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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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 snopes.com 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
(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,
(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 archive.org, 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 http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=26777, accessed December 8, 2011.
(17.) Cited by http://www.earths.net/rnarl1-mar2402.htm, accessed
December 8, 2011. It also credits the quotation to "Joseph M.
(18.) Not all of the hits made the Bush-Goebbels comparison, but
the substantial majority of those we checked did, accessed December 8,
(19.) Rodrigue Tremblay, "War and Propaganda Machines,"
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.) http://thinkexist.com/quotation/-ifyou_tell_a_lie_big_enough_and_keep_repeating/345877.html, 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
Quantcast.com, 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.) http://bytwerk.com/gpa/falsenaziquotations.htm, accessed
December 8, 2011.
(24.) The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York: Knopf,
(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
http://www.creators.com/opinion/suzanne-fields/when-decency-goes-awol.html, 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),
(29.) "What Americans Do Online,"
http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/online_mobile/what-americans-do-online-social-media-and-games-dominate-activity/, accessed December 8, 2011.
(30.) John Suler, "The Online Disinhibition Effect,"
CyberPsychology and Behavior, Vol. 7, Number 3 (June 2004): 321,
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,
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
(33.) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2006), 192.
(34.) http://www.henryjenkins.org/2009/02/ifit_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html, 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),
(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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flagged_revisions, 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.
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)