A Lesson in Social Media: How to Go Viral the Right Way

When we hover over the keyboard formulating the “Great American Tweet” in our minds, we all hope our next 140-character status will also be the next viral sensation to be immediately re-tweeted by the masses.

But with great tweets come great responsibility.

In response to the news about Osama bin Laden’s death, a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote went viral. “I 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.”

Soon after, the quote appeared on Penn Jillette’s (also known as “Penn” of Penn & Teller) Twitter page. His “tweet”, viewed by his 1.6 million followers, quickly found its way across Facebook. Suddenly, there was a quote by a famous man to eloquently sum up the feelings of many.

There’s just one problem: Martin Luther King, Jr. never said this.

So where did this quote really come from? The first sentence, “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives…” came from Twitter user Jessica Dovey. The rest of the quote is actually King’s own writing. In the end, Dovey’s sentence before the King quote was copied, pasted, and amalgamated into the single quote, which bounced around the Internet.

Now we don’t think anybody intentionally spread misinformation, but the nature of the Internet (and viral sensations) is rather like a game of telephone–one mistake in the line of communication can completely alter the meaning of a message. Add in the fact that social media platforms can spread information to millions instantaneously and you’ve got an epidemic of misinformation on your hands.

Before you jump on the bandwagon of the next big quote on Facebook or Twitter, do what any journalist would do: check your sources.