On Tuesday morning, Greg Abbott shared a photo on Twitter of Winston Churchill emblazoned with the words, “The fascists of the future will call themselves anti-fascists,” attributed to the former British prime minister. It’s the sort of quote that feels like striking gold for its eerie prescience, like when you read that someone predicted the internet in 1962. Of course, it’s less fun when you learn that Churchill never said it.
Abbott, commenting on the (misattributed) quote on Twitter, declared that “Some insights are timeless,” weighing in on “antifa,” or the loose collection of people who militantly oppose far-right organizations and occasionally get into violent clashes with right-wing and neo-Nazi supporters (as happened last weekend in Portland).
Observers quickly seized on the erroneous quote. Churchill had plenty to say about fascists, of course, but he refrained from making predictions about what they might look like in the future. When asked about the tweet, though, Abbott was defiant. “What I tweeted was a sentiment that I had,” Abbott told reporters. “It was irrelevant to me who may or may not have said that in the past. I didn’t want to be accused of plagiarism for saying it. If no one else said it, attribute the quote to me because it’s what I believe in.”
As far as political scandals go, Churchill Quotegate is maybe a 0.2 on a 10-point scale. On the one hand: who cares, and Abbott stands by the sentiment. On the other hand, it’s not the first time that a Texas statewide official—or even Abbott himself—has been taken in by something on the internet that turned out to be less than true.
In 2015, Abbott tweeted that he was “embarrassed” that Californians were buying more guns than Texans—a statistic that he apparently got by misreading a Houston Chronicle story. Last year, on Facebook Live, he spread a false claim that Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez refused to detain violent criminals. He tweeted a link to a website last August that falsely claimed that Jerry Jones promised to kick any Cowboys player who did not stand for the national anthem off the team (Jones’s son, Stephen, did eventually make such a vow a year later). He’s been prone to repeating inaccurate reports on subjects like voter fraud and ISIS in his time as governor. Attorney General Ken Paxton spread bad info—contradicting law enforcement sources—during the March bombings in Austin. In January, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick claimed, with no attribution, that more than half a million crimes in Texas were committed by “criminal aliens.” All of this reveals that Texas statewide officeholders can be quick to post—and slow (if ever) to correct—things they find on social media. But when it comes to spreading bad information on the internet, all of them are vying for second place behind Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.
Miller loves memes and social media. Sometimes they’re just opinions shared to his more than 721,000 Facebook followers, like the time he posted a gag about how the U.S. should drop a nuclear bomb on the entire “Muslim world.” Other times, they’re straight-up fabrications, like when he tweeted a photoshopped image of Whoopi Goldberg, made to appear as though she wore a t-shirt with an image of President Trump shooting himself. Todd Smith, a representative for the agriculture commissioner, told the Statesman that accuracy wasn’t really a top priority for his social media team. “We post hundreds of things a week. We put stuff out there. We’re like Fox News. We report, we let people decide,” he said.
That attitude might help explain why easily discredited memes find such a constituency among Texas elected officials. Another thing that might be instructive is that Texans are uniquely targeted by campaigns to spread memes from foreign actors.
Last fall, the Washington Post reported the story of the Heart of Texas Facebook page, a popular page that shared Texas-fied memes to more than 250,000 followers. The memes initially focused on some basic Texas stereotypes—Dr Pepper, big trucks, trolling vegetarians, etc.—but as the page developed, the site shifted its focus to bashing Islam and urging secession. Then, in October, we learned that its administrators did all of this from an office in Russia.
The Heart of Texas page was fond of spreading memes that used fake quotes from historical figures, much like the one that Abbott shared on Tuesday. There are plenty of quotes fabricated and falsely attributed to everybody from Donald Trump to MLK to Kurt Cobain, usually with the intention of furthering an agenda, and they don’t all require a targeted foreign-influence campaign to find an audience. But it helps.
There’s a tendency to assume that our political leaders are masters of their message. But what we see from Miller, Abbott, and others suggests that the tail may actually be wagging the dog. They seem to enjoy spreading memes and sharing stories that fire up their base, but the ease with which they’re taken in by fake quotes and photoshopped images suggests that they’re not so much the people pulling the strings as they are the audience for string-pulling, whether they be created by lulz-seeking users on message boards or foreign agents. It’s alarming when the people behaving like any other sucker on the Internet are in high office, blithely sharing things that are compatible with their worldview—even if those things have been carefully fabricated to support it.
In 2015, Abbott asked the Texas State Guard to monitor federal military exercises in Central Texas. The event, called Jade Helm, went from a simple and routine training exercise to being central to a conspiracy theory that the federal government was using the location as a test ground for rounding up political dissidents. The move to cast doubt on the integrity of the military was widely criticized, even by former leaders in Abbott’s own party—both David Dewhurst and Rick Perry questioned the decision. And in May, former CIA director Michael Hayden told MSNBC’s Morning Joe podcast that stoking the fervor over Jade Helm had been a part of a Russian propaganda campaign—a test run for efforts Russian operatives would engage in during the 2016 election.
A few hours after Abbott tweeted the fabricated Churchill quote, Miller took to Facebook to share his quote of the day. This time around, he picked one from John Adams (although its actual provenance dates back to at least fifty years prior): “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” he posted. But, as he, Abbott, and other leaders at the state level have shown, Texas politicians are certainly willing to let their wishes, inclinations, and the dictates of their passions try.