By Jethro Mullen
(CNN) — Nelson Mandela said a lot of great things. But after his death, he’s being widely credited on social media with a phrase he didn’t utter.
Amid the deluge of tributes to South Africa’s first black president, who died Thursday aged 95, many Twitter users were paying homage to Mandela by posting the following quote:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
They attributed the words to Mandela, but as The New York Times reported more than two years ago, the words actually come from a bestselling book by self-help author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson.
The misattribution to Mandela was already well established in 2011, The Times says, and how he came to be given credit for the quote “remains a mystery.”
His death has now prompted a revival in the mistaken citation. Despite efforts to dispel the confusion, tweets linking Mandela to the quote were still chugging along at a steady rate early Friday, blending in with the array of memorable phrases he really said.
Paris Hilton angered by fake tweet
Mandela’s death also sparked a more malicious type of misquoting.
A Twitter account under the name @DeletedTweets posted a tweet purporting to be from Paris Hilton in which she appeared to misattribute the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to Mandela.
But Hilton later fired back angrily, tweeting, “Whoever made that stupid fake tweet lacks respect to the loss the world is mourning right now. Same goes for all the blogs who ran with it.”
Her real tribute to Mandela? “He was a true Hero & the world is a better place because of him. May he rest in peace.”
By early Friday, the @DeletedTweets account appeared to be inactive.
Misquotes of public and historical figures are nothing new. In 1989, two academics published “They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes and Misleading Attributions.”
In the extended exercise in debunking, Paul F. Boller and John George attempted to put paid to misleading myths that had grown up around words linked in the popular consciousness to people like Winston Churchill and George Washington.
‘Mangled to meme’
But since then, the Internet has dramatically increased the velocity at which such falsities spread.
After the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, words incorrectly attributed to King and Mark Twain quickly snowballed on social media. The phrases were being used by people to express discomfort with celebrations of bin Laden’s death.
In an online inquest into what happened with the mistaken King quote, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic remarked that “the speed of dissemination is breathtaking: mangled to meme in less than two days.”
She also noted the resilience of false quotes.
“Fake quotations are pithier, more dramatic, more on point, than the things people usually say in real life,” she wrote. “It’s not surprising that they are often the survivors of the evolutionary battle for mindshare.”
Some people are using the Internet to try to fight back against rampant misattributions to major figures. The website fakebuddhaquotes.com says it’s dedicated to sorting true from false, around 2,500 years after the Buddha’s time on earth.
Those who would like to keep Mandela’s real remarks separate from the fake ones have a long road ahead.
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