“Don’t trust every quote you find on the Internet” – Benjamin Franklin

You need some ammunition in an argument against your leftist friends? How about this?

Or this?

That’ll surely shut them up! After all, how can you argue against the farsighted wisdom of the Founding Fathers? The only problem is that this supposed Jefferson quotation actually comes out of the mouth of early 20th century American Senator John Sharp Williams. And there is no evidence Franklin ever said or wrote anything like the above, which hasn’t stopped people from spreading this quotation all over the Internet. It has even wormed its way into various books. There is also a similar fake quote attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville: “A democracy can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury.”

Other American Founding Fathers fare no better. Consider the following fake George Washington quotes:

Continued deficit spending must ultimately endanger all governments.

When a nation mistrusts its citizens with guns it is it sending a clear message. It no longer trusts its citizens because such a government has evil plans.

Here is a good rule of thumb: if you find a quote by a Founding Father, or any major historical figure that sounds topical enough to have been written recently, it probably was.

A little historical knowledge will go a long way. It’s natural enough for us to worry about continued deficit spending, but during Washington’s time, deficit spending was the exception rather than the norm. The expression deficit spending should also ring some alarm bells. It does not sound like a term that would be in use during the 18th century, and a quick search on Google Ngram does indeed bear out this intuition:

Deficit spending makes its first very minor appearance around 1900 and starts to become a common expression around 1930. Definitely not an expression that Washington would have used.

As for the second quotation, anyone who has actually read some 18th century writers should immediately realise that this statement sprang from the keyboard of a 20th or 21st century writer rather than from the feather of Washington.

Because of the reverence in which many modern Americans hold their Founding Fathers, they are an especially juicy target for the inventors of quotes. After all, whatever political or ideological message you want to convey sounds weightier coming from the mouth of Washington, Franklin, or Jefferson than from some guy on social media.

But the problem of fake quotes is of course not limited to 18th century American statesmen. During his 2016 presidential run, Republican candidate Ben Carson embarrassed himself by falling for the following fake quote:

What a convenient statement for an American conservative! So convenient that one should be very suspicious. This statement makes perfect sense if the objective is to make American conservatives look good, but that has never been very high on Stalin’s list of priorities. Why would he say something like that? Stalin is supposed to be a Marxist-Leninist, meaning he’s committed to the position that capitalism will collapse under its own contradictions. Calling America a “healthy body” would seriously undermine his credibility.

It therefore should have surprised no one that the quote is invented and it is astonishing that neither Carson himself nor anyone on his team became suspicious enough to spend five minutes Googling this quote before using it on national television.

Another good rule of thumb when confronted with a supposed quote by someone you consider an enemy is to remember that people in real life are not comic book villains. Almost no one thinks of themselves as evil and of their enemies as virtuous.

And above all, remember that any idiot on the Internet can create an image with a face and a few words next to it. If you encounter a quote that does not come from a reliable source or cites a reliable source, do not like, share, retweet, or otherwise spread the quote as long as you haven’t spent two minutes on Google to check its veracity.

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