A while back, a “statement” regarding gun violence and the Newtown shootings attributed to Morgan Freeman was making its way around the Intertubez; and when it came across my Facebook page, my first reaction was: nah, he didn’t say (or write) that. And he didn’t. It was a “hoax.” The dictionary on my computer says a hoax is a humorous or malicious deception, and purportedly, someone started this as a joke on Facebook. These messages and quotes are often self-righteous, bold or “controversial,” and I can imagine some people getting a kick out of the subsequent head-nodding and cheerleading (“You go, Morgan!”) and the vitriol and hand-wringing (“Playing God went to your head!”**). So maybe that’s humorous (or malicious or both). Whether intended or not, the “fake” Newtown statement resonated with real people. If these falsely-attributed messages stood on their own, they would likely still resonate as they will naturally appeal to certain people. What seems doubtful, however, is that most of these “famous” rants would get nearly as much attention without the sticker of a well-known and usually well-liked person. In these cases the perpetrators of these “hoaxes” steal authority instead of work or ideas; we might even call it reverse plagiarism.
Authorial confusion is not exactly a new phenomenon (perhaps it is the original phenomenon!), but the difference between a pithy line bouncing between various authors over decades or centuries (even Socrates and Plato aren’t exempt) and affixing a “big name” onto one’s own creative work is stark in my mind, especially if intentionally “re-authoring” a work is used as a very depraved way to get noticed. The way in which intentional and let’s say organic attribution might be the same is that the genie never goes back into the bottle. I ran across one such case recently, a short essay, “Paradoxes,” erroneously attributed to the late comedian George Carlin that has been forwarded from 1998 into the present via emails, Facebook posts, blogs and who knows how else. It has also been attributed to the Dalai Lama (GC and the DL, there’s a pair!) among others. Around and around this one will go until the end of time (or the Internet, whichever comes first). The funny thing in the persistence of this “message from George Carlin” is that if you stop a minute to consider what you’re reading, it just doesn’t sound like Carlin (who happened to call the essay “a sappy load of shit” (which illustrates the difference kind of perfectly)).
Email forwards and Facebook posts don’t really lend themselves to great introspection; they are more instances of instantaneous consumption, so between their fast food nature and our easily tapped prejudices, our willingness to unwittingly believe these things makes sense. But I think there is another factor at work: we hear voices in our head. In these cases they are very familiar and striking voices. If George Carlin or Morgan Freeman says something it comes with layers of meaning in advance, and a self-perpetuating fiction is set into motion. Things that don’t really sound like someone’s voice kind of do now, because their voices are playing in our heads. Most of the time it is going to be natural to “assume the voice;” these messages typically come from friends and family so why wouldn’t we believe it is by whom it claims to be? We really do want to believe in something, especially if it is what we already believe in.
And yes, I am calling drone flies reverse-plagiarizers. I might also start calling them Morgan Freemans.
** – The preceding quotes are my own. I made them up on the spot, and by no means intended to attribute them to anonymous Facebook users (natch).