How Osama bin Laden's death sparked a fake Martin Luther King quote

A Facebook user's message about Osama bin Laden's death quickly mutated into a misattributed quote by Martin Luther King, showing us all how quickly the Internet can generate an urban legend.

ZUMA Press/Newscom/File
Martin Luther King himself couldn't have put it better when he said, 'Don't believe everything you read on the Internet.'

If you were online Monday, there's a decent chance you spotted this quote:

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

To many who found the celebrations of Osama bin Laden's death unseemly, the line summed up their feelings perfectly. By the end of the day, it was being repeated endlessly on Facebook, Twitter, and several blogs.

Just one problem: There's no evidence that Martin Luther King ever said such a thing.

By Tuesday morning, the blogosphere was starting to catch on. One of the first was Salon's Drew Grant, who shot from the hip and grazed an innocent Las Vegas magician with a post headlined, "Why did Penn Jillette create a fake Martin Luther King Jr. quote yesterday?"

Ms. Grant was right to point out that the attribution to Mr. King was bogus, but it turns out Mr. Jillette was just another unwitting vector, albeit one with 1.6 million Twitter followers. Megan McArdle, a blogger at the Atlantic, tracked the original quote down to Jessica Dovey, a recent Penn State grad living in Kobe, Japan, who posted this as her Facebook status:

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." MLK Jr.

The first sentence is Ms. Dovey's own, followed by a quotation from King's 1963 book, "Strength to Love." At some point along the way, the quote marks vanished, and Dovey's words got mixed up with King's. Subsequently, the quote was shortened, leaving only Dovey's line, now attributed to the civil rights leader.

There's an old saying that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants. (Ironically, like many sayings whose origin is hazy, this one is widely misattributed to Mark Twain.)

Online, it all happens in a flash. A woman shares an eloquent and timely message with her Facebook friends. It gets passed along, quickly mutating into a false yet compelling line backed by King's unassailable moral authority, and then suddenly goes viral, repeating itself on almost 10,000 web pages within 24 hours.

Now the truth has hoisted its trousers and is off and running. Using Google's date range filter, skeptics start searching for the quote's origin, and come up empty. They start working backward, trying to find what epidemiologists call "patient zero." They find the source, and begin disseminating the real story.

But, if Google's realtime Twitter results are any guide, the truth still has a lot of ground to cover before it catches up. Maybe it never will, and the misattributed quote, like so many before it, will cement itself in the public consciousness.

Maybe this is inevitable, but let's at least try to fight on the side of reality. If you have a blog or use Twitter or Facebook, you can copy and paste this line:

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." - Jessica Dovey

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.