Fact-Checking the Reinvention of George Orwell: Reuters, Benedict Cooper, and Dorian Lynskey


“Fact-checking can thus be understood as a way of judging or appreciating literature by measuring its accuracy—checking the discrete units or particulars that make up texts and ensuring that they correctly correspond to referents in the world as well as those within an author’s mental representation of the world. In so doing, fact-checking is preoccupied not only with the aesthetic appreciation of facts but the potential interpretive problems posed by error.”

– Chad Nicholas Hegelmeyer

In a 2020 PhD dissertation at NYU, Chad Nicholas Hegelmeyer has presented a rigorous discussion about practices of formal fact checking towards works of realist fiction and poetry at institutions including the New Yorker. Perhaps these forms of literature may seem to differ widely to the literary nature of a micro-short-form Tweet, or the content of a Facebook article, or the visual tropes of a meme. With the prevalence of Social Media in the dissemination and general creation of information today, Hegelmeyer’s study may serve to elevate the discourse about fact checking, in broad. Clearly, it’s not in all ways a new practice for media in the US. (The dissertation is available via ProQuest)

On the flip side of fact checking about literature, Reuters Fact Check has published a debunking of a certain meme that was shared at Twitter and Facebook, in which a quote was attributed to George Orwell while the words in the meme were not Orwell’s own. The fact-checking article was published on 1 April, but clearly it’s not an April Fool’s Joke.

The article from Reuters might help to present an interesting illustration of how we can approach information on the Web, from a perspective of media literacy.

As an approach towards fact-checking at an individual scale, perhaps the SIFT methodology presented by Mike Caulfield could bear reference as a methodological approach here. Albeit, for analysis of individual visual memes, beside all content in Social Media, the methodology might seem to meet some limits in the limitations of the medium, per se. There may not appear to be a lot of content to research, in a meme. After the mischaracterization of Orwell, for instance, an analysis might call for a certain awareness about the author who is being attributed in the item.

Fortunately, we are aided in this task by experts who have read Orwell extensively.

Dorian Lynskey, author of an authoritative biography about Orwell, presents a nuanced debunking of the misattributed statement, as well as an introduction to the evolving character of Orwell’s philosophy over time, in his article at Powell’s. Beyond addressing the informational content of the misattribution, Lynskey’s introduction provides a grounding sense about George Orwell’s dynamic literary character.

Benedict Cooper provides a grain of salt about a number of popularly misattributed quotes, such that may fall beyond the literal domain of George Orwell’s own words. Cooper’s article adds the peculiar twist that the misattribution noted in the article by Reuters is believed to have been created at the shadowy Internet Research Agency, a literal “Troll Farm” believed to be operating in Russia.

Considering the advice from experts about the literary content and character of George Orwell’s works, their advice may serve as a substantial aid in the aspects of Finding better coverage and Tracing claims, in an approach using the SIFT methodology.

To the question of why a purported “Troll Farm” would invent such a thing as the misattributed meme, perhaps we can only hazard a guess.

Works Referenced

Benedict Cooper. 2022. “These Fake George Orwell Quotes Are Everywhere Online, My Mission to Fix Them Is Deeply Ironic.” inews.co.uk.

Chad Nicholas Hegelmeyer. 2020. “Reading for Accuracy: Fact-Checking in Contemporary American Literature.” Ph.D., New York University. New York.

Dorian Lynskey. 2019. “‘The Ministry of Truth’ – Original Essay by Dorian Lynskey.” Powell’s.

Mike Caulfield. 2019. “SIFT (The Four Moves).” Hapgood.

Reuters Fact Check. 2022. “Fact Check – Quote about Media Misattributed to George Orwell.” Reuters

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