The story seemed like it would be a natural "talker," as journalistic slang goes.
More than 27,000 comments flooded in [on the CNN report] about former Marine Joshua Boston, who wrote a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein about a proposed assault weapons ban. No surprises there.
But the most popular comment on that story was eye-opening. A comment featuring a purported quotation from Thomas Jefferson received more than 2,000 up votes. The same quotation has been posted dozens of times in other readers' posts.
"When governments fear the people, there is liberty," reads the quotation. "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."
Some readers rushed to debunk the quote. They mentioned Monticello.org, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation's website, which has a section devoted to "spurious" quotations that have been attributed to the third president of the United States. The website lists several variations of the quotation, featured on two pages, and says staff "have not found any evidence that Thomas Jefferson said or wrote" those words.
CNN decided to examine why an apparently fake quote could spread so easily and what this abundant interest in history says about the political landscape today.
Former Marines share dramatically different stances on gun violence
Anna Berkes, research librarian at the Jefferson Library, said there are extensive records of Jefferson's writings and communications. Just about every quotation from Jefferson can be documented somehow, she said.
The earliest reference to the "tyranny in government" quotation that Berkes has noted thus far is within a 1989 opinion-editorial from The Orlando Sentinel in Florida. She said the first part of the section of the article where the quotation appears, which begins with "No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms," has been verified. But the rest of it as not been found in Jefferson's writings.
The foundation's site techs have recorded an uptick in traffic to their "spurious quotations" area since the last month's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children dead. Spokeswoman Lisa Stites sent along statistics indicating traffic increases of nearly 1,000% on some of the remarks.
Not only are people looking up the Jefferson attribution that was appearing in CNN stories, but other apparently false (and legitimate) quotations as well.
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