Lauren Morril was outraged and exhausted. It was January 2017, one week before Donald Trump's presidential inauguration. As Morrill, then pregnant with her second child, watched the president-elect demand the U.S. Senate repeal the Affordable Care Act—threatening the insurance coverage of millions of Americans—she fired off a tweet.
"My biggest problem in these ACA debates?" the Macon, Georgia-based YA author posted on January 13, 2017. "I don't know how to explain to you why you should care about other people."
Poignant, succinct, and in line with how many across America were feeling about a nascent administration that was seemingly focused on the comforts of a few...at the expense of the masses.
At the time, Morrill had a small but influential Twitter following that included fellow authors like Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han. As her literary circle began retweeting her message, it rapidly spread. Within days, celebrities including John Legend and Sarah Silverman had shared her tweet, as well as more than 20,000 others.
In the years since, Morrill's quote has continued to circulate online, popping up whenever human decency is up for debate. But somewhere along the way, it stopped being attributed to Morrill. Instead, "I don't know how to explain to you why you should care about other people," has now taken on new life in everything from HuffPost headlines to T-shirts—credited as a nugget of wisdom by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Perhaps what first kicked off this quote's lengthy journey toward not being properly credited began on June 2017. Six months after Morrill's tweet, an op-ed by contributor Kayla Chadwick ran on HuffPost with the title, "I Don't Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People." The post touched on healthcare, but Chadwick also used the unsourced quote to address her general feelings about everything from raising the minimum wage to funding public schools. She never mentioned Morrill or credited her viral tweet.
Suddenly, the message—with one word different from Morrill's original, substituting "that" for "why"—became Chadwick's.
Coincidence? Maybe. But the first time the phrases "I don't know how to explain to you" and "care about other people" ever appeared together on Twitter (or the internet, as far as I can tell) was in Morrill's January 2017 tweet.
"I wanted to give her some grace about it," Morrill tells OprahMag.com. "It is possible that she absorbed the tweet—it was everywhere—and didn't really think, like, 'I am stealing this.' But, to me, once it's pointed out, you'd think, 'Oh my gosh, well, I'll credit you.' That's all I'm asking for: Credit."
Assuming Chadwick didn’t deliberately plagiarize Morrill, Cailin O'Connor, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and co-author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, notes there's a chance Chadwick could have absorbed the viral quote to the point that she believed it was a universal sentiment that didn't require any credit.
"There are a lot of false beliefs that, because they're so widespread, people believe them, even people who are experts, like scientists or journalists," O'Connor says. "And because they've heard it from so many sources, it starts to seem like just common knowledge and not the kind of thing that you actually need to fact check."
At the time, Morrill tweeted at HuffPost, alerting them to her original tweet and asking them to update the piece to include her credit. But, she says, "No one ever got back to me.” Chadwick is now a producer at MSNBC; through a spokesperson for the network, she declined to comment for this piece.
"It used to be that people would retweet my tweet and say, 'Oh, I think about this all the time.’ And then it became, 'I think about this Huffington Post headline all the time,'” Morrill says. “It frustrated me, but there comes a point where screaming about your credit on the internet becomes annoying. If I had been a man, I probably would have been more tough about it. I think about that a lot."
Three years later, an unlikely new author joined the fray with Morrill and Chadwick: Dr. Anthony Fauci. In June 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic raged and face masks had somehow become a political issue, colorful Instagram graphics began circulating that attributed Morrill's quote to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Perhaps because Fauci is a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and has encouraged Americans to think of others instead of just themselves during a worldwide crisis, it seemed entirely plausible that he could have uttered those words. In reality, the closest Fauci has come to publicly saying the words in this quote seems to be an excerpt from a May 2020 graduation speech he gave at his alma mater, the College of the Holy Cross: "Now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another."
But, of course, facts aren't necessarily at the forefront of social media. And the "Fauci" quote began to gain traction. On July 6, The Goonies actress Martha Plimpton shared a floral graphic with Morrill’s quote in an authoritative serif font, citing Fauci as she encouraged her followers to "#wearamask."
In mid-July, Busy Philipps posted a balloon art rendering of the quote created by Michael James Schneider to her more than 2.1 million Instagram followers. While she first credited Fauci, Philipps soon revised her caption to instead give attribution to Chadwick, noting, "I’m a REAL CREDIT BITCH- so I had to put it back up with the proper credit to her."
So Kayla Chadwick, a contributor to @huffpost said this(not Fauci) and you know I’m a REAL CREDIT BITCH- so I had to put it back up with the proper credit to her AND this wonderful art by @blcksmth. 💕💕💕💕
A post shared by Busy Philipps (@busyphilipps) on Jul 15, 2020 at 7:08am PDT
One study found that celebrities can serve as “super spreaders of misinformation” in times of crises, and O’Connor notes that we’re less likely to question the validity of something online when it comes from someone we regard in high esteem. Philipps's post has been liked by Hilary Duff, Mandy Moore, and more than 76,000 other users. And although Morrill messaged Philipps asking her to revise the credit again, she has yet to hear back.
While the wildfire spread of misinformation on social media can feel unstoppable, there are numerous ways platforms can try to fight it. Twitter has experimented with prompts that encourage users to read unopened article links before sharing them, and both Twitter and Facebook have taken strides to add warning labels to posts that contain misleading information.
"Many people think that just slowing down the rate of sharing can improve the quality of information that gets shared," O'Connor says. "Even adding one more click to the process of sharing could make people less likely to quickly pass on something that they haven't taken time to vet or really think about for themselves."
Still, O’Connor adds, it doesn’t help when some people in power are encouraging misinformation.
"People are imitators," she says. "So, it wouldn't be surprising if having a very prominent figure like the U.S. president and certain other members of the government who are actively spreading misinformation influences the behavior of everyday people to make it seem more acceptable."
"We're definitely not ever going to get rid of misinformation. It's as old as human communication," O'Connor adds. "So, the idea isn't to eradicate it, but rather to suppress it, make it less prevalent, and do whatever we can to make it harder for people to create and spread misleading content."
Misattributing Morrill’s quote may feel inconsequential in light of the more harmful "fake news" of the internet, but it is still important. As an author with her sixth novel, It’s Kind of a Cheesy Love Story, out next March, Morrill is currently unable to go on a book tour or promote her work in person due to the pandemic, so online visibility is key. And helping new readers find her work through her viral quote could be vital to her future success.
"I wrote those words, and thousands of millions of people read them, and most of them don't know it's me," she says. "So, that's really hard to think about—especially in a time when we don't know what's going to happen with publishing."
For her part, Morrill says she is now "obsessed" with giving credit to others online. She's also seen how proper attribution can make all the difference in someone's life. Her husband, Adam Ragusea, was working as a journalist and professor when a food science video he posted on YouTube went viral on reddit. Because the clip retained his proper credit, he was able to build an audience of nearly a million followers, quit his day job, and now works full-time as a YouTuber.
"That's an example of what can happen when everyone shares your work and can trace it back to you," she says. "To watch him grow that YouTube channel thanks to a few viral hits...meanwhile, I've got this tweet that still has a long tail three years later, and I'm like, 'Please, read my book!' I don't share anything anywhere unless I know the credit for it because I know how disheartening it can be.”
Due to his, understandably, very busy schedule, Dr. Fauci was not available to comment for this piece.
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