A metaphysical inquiry: If Donald Trump retweets a fake Donald Trump quote … does the quote become real?


Donald Trump, pondering the big questions of the universe. Or alternately, waiting to speak at an event in D.C. on May 27. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, sports reporter David Roth did the impossible: He out-trumped Donald Trump on Twitter.

Trump, you’ll recall, is a social media master-troll, famous (or perhaps infamous?) for his absurd screeds on everything from autism to rap songs. So Roth did him one better, tweeting a fake quote Trump never said, from a fake book Trump never wrote … and attributing both to The Donald.

The punchline: Trump then retweeted the tweet. Since he does not often do irony, we assume it was sincere.

This is, of course, hilarious in and of itself, in the trivial, eye-rolling way that Twitter happenings often are. But it also got us pondering an odd little thought puzzle: If a real person retweets a fake quote attributed to him … does that quote also become real? Is anything on Twitter real, really?!

Since questions on the nature of reality are usually the domain of theologians, scholars and other big-thinkers, we turned to two Internet-savvy philosophers to solve this puzzle for us. Geoffrey Klempner is director of the Pathways School of Philosophy  and runs the popular philosophy blog “Ask a Philosopher”; Guy Longworth is a professor at the University of Warwick who specializes in “knowledge transmission,” among other things, and tweets at @GuyLongworth.

Their take, in a nutshell: The quote is still not “real,” and can’t be attributed to Trump. But the sentiment behind it probably could be.

Here’s Klempner:

There is a simple logical answer to this. There are two possibilities:

1. When Donald Trump retweeted the quote, he was referring to it or talking about it rather than stating the thought attributed to him. Typically, when doing this you would use quotation marks to show the difference. As in, “Look what someone attributed to me, ha ha” …

2. When Donald Trump retweeted the quote, he intended to endorse it, even though the words did not come from him originally. In that case, he is stating the thought attributed to him. He is stating that he really thinks that, etc.

Note that in neither case is Trump claiming authorship of the original quote. In the first case he is quoting it, in the second case, he is stating it. In Logic, the distinction in question is recognized as between “mention” and “use.” (You can Google the “use-mention distinction”.) [Editor’s note: We did! It’s basically the difference between using a word to refer to a thing itself, and using a word to refer to the word. For instance: “This is all pretty rando” (use!) and “‘Rando’ is a word kids use these days” (mention!)]

[In this case it appears] Trump was duped into thinking that he was the original author of the quote. He evidently agrees with it so this would be case 2.

And here’s Longworth:

I think that retweeting would be akin to quoting someone’s words, rather than using them oneself. In this case, one might hear it as Trump saying something like: He said that I said: “[insert quote].” So, even in these rather special circumstances, one wouldn’t ordinarily think of what Trump had done as saying, so committing to, what he retweeted. That said, the issues are delicate: there was a case recently in the UK wherein a libellous tweet was retweeted and I believe that put the retweeters in line for legal claim. Similarly, if one quoted, or retweeted, something very offensive, that would often be thought to be bad, even if not as bad as saying it in propria persona. Thus, some people wouldn’t even quote something racist, anti-Semitic,, &c., except perhaps in special circumstances wherein it was made very clear and explicit what was going on.

So there you have it, budding philosophers of the Internet: Trump still did not actually say “success was always good,” though he does apparently feel that way. (Which makes sense, frankly. “Can success ever be bad?” is a philosophical quandary for another day.)

Trump, if you want to shut down this whole thought puzzle for us, you’ll have to tweet the quote directly.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey | June 10