This feature appeared in the i newspaper in March 2022.
“The people will believe what the media tells them they believe.”
As one of the most revered and prescient authors of the past century, George Orwell is the source of many famous quotes. Like this one, they are often bold statements that seem to cut to the heart of modern society’s problems. People often feel a sense of satisfaction in sharing them to support their own viewpoints – especially when they have a conspiratorial air.
There’s just one problem: the sentence above isn’t an Orwell quote. A graphic bearing these words, with the author’s name beneath them, was shared thousands of times after it was posted on Facebook last week. But the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four never wrote or said this.
In fact, the quote first appeared during the US presidential election of 2016. I will defer to the words of Dorian Lynskey, author of The Ministry of Truth, a “biography” of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
As he explains: “Orwell never wrote those words, nor do they sound like something he would have written. For one thing, “the media” did not enter common usage until after his death in 1950, and this stickler for correct prose would never have used the singular. For another, he had too much faith in ordinary people to portray them as gullible puppets.
“A report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee later discerned that the phony quotation had been disseminated by the Internet Research Agency, Russia’s most prolific troll farm. People will believe what a Twitter meme tells them they believe.”
Who knows if the right-wing US conspiracist who shared the graphic last week was aware that it’s a fake quote. But, disturbingly, many of his supporters commented that this was irrelevant.
“You’ve yet to disprove the accuracy of the actual quote,” wrote one. “Who cares who said it the statement is TRUE,” offered another – prompting someone to respond: “Even tho the meme is a lie? How Orwellian of you.”
Orwell is one of those writers who are well worth quoting. Every day, in the press, on social media and in TV talk shows, Orwell’s thoughts, words and sharp observations are referenced, alluded to and discussed.
No wonder, when he really did write such brilliant lines as the closing paragraph of Animal Farm: “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
But beware. Among the mass of Orwell quotes out there, particularly on social media, many are false or misattributed, and have been shown to be numerous times.
As the publicity officer of The Orwell Society, I am often asked by news outlets to confirm or deny the veracity of quotes attributed to Orwell. I have worked with organisations including the Reuters Fact Check team, Snopes and LeadStories to do this.
Here’s another example: “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
This one has become ubiquitous: you will see it in the media, on placards at demos and rallies, and of course in meme form, repeated and shared on social media, millions of times over.
Here are some of the most common false or disputed Orwell quotes out there…
‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act‘
This quote is widely attributed to Orwell and used by all sides of the political divide, in rallies, and online. The true source of the quote, (which in its original form is without the word “universal”), appears to be the book Science Dimension, published in 1982, which includes the sentence: “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Whatever its origin, this phrase does not appear in any of Orwell’s recorded writings or letters.
‘A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims, but accomplices‘
This is cited by numerous political figures, journalists and commentators. Nevertheless, it was not written by the man himself: this precise phrase does not appear in the Orwell library or in any of his correspondences.
‘The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening‘
Though its connection to Orwell is stronger than others on this list, this is not a direct quote. It actually features in the 2014 stage adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan.
‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations‘
A common quote which many assume is by Orwell; it certainly sounds faintly Orwellian, at least to modern ears. Its true origin isn’t clear. It may be based loosely around a similar phrase also attributed to figures, including the newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe. However, the quote cannot be found in any of Orwell’s works, diaries or correspondences.
‘The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it‘
One of the most well-known of the spurious Orwell quotes. As The Orwell Society confirmed with the Reuters Fact Check team in December 2021, this has been repeatedly debunked as an Orwell quote. In fact it was coined by Selwyn Duke, a freelance writer who describes himself as a “teller of Truth and leftists’ worst nightmare” in his Twitter bio.
‘It’s not a matter of whether the war is not real, or if it is, Victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous‘
This is a short extract from a lengthy quote that appears at the end of filmmaker Michael Moore’s anti-Iraq War polemic Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore even introduces the dramatic finale by saying “George Orwell once wrote…”, but a closer examination shows that these lines only appear in the movie adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, and are paraphrased from the novel.
‘If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them‘
This quote appears to have been attributed to Orwell in the 1970s and is frequently used today. He expressed similar sentiments in much of his writing, but this phrase, in exactly this form, does not appear in the Orwell library.
As it’s April Fool’s Day on Friday, I might be faced with more fake Orwell quotes before the week ends. But it’s worth remembering why all this matters, by leaving you with one my favourite passages genuinely by him, on the experience of working as an author. You may recognise the final sentence.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”
Now that really is worth sharing.
If you see a spurious George Orwell quote, you can contact Benedict who will be able to investigate