Eighty-Million Postage Stamps Can be Wrong.

More like a meme than a monument.” This is how Ian Crouch, writing for NewYorker.com, describes the new Maya Angelou stamp, which features a photo of the beloved author alongside a passage she didn’t actually write.

You see, folks? That’s how you attribute a quote. I put the words that Crouch wrote inside the quote marks and post a link to the actual article, and then I tell you that Crouch wrote it and what the context was.

Maya Angelou Stamp Unveiling. By Kkhudson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

by Kkhudson via Wikimedia Commons.

The passage in question—“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”—originally appeared in the book A Cup of Sun by author and illustrator Joan Walsh Anglund. The Post Office is not going to retract the more than eighty-million stamps that have been produced. Nobody knows exactly who to blame, except for the hundreds, if not thousands, of sloppy attributors over the years. As Crouch points out in his piece, Angelou herself at least once made use of the sentiment, and both an Angelou scholar and the author’s family approved the stamp.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, though not with such a gargantuan print run. In 2011, the death of Osama bin Laden resulted in a pair of online quotes repeatedly misattributed to Mark Twain and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was pretty funny to read all of the tongue-in-cheek posts, “Don’t trust everything you read on the Internets,” attributed to Twain, Einstein, Franklin, and the like. Alexandra Petri, for The Washington Post, has come up with a spot-on flow chart for misattributed quotes. (If it is a quip that “relates to baseball or forks,” misattribute the remark to Yogi Berra.)

I was recently the writer on a print ad for which we pitched a number of concepts. One of them involved a quote by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which I found online. The quote was featured in a Brain Pickings piece about a new book of Vonnegut’s commencement addresses, so it wasn’t exactly an obscure source. Still, as the concept went from being just another in a series of ideas to the one the client seemed to favor, I figured I’d better get it buttoned up. I was relieved to be able to find video of Vonnegut actually uttering the words.

So I understand how it can happen: You don’t want to fact-check every concept meticulously, because only one out of twenty (if you’re lucky) is going to make the cut. Fact-checking the Angelou quote might have done little good anyway, since the quote has been attributed to her since 2002 and has turned up in many actual books (though not her own) as an epigram.

We can wish that people would post more responsibly. We can hang our hopes on digital citizenship classes, which are an excellent idea and should be taught as early as possible (high school is almost certainly too late, as habits have by then already been formed). Maybe the Internet should come with a warning label. This old Onion article should be the first thing that comes up when you fire up your browser.

As Lewis Carroll once wrote: “What I tell you three times is true.” He didn’t say what happens when you tell it eighty-million times. Or maybe it wasn’t Lewis Carroll at all. Maybe it was Winston Churchill.