These bogus quotes just won’t die on Facebook

May 9, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking

A falsely attributed quote that originated in chain emails is now reaching hundreds of thousands of people on Facebook.

The quote asserts that an immigrant should be “willing to become a Canadian and is willing to assimilate our ways.” Users claim that former Canadian prime minister Wilfrid Laurier said it in 1907 to advocate for national unity.

The Agence France-Presse debunked that on Thursday. In fact, the quote is a modified excerpt from a 1919 letter signed by Theodore Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. AFP reported that the misattribution has been spread online to criticize Canadian immigration since at least 2011.

And on Facebook, the bogus quote has had massive engagement.

According to the audience metrics tool BuzzSumo, one July 2017 post with the misattributed Roosevelt quote had racked up more than 250,000 likes, shares and comments as of publication. That’s about 670 times more engagements than the AFP’s fact check.

The hoax has also spread on Twitter and was mentioned in at least three columns from Canadian media outlets.

Below is a chart with other top fact checks since last Tuesday in order of how many likes, comments and shares they got on Facebook, according to data from BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle. Read more about our methodology here.

On social media, fake quotes have long been one of the most popular types of misinformation. Many of them are “zombie claims,” meaning they live on for months or years after fact-checkers debunk them. They often target politicians, public figures or individuals who are for some reason controversial.

AFP’s fact check wasn’t even the only quote debunk of the week.

In an article published Friday, Brazilian fact-checker Agência Lupa debunked a quote that was falsely attributed to former president Dilma Rousseff’s chief of staff, Gleisi Hoffmann. Users claimed that Hoffmann said Formula One driver Ayrton Senna was “just another car racer” and that former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would be “the true history of Brazil.”

That’s false: The quote is made up, Lupa reported. But a fake news article that originated the meme still got more than 4,000 engagements on Facebook as of publication, according to BuzzSumo — nearly 12 times more than Lupa’s fact check.

Unfortunately for fact-checkers, false quotes are pretty common, and they often struggle to keep up with them.

In February, a fact check from (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact that debunked a made-up Kurt Cobain quote about Donald Trump got three times fewer engagements on Facebook than the hoax. In December, the fact-checker got a wider reach with a debunk of a false Trump quote about Republican voters.

And many false quotes transcend social media platforms.

In a fact check published in December 2016, Snopes rated an alleged Mark Twain quote, “it’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled,” as “unproven.” But it still appeared on websites like Goodreads, in books, memes and even merchandise on Amazon. Twain is often the target of such bogus or unproven quotes, and Snopes debunked another one in July 2018 that criticized journalists.

In fact, the fact-checking site has an entire page dedicated to debunking false quotes. Here are a few more:

“Did Actor Sean Penn Say He Was Moving to Venezuela Because Pres. Maduro Was ‘Way Better Than Trump’?” (False)

“Did Pat Robertson Say the Notre Dame Fire Was the Result of ‘Hell Bubbling over with Homosexuals’?” (False)

“Did Nikita Khrushchev Say ‘We’ll Keep Feeding You Small Doses of Socialism’?” (Unproven)

“Did Thomas Jefferson Say ‘When the Speech Condemns a Free Press, You Are Hearing the Words of a Tyrant’?” (False)

“Did Winston Churchill Say ‘The Fascists of the Future Will Call Themselves Anti-Fascists?’” (False)

These kinds of bogus quotes are everywhere — and they have been for some time. And while they’re more benign than other forms of misinformation, such as child kidnapping rumors and political disinformation, they may be harder for tech platforms and journalists to weed out. That’s because bogus quotes are easy to create, translate well to a variety of different platforms and are easily superimposed on new images — which makes them harder to find and debunk.

So despite Facebook and Instagram’s partnership with fact-checkers, who debunk and limit the reach of false posts on both platforms, don’t expect to see any fewer bogus quotes in your timeline anytime soon.

Disclosure: Being a signatory of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network code of principles is a necessary condition for joining Facebook and Instagram’s fact-checking project.