growth of the Internet, the declining resources available to libraries, newspapers, standard publishing companies, and even university presses could result in increased, and increasingly believed, nonsense. Citizens still need good dictionaries of quotations, meticulous Web sites, and the help of passionate experts who scrupulously track the extant words of the persons we quoted. We can benefit from the services of librarians who know sources and research and who care about the cause of truth. Scholars can serve the general public as well as our own vernacular communities of learning. We were disappointed that two scholars used the unsubstantiated quotation prominently at the beginning of their published, peer-reviewed essay. Accuracy matters. Public discourse is weakened by using unreliable quotations and unsourced, dubious information to support arguments, even if those arguments are otherwise sound (although we suspect that those who use bad information are also prone to bad arguments).

The task is difficult. As those who in the past tried to discredit fabricated quotations discovered, Mark Twain was right: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." So it says on 435,000 Internet pages. But for some reason, not even one of those pages seems to provide a source. (42)


(1.) Since Goebbels's remarks are sometimes confused with Hitler's, we also checked Mein Kampf and the four-volume edition of Hitler's speeches.

(2.) See, for example,, accessed December 8, 2011, which claims that "the Arabs are following Goebbels's advice exactly." (Our translation).

(3.) Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 8.

(4.) John Cotgrave, The English Treasury of Wit and Language: Collected Out of the Most, and Best of our English Drammatick Poems; Methodically Digested into Common Places for Generall Use (London: Humphrey Mosely, 1655).

(5.) David E. Macdonnel, A Dictionary of Quotations in Most Frequent Use. Taken from the Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian Languages (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1797).

(6.) David E. Macdonnel, A Dictionary of Quotations, in Most Frequent Use, Taken Chiefly from the Latin and French, but Comprising Many from the Greek, Spanish, and Italian, Languages, 4th ed. (London: G. and J. Robinson, 1803), v-vi.

(7.) Charlotte Brewer, "The OED Supplements," in Anthony Paul Cowie, ed., The Oxford History of English Lexicography, Vol. 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 268.

(8.) J. Ronnie Davis and Francis J. Casey, Jr, "Keynes's Misquotation of Mill," The Economic Journal, Vol. 87, Number 346 (June 1977): 329-330.

(9.) Paul F. Boller, Jr., Quotemanship: The Use and Abuse of Quotations for Polemical and Other Purposes (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1967), 320-364.

(10.) Albert A. Woldman, "Lincoln Never Said That," Harper's, May 1950, 71.

(11.) Edward Goldsmith, one of the first scholars to use the term "vernacular community," says that one is based on "consanguinity, real or fictitious," and "cannot conceive of life outside it...." The Way: An Ecological World-View, rev. and enlarged (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 387, 390. Goldsmith's magnum opus was first published in 1992.

(12.) This is the definition still used by most ethicists. See Sisella Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Vintage, 1999), 6.

(13.) Joseph Goebbels, "Propaganda and Public Enlightenment as Prerequisites for Practical Work in Many Areas," in Randall L. Bytwerk, Landmark Speeches of National Socialism (College Station. TX: Texas A&M University' Press, 2008), 45.

(14.) Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf Trans. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), 231.

(15.) Google's search function offers limited help. Although it does allow searching through results by date, it does not conduct that search on the original version of the page. Therefore, a page that Google shows as 2002 may have been modified later to add the quotation. Page revision histories can be traced using the "Wayback Machine" on, but it is incomplete, and does not yet have the capacity to search the entire database. Once one has a page URL, however, one can track revisions made over time.

(16.) Geoff Metcalf, "So where is the plane?", a commentary on WorldNet-Daily, a conservative site. It raises questions about the commercial airliner that hit the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. He cites "Joseph M. Goebbels," using the quotation to question the usual account of 9/11. At our request, Mr. Metcalf kindly went through his files, but could not determine where he got the quotation from. See, accessed December 8, 2011.

(17.) Cited by, accessed December 8, 2011. It also credits the quotation to "Joseph M. Goebbels."

(18.) Not all of the hits made the Bush-Goebbels comparison, but the substantial majority of those we checked did, accessed December 8, 2011.

(19.) Rodrigue Tremblay, "War and Propaganda Machines,", accessed December 8, 2011.

(20.) As with Bush, not all pages accuse Obama of using Nazi propaganda methods, accessed December 8, 2011.

(21.) "Truth is the Mortal Enemy of the State," http://awakentheelephants.comiblogflp=1869, accessed December 8, 2011.

(22.), accessed December 8, 2011. The "about us" link on the site does not function, and there is no information as to who is behind the site. The visitors estimate is from, an Internet ranking service. In his introduction to The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), Fred R. Shapiro writes: "The science of compiling a quotation dictionary consists in comprehensively identifying the most famous quotations, tracing them to their original sources as far as possible, and recording those sources precisely and accurately" (xviii). This online collection definitely does not do that.

(23.), accessed December 8, 2011.

(24.) The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York: Knopf, 1965).

(25.) Peter McLaren and Gregory Martin, "The Legend of the Bush Gang: Imperialism, War, and Propaganda," Critical Studies 4[??] Critical Methodologies, Vol. 4, Number 3 (August 2004): 281. The reference is at the head of the article. We checked with the lead author, who could not remember where he found the quotation.

(26.) Suzanne Fields, "Decency Goes A.W.O.L.: When Slander Puts Everyone in Peril," The Washington Times, September 17, 2007, A19. Retrieved October 20, 2009, from LexisNexis Academic. Online at, accessed April 11, 2012.

(27.) Alan Lichtenstein, "Double Double, Shakespeare Trouble," Science News, Vol. 105, Number 13 (March 30, 1974): 203.

(28.) Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Worth Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 19.

(29.) "What Americans Do Online,", accessed December 8, 2011.

(30.) John Suler, "The Online Disinhibition Effect," CyberPsychology and Behavior, Vol. 7, Number 3 (June 2004): 321,, accessed December 8, 2011.

(31.) A report from The Nielsen Company found that the average American visited 72 different domains in January 2010, spending an average of 56 seconds per page,, accessed December 8, 2011.

(32.) Since the field is still new, there is a lively discussion on terminology and definitions that we do not wish to get into in this essay.

(33.) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 192.

(34.), accessed December 8, 2011.

(35.) John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 263-264.

(36.) This has been semi-facetiously stated as Godwin's Law: "As on online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

(37.) There were always exceptions. Early American newspapers were often vehemently partisan. Father Coughlin used radio in the 1930s to reach a huge audience, a forerunner of today's talk radio. However, the cost of print and airtime generally reduced such exceptions to those that could achieve a significant audience.

(38.) See, accessed December 8, 2011.

(39.) See, for example, Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) and Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

(40.) Paul F. Boller and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes. Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 84.

(41.) David Hochman, "Rumor Detectives: True Story or Online Hoax?," Reader's Digest, April 2009, 103,, accessed April 11, 2012.

(42.) The Yale Book of Quotations, 615, traces a close version of it to Charles H. Spurgeon in 1859: "A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on." Spurgeon states he is quoting "an old proverb." A Google search finds only 600 pages that credit the quotation to him.

Randall L. Bytwerk (PhD, Northwestern) and Quentin J. Schultze (PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) are professors in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI., 49546.
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will
  eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such
  time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic
  and or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally
  important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent,
  for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension,
  the greatest enemy of the State.
  --Joseph Goebbels

At a former period of our literary History, it is certain that an
  attempt to form "A Dictionary of Quotations" would have been
  fruitless, and unavailing. When Memory, and not Taste, was consulted,
  in citing Passages from ancient Authors, no compilation, however
  voluminous, could have been adequate or useful.

In this they proceeded on the sound principle that the magnitude of a
  lie always contains a certain factor of credibility, since the great
  masses of the people in the very bottom of their hearts tend to be
  corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil, and that,
  therefore, in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds, they
  more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they
  themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that
  were too big. Such a falsehood will never enter their heads, and they
  will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous
  effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others. ... (14)
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