Politicians and movement leaders have long understood one ironic truth: Repeat a misstatement with enough hubris and fierceness, and people will believe it. But the Internet has added a new danger level to that destructive theme.
Witness the push-back by defenders of Sarah Palin, a could-be presidential candidate who wrongly characterized Paul Revere’s Revolutionary War-era ride. Palin, on a family vacation-cum-"SarahPac" promotional tour, told reporters Revere was warning the British that the colonists would not give up their guns. She said Revere rang bells and shot his gun as a warning. Historians disagree (Revere was actually warning his comrades, not the enemy British soldiers), but Palin fans rushed to edit the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to rewrite history, seeking to turn Palin’s misstatement into historical fact. (Wikipedia has since locked the page on Revere while things calm down.)
The concept isn’t entirely new—and as David Farenthold very smartly pointed out in the Washington Post this week—many politicians have fallen prey to Internet misinformation, repeating quotes from historical figures that were never uttered. And as many lawmakers and public figures have learned, it’s very difficult to undo bad information communicated by the web, since so many people continue to hit the "forward" button on mischaracterizations and outright lies repeated online. It’s one of the reasons members of Congress repeatedly have to tell people that no, in fact, they are not spared the burden of paying federal taxes or Social Security taxes. And no, they are not allowed to go to their flights without going through security first. But so many people would like to believe that—and so many continue to indignantly post such misinformation online—that the protestations are largely ineffectual. [See photos from Palin's bus tour.]
There are some basic truths about the Internet. It can be a great way to reconnect with people one has lost track of. But your Facebook friends are not really your friends. Try actually spending time with people you like. A quote is not necessarily a real quote just because someone wrote it online; look it up—perhaps in an actual book that has been edited and fact-checked by actual historians. And Wikipedia can be a terrific start to a research project, but it also is not necessarily reliable or complete. [See political cartoons about Palin.]
As Yogi Berra once famously said (we think), you can look it up.