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The great big quote machine in the cloud keeps indiscriminately dredging the Internet for clickable content. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)
The great big quote machine in the cloud keeps indiscriminately dredging the Internet for clickable content. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Russell Smith: A pox upon the bots who misquote me Add to ...

A bizarre thing has happened to me on the Internet. It sheds a little light on how the Internet works, and how it cannot be trusted as a repository of knowledge.

Apparently I once said, “An Indian tribe is sovereign to the extent that the U.S. permits it to be sovereign.” I said this because the Internet says I did. That quotation, with my name – and sometimes my bio and picture attached – recurs all over the Internet, along with many of my proclamations on tie knots and turtlenecks and the state of contemporary literature.

These statements are listed under my name on a half-dozen “famous quote” sites – sites with names such as Brainyquote and QuotesGram and Lifehack Quotes and izquotes and quotlr. The sites compile quotes from writers, historical figures and minor celebrities. They are basically junk sites, sites generated by text factories to lure clicks to advertising. They all have Twitter accounts that select quotes from their pages for broadcast several times a day. (My legal opinion on native sovereignty has been tweeted several times.)

Once a writer gets listed on one of these sites, he gets on them all: They copy whole pages from each other, and there is every indication that the work is done by automation rather than by a person. Because, obviously, I did not make that statement about Indian reserves in the United States. It is hardly my area of expertise. And besides, I was 10 when it was made.

After some searching, I found its origin. It is a much-discussed part of U.S. case law, and was written by a Federal Court judge named James F. Battin in a ruling against the Blackfeet tribe in 1973. The line has also been attributed to one Peter d’Errico, an academic, but I think he was just quoting the Battin ruling. Nobody called Russell Smith has ever been associated with this ruling. One essay said the judge was quoting a colleague on another court, but I can’t find his name.

So, I have absolutely no idea how this sentence came to be associated with me. It is an error, a glitch, but it is constantly duplicated: The error proliferates.

Now if you Google that famous sentence or even its sentiment, it will come up with me as its author, sometimes even packaged as a neat little graphic you can post on social media or e-mail as inspiration to a friend. It is repeated simply because it is repeated. One site’s bot found it on another site, and so on. One site even lists helpful tags to help identify me: It says: “Russell Smith’s favourite quotes topics: Tribe/ Sovereign/ Permits/ Indian/ Extent.”

The other things I am quoted as saying, on these sites, were definitely said by me, but they are strange choices for famous quotes. They are sentences taken apparently at random from a handful of not particularly important columns I have written in this newspaper, mostly on men’s fashion, but sometimes on cultural issues. They are by no means the most interesting or provocative things I have ever written, and nothing I have ever written in book form or for any other publication has been included. This goes to show that they are not compiled by human intelligence. There is some algorithm-driven bot stripping out sentences of a certain kind from a limited repository of online text.

And here’s another amusing thing: There is a fictitious serial killer called Russell Smith. He was a character in a 2012 episode of the CBS TV show Criminal Minds. His police mugshot, from the show – holding a sign marked 1977, Birmingham, Ala., and looking fantastically murderous – is easy for the bots to find online. That photo is used alongside my name, my real bio, a link to my Wikipedia entry, and this famous quote about native sovereignty. So the bots have conflated three identities here – the TV serial killer is also the author of a number of novels and an expert on U.S. native issues.

If you are a high school student researching aboriginal rights in the United States online, you are going to come across this information first, and it is going to be confusing, to say the least. You are going to have not one but several sources all telling you the same thing: that a Canadian novelist made this startling, precedent-setting statement about U.S. law. And that novelist was also apparently arrested in Alabama in 1977. It is going to look very convincing.

The episode is a reminder of how these massive vaults of information are compiled: by crude mechanical harvesters that hoover up weeds and flowers alike. The pages and pages of text on the Internet are largely just that: pages and pages of text. They link to other pages and pages, and those pages generate further pages: words, words, words. It happens without us.

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