While I’m on an old-article tip, I’ll republish this as part of my ongoing and Quixotic battle to stop Hunter S Thompson from being misquoted. It’s from .net back in 2008.
Flies and death and stuff
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason. There is also a negative side.” Legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson said that, and it’s been circulating around the internet for years now.
The thing is, he didn’t say it. If you pick up his book Generation of Swine, you’ll see that what HST really wrote was this: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” The misquote has become an Internet Fact.
It’s a similar story with Mariah Carey. Despite what you might have read in Grazia last year, she didn’t actually say of starving children that “I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all the flies and death and stuff”. The quote was invented by a satirical website, but it soon became an Internet Fact that ended up in print.
Internet Facts are a good example of the wisdom of crowds being drowned out by the mooing of herds: what survives isn’t necessarily the truth, but what people would like to believe. It’s funny when it’s making Mariah Carey look daft, but when it’s something more serious the effect is chilling.
In June, The Sun reported that an Anglo-Indian couple had abandoned their newborn baby girls because the dad wanted boys. The following day, it returned to the story – this time to quote the relevant NHS trust’s statement, which denied the allegations and said that the parents were perfectly attentive and very much in love with their daughters. Dozens of blogs quoted the original article; not one of them ran a correction when it turned out that the story was flawed at best and completely false at worst. And on The Sun website, it’s clear that most commenters simply ignored the correction. The result was several pages of knee-jerk nonsense, often bordering on the racist, sometimes crossing the line altogether. The story – the original one, not the corrected, accurate version – has become an Internet Fact, fuel for casual racists and Stormfront posters alike.
There are countless examples, ranging from the relatively harmless – for example, lurid and entirely invented tales of celebrities’ sexual proclivities – to the downright dangerous, such as the false dangers attributed to life-saving vaccines. Thanks to blogs and comments, we all have the right to publish this stuff and to circulate it more widely – but with that right comes the responsibility to ensure that what we say or post is actually true. Everything we post online has the potential to become an Internet Fact. As with most things in life, it pays to listen to Cher: as she sang in If I Could Turn Back Time, “words can be weapons. They wound sometimes.”