By Meredith Schneider
Morgan Freeman. Photo courtesy of Franz Richter.
Viral marketing has been a key player in the livelihood of many businesses over the past several years, allowing information to travel quickly, and giving people and media outlets the opportunity to draw attention in new and interesting ways.
Though the idea of sending messages out to the masses is hardly new, it is a recent development that information dispersal is more widely attainable now than ever due to the technologies available at our fingertips. Whether it’s advertising agencies creating hilarious commercials to grab the attention of consumers everywhere, teenagers editing photos of cats into bizarre memes, or kids torturing their friends with personal renditions of “Gangnam Style,” information that goes viral on the internet is tailor made for attention-seekers.
But what happens when misinformation goes viral?
Many times in the past, journalists have mistakenly let invalid material go to print, and copywriters have been known to overlook glaring errors. For better or for worse, pranks circulate quite rapidly on the world wide web, and there are no exceptions when it comes to vital, breaking world news.
According to Dictionary.com, a hoax is “something intended to deceive or defraud”. With the internet being such a hotbed for invalid information (i.e. certain pages on Wikipedia), it can be difficult as an individual to cipher between what is correct and what is not. This is why it comes as no surprise that “quoaxes”—or “quote hoaxes”—are becoming so much more prevalent in the mass media. After the Sandy Hook tragedy a quote supposedly attributed to Morgan Freeman circulated through social media that turned out to be a hoax. The quote reads as follows:
You want to know why? This may sound cynical, but here’s why. It’s because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine?
Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basement see the news and want to top it by doing something worse and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster instead of a sad nobody. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you’ve just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or maternity ward next.
The statement struck a cord with many Americans, and instantly went viral. People were noting Freeman’s audacity to say so articulately what many may have been thinking but couldn’t put into words.
Except Freeman had nothing to do with that statement; it was posted with his photo next to it, leading readers all over the nation — and the world — to believe that these words came from Freeman himself. In reality, a Canadian named Mark Price posted the above on his Facebook page, stating, “If I know the Internet, someone will attribute the quote to Morgan Freeman or Betty White and it’ll go viral.” And it did. Thus, Price proved his statement without even trying and the sensationalist tendencies of the media won out.
Although it doesn’t seem Price published his quote under Morgan Freeman’s name with any type of malice, it is important to recognize how easy it would be to do so. Recently, Penn State University’s The Daily Collegian suspended one of its contributors after he published bogus quotes. The student is said to have fabricated statements that he claimed were said by former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s widow, Sue Paterno.
Another more recent “quoax” that can be found pretty easily in any search engine is a quote that circulated shortly after Bin Laden’s death in 2011. The quote, highlighting the inhumanity of taking a life for a life, was attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and turned out to be paraphrased from his book Strength to Love. Someone named Jessica Dovey claimed to have posted the quote as its originator on her Facebook page, while Penn Jillette — of Penn & Teller fame — also thought he was the first to post it. Like the Freeman quoax, this little gem went viral within 24 hours.
It cannot always be marked as naivety for the viewing public to believe what they read. Reputable news sources have been known to misquote — and even distort facts — in order to get the information before anyone else does.
But should slapping a picture of a revered actor on a quote get so much hype by the viewing public? We polled young adults (aged 20-26) across the nation to find out their opinions on the matter. Only 57 percent thought they might be more likely to trust something or believe in it if a celebrity endorsed it, while the other 43 percent said they would not. Even with those numbers, 100 percent of those polled admitted that seeing a photo of a celebrity next to a quote would cause them to assume that that person said those words.
“[People who incorrectly quote celebrities] just want attention,” admits Bryan Velzy, 26, of New York. Geoff Wiese, 23, of Missouri agrees. “They do it for credibility.”
Whether it is a factor of credibility, an accidental misquote, or a rush to get the headline, it’s always important to fact-check any vital information that you come across, especially on the internet. And if you hear of any other interesting quoaxes, be sure to let us know.