Teach Students How to Identify Fake Quotes Online: 5 Tips

This blog post is part of a series focusing on media literacy.

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

If you have been on social media, it’s likely that you have seen this quote:

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

There are many decorated versions of these words discoverable by doing a web search, and I have seen classroom posters of this quote. Some of them say, “Everybody is a genius” instead of “Everyone is a genius.” Which is correct? Neither. Einstein never said any such thing. Hundreds of versions of a lie.

On Twitter I saw:

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

Ben never said that. A total falsehood.

And how about these, all of which have come across my feeds?

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” —Thomas Jefferson

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” —Franklin Roosevelt

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” —Abraham Lincoln

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” —Teddy Roosevelt

Which version is the correct one? None of them. They are all fake.

How and Why Fake Quotes Spread Online

Intelligent, well-meaning people and fine educators have fallen for and unintentionally spread lies. All of these people get upset when they hear that troll farms are using Facebook to put out falsehoods that end up being widely shared, yet they are guilty of forwarding falsehoods themselves.

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

Don’t be so harsh, right? Some people might argue, "The message was super nice, so don’t be picky. So Franklin Roosevelt didn’t say it. Big deal. The point is that the words are inspiring!" With that kind of thinking, you can see how troll farms succeed. Put out a message people like that, and it will be shared, whether true or false. People may think, "Maybe the post includes something Donald Trump never said or Elizabeth Warren never said, but so what? I like the post! It reinforces what I already believe so I’ll repost it." Be aware that it is very easy to create attractive but fake messages and attribute them to someone—whether it’s a well-known person or yourself.

What to Teach Your Students

We need to model the behavior we want our students to emulate. We can’t mindlessly accept and perpetuate what we like online. Be suspicious. Think critically. Sometimes the red flags are obvious. Sometimes it’s trickier to detect fakes. You have to know about Ben Franklin’s writing to know the words above are not his style. You have to think that while the world thinks Einstein is a genius, he didn’t hold himself out to be a genius or a commentator on genius.

Verify. Use Snopes, a fact-checking site. Use Google. On the search line I typed, “Did Einstein ever say everyone is a genius?” and got many results verifying that he didn't, including this one.

This is all effortful, but necessary. Make it part of your behavior to think critically and never mindlessly accept or repost anything. Then, share your skill with your students. Internet fakes spread like a disease, and we need to cure ourselves first.

To summarize, here are my tips for becoming a fake quote sleuth:

  • Always be suspicious. Worry about quotes attributed to dead presidents. (The Roosevelts are somehow extremely popular for misattribution.) Worry about names that often pop up such as Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Confucius.
  • Don’t be fooled by volume. With an image search, I found hundreds of posters of a quote attributed to Ben Franklin. I also found hundreds of posters attributing the same quote to Confucius.
  • Be aware that language evolves. If you see modern language attributed to a long-dead person, you found a fake. If you see conversational tone attributed to a stuffy old person, worry.
  • Check for other versions. If you see “Tell me and I forget” and “Teach me and I forget” and “I hear and I forget,” you have found a fake.
  • Ask for the source. If Steve Jobs actually said it, you should be able to find out where and when (e.g., Jobs' talk to Stanford graduates in 2005). If no one can point you to the source, odds are the quote is not legit. 

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was also a guest on HMH's podcast series, Shaping the Future, in November 2019.