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Beware the Internet

Our Virginia: Past and Present is a fourth-grade history textbook that was in wide use in Virginia’s schools until a few years ago. Then it was found to be rife with misspellings and blatant falsehoods, such as: The Confederacy consisted of twelve states (actually eleven). The United States entered World War I in 1916 (it was 1917). These are bad enough. But to assert that African American soldiers fought for the South in large numbers during the Civil War is a lie that trivializes slavery.

When did schools become facilities for poisoning children’s minds with disinformation?

The author’s explanation: she did her research on the Internet.

That’s a foolhardy move, as I recently found out firsthand.

I wanted to use a quotation by Mark Twain, which I thought went like this: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” This version is endorsed by numerous online “authorities.”

Right before my deadline, I just so happened to pick up Dick Cavett’s book Talk Show. I was amazed that four pages in, Cavett ran the same Twain aphorism, except that his version was different—and, as it turned out, correct. Here it is: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I still had time to make the change, but I was shaken.

I had it backward: “between lightning and a lightning bug” was the way I’d always heard it, and it never occurred to me there was anything “off” about it.

I typed four words into my search engine: “Mark Twain ‘The difference’ ” and immediately saw page after page of websites featuring the quote, exactly as I’d remembered it—in other words, exactly wrong!

I went to a slick-looking site called quotationspage.com, which had it wrong. Iwise.com, an elaborate, visually striking site, loused it up. Thinkexist.com, whose motto is “Finding quotations was never this easy,” blew it. Great-quotes.com, with its many sponsors and high production values, botched it. So did Progress.org, with its Twain page by author Norman Solomon. (Solomon went on to write The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media. Now that’s an irony Twain would appreciate.)

These were all impressive websites with an aura of authority, and they were all wrong about something that should be easy to get right—a famous saying from an illustrious American writer. The Internet will get you if you don’t watch out—or maybe even if you do.

Tom Stern

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