Plausible Quotations and Reverse Credibility in Online Vernacular Communities

Article excerpt

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.

  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

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. …

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