Sunday 11 September 2016

Post-Truth, Bullshit, and the Mandela Effect

Remember popular crooner Gene Pitney? He had a string of hits in the 60s and 70s, and would probably be best remembered by us 80s kids for his memorable number one with Marc Almond in 1989. Subsequent to that, he spent a lot of his time on the road, gigging about and serving his loyal fan base. He was found in a Cardiff hotel room in 2006 after succumbing to a heart attack. It may be over 10 years ago now, but at the time I remember being shocked as I could have sworn reading about and seeing bulletins about his death some years prior. Another example. When I was a kid, one of my favourite cartoons was Ulysses 31, a sci-fi retelling of Odysseus set in the 31st century. It's actually one of the few kids' programmes that is better once you watch it with an adult's eye, by the way. Back then I just knew it as Ulysses, but years later everywhere on the internet referred to it as Ulysses 31. And sure enough, it's there in the opening credits.

Evidence of matters misremembered, or of something more sinister? What most would write off as memory lapses is apparently "a thing" that has attracted the attention of conspiracy theorists and assorted fringe characters. It even has a name: The Mandela Effect. So-called by one Fiona Broome, a self-styled paranormal investigator and "consultant", Fiona claims that during the course of an internet discussion in the mid-00s, she was surprised to learn that Nelson Mandela was still alive. According to Broome, she had memories of contemporaneous news reports covering his death in prison in the mid-1980s. Obviously, he didn't pass away until 2013. For Broome this can only mean one thing. It couldn't be that her mind lumped together the death of prominent activists, such as Steve Biko, with the never ending coverage of the violent struggle against the Apartheid regime, oh no. The explanation has to be altogether more exotic.

For Broome and the people who believe this sort of thing, it's evidence of alternative realities. Yes, you read that right. The memories are true, but what has happened is people who possess them have either crossed over from some parallel Earth (without realising it) or someone or something is tampering with our timeline, and these memories are traces of what went before the "interference". Jury is out on which is which. And so other popular examples of the Mandela Effect are people swearing blind the man who famously stood in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square got run over by them, that American kids' books The Berenstain Bears had a different spelling and are therefore remembered as the Bernstein Bears by many as per the previous reality. And that Febreze dropped an e from 'breeze' as our timeline reconfigured itself. What a bastard this dimension-shuffling entity is.

And there you have the Mandela Effect, which must rank as the most irrational, eye-poppingly stupid conspiracy theory ever devised. If for whatever reason you require a debunk guide, knock yourself out.

Why am I wasting time writing about this crap? The first is the oft-noted issue of post-truth in popular culture and politics. The instances of people and organisations clinging to a belief system in the absence of and against available evidence is common enough. Previously the province of established religions and extremist (mass) political parties, in the post-war period this irrationalism went underground and found a home in alternative literature, occultism, Ufology, and conspiracy theory. Every so often it would explode into popular consciousness - a Holy Blood, Holy Grail here, a season of The X-Files there. But post-truth, which in the conspiratorial imagination has always defined itself as the hidden truth about the way of the world, and had a limited spread. Then came the internet, followed by the September 11th attacks, and the mainstreaming of its conspiracy theory. Yet despite repeated debunking, post-truth as it attaches to paranormal and parapolitical phenomena carries on long after the facts of the matter have established themselves. The relationship between signifier and signified, to use the language of 1960s French boffins, has collapsed. All there is is the sign - it has become its own reality.

Sometimes its easier to cling to made-up bullshit like the Mandela Effect if facing the possibility you might be mistaken about something is too hard to stomach. Or, the point about conspiracy theory as a prop some might find helpful to make sense of a bewildering complex world has been done to death here, as per elsewhere. What is concerning, however, is the way post-truth has insidiously infiltrated its way into the mainstream. In the era of snoring, boring managerial politics where everything's supposed to be about "best practice" and "evidence", the magical thinking of the post-truth movement is absolutely embedded in our political culture. You might say we've seen a Mandela Effect of comrades swearing blind Labour have led the Tories in the polls under Jeremy. More importantly, the disregarding of evidence by the Tories questioning their claims about shoddy weekend NHS services as they try and impose a new employment contract on junior doctors, and their blindness to study after study demonstrating grammar schools do not aid social mobility as they justify their expansion in the name of, you guessed it, social mobility, this disregard for facts, the acceptance of only convenient relationships to the world is deeply worrying.

The Mandela Effect is stupid and nonsensical, but the kind of thinking it typifies grips the imaginations of too many people. Poke fun at the silly conspiracy people by all means, but what is to be done about its pernicious grip on the mainstream?


Anonymous said...

Slightly intrigued here by your elision of the 'Mandela Effect' and the notion of 'conspiracy theories'. What have the two got in common? Nothing, as far as I can make out, unless there's a sub-variant of the Mandela Effect theory that maintains that these false memories are being deliberately implanted by the CIA or whoever (and if that sub-variant doesn't already exist, it will soon).

I suspect that you're misusing the term 'conspiracy theory' to denote 'far-fetched ideas for which there is little to no evidence'. That seems to be fairly common these days. The recent claims of a mystery planet called 'Niburu' have been described as a conspiracy theory (they aren't); before that the widely-anticipated end of the Mayan calendar in 2002 was called a conspiracy theory (it wasn't); and even the Loch Ness monster gets called a conspiracy theory (don't understand this one at all).

For those of us for whom 'conspiracy' and 'theory' are normal English words, this phenomenon (not the mystery Mandela Effect) is faintly baffling, because the term is becoming divorced from its actual meaning. Those who like to think of themselves as clear-minded sceptics ought to pause before rushing to embrace this foolishness.

Matt W said...

Your Saturday interview with Chelley provides a terrific example of some of these effects - embroidering together a comfortable conclusion from a ragbag of tangential information by ignoring context.

Claims about the Local Elections in 2015 have been thoroughly debunked. A few Red Donkey seats (Tooting excepted, which has significant other factors) retained in byelections on turnouts that barely reach 40% at best, and a few Mayoral Elections won in Lab areas say precisely nothing about Mr Corbyn's chances at the next election. The people they need didn't vote in those byelections,

The brute fact is that the voters who need to be won over are those in Tory marginals who swung towards Mr Cameron last time.

How will Jezza and friends win those over? Demonising the mainstream and conspiracy theories about the media will not do it.

I suspect that half a million words of sociological analysis won't do it, either, I am afraid,

Anonymous said...

Re: The Mandela Effect, this is already a recognised 'thing' in the UK, except we don't call it that. We call it the Walker's Crisps Bag Effect (well, we don't, but if we called it anything it would be called that).

Without checking, which way round is the correct one out of the following alternatives?

1) Salt and Vinegar = Blue packet; Cheese and Onion = Green packet.
2) Salt and Vinegar = Green packet; Cheese and Onion = Blue packet.

I can guarantee you that nearly everyone will get this wrong, and be adamant that the two colour/flavour pairs have been switched at some point in the past.

Walker's ltd are asked about this so often that they have added it to their FAQs:

So, what is going on here? Why is it always these two flavours, and always the wrong way round, and why is everyone except the manufacturers adamant that this changeover never took place?

I have my own theory (which doesn't involve alternate universes!) but this Walker's phenomenon is a pleasant thing to argue about over a pint. And a packet of...

Anonymous said...

So what's your solution, Matt W?

Like most Blairites, you don't have one.

Just mindless nihilism.

What people want is HOPE.

Hence, the support for Corbyn. But they're just brainwashed cultists, will be your predictable smug retort.

Which is why your tendency will be wailing in the wilderness for the forseeable future. Just like the hard left when I was a lad!

Phil said...

Like other commenters, I have trouble seeing this product of weed-fuelled Internet lunacy as having any connection with beliefs advanced more widely by rational people (a category in which I include conspiracy theory). I mean, Labour did either tie with or lead the Tories in a handful of polls pre-EURef, and we were expected to do much worse in the local elections; saying that we "were leading in the polls" or that we did well in the local elections is stretching the truth, but a truth that nobody denies is still in there somewhere.

Oh, and Smith's & Golden Wonder always used the right colour crisp bags.

Ken said...

'the most irrational, eye-poppingly stupid conspiracy theory ever devised'?

Not by a long chalk. I was recently boggled to discover (on Twitter, of course) that some people seriously believe that the Earth is flat. One piece of evidence they adduce is that if you draw long-haul airline routes over the North pole on a Mercator projection map they look bendy, whereas if you draw them on a polar azimuthal projection map they look straight.

Well, yes.

Flat Earth is a genuine conspiracy theory because it implies that NASA (etc) are faking photos (etc) on an industrial scale.

On the serious political point, online Corbynism is very like online cybernattery in that you have huge numbers of people new to politics passionately engaged in politics. What do you expect?

A corollary, unfortunately, is that most of the people who would have made up a Corbyn surge in Scotland are now in or around the SNP.

Speedy said...

Er... biggest example of Mandela Effect:


insomuchas a majority were swayed but obvious lies by well known charlatans but chose to believe in this alternative reality.

I'm not kidding - if that ain't fucking science fiction, what is?

From one Fortean Times reader to another.

Speedy said...

Although, perhaps supporters of Corbyn could also be subject to a similar kind of Mandela Effect, caused by wishful thinking...

"Labour’s current opinion poll ratings are the worst the party has ever experienced in opposition, one year on from choosing a new leader.

On the first anniversary of Jeremy Corbyn's election, Labour is trailing the Conservatives by an average of 11 points.

Not since modern polling techniques began in the 1950s has the party suffered such a deficit 12 months on from a leadership contest."

Walsie said...

Given that today's Boundary Review News pits Jeremy in a three way battle for a new "Finsbury Park and Stoke Newington" constituency against Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry, I suspect the people who see Common Purpose as a tool of the Illuminanti 2wll soon be seeing the hand of the New Word order in the sedate geographers world of he Boundary Commission

Anonymous said...


Labour's ratings weren't "the worst recorded" before your beloved coup plotters did their (absolute) worst.

THEY are responsible.

Boursin said...

Just what is it about Gene Pitney's death? Here in Finland, the major newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported in February last year that Gene Pitney had just died, although they had accurately reported his death and published an obituary back in 2006. It turned out that somebody had seen a story on his death in a sidebar on a website and thought that it was current.

Dave Kirk said...

The problem of post truth politics isn't so much the mainstreaming david ike style bat sh*t ideas.
Its the idea that the idea that politics is based on ideological interpretation of objective reality is fruitless and instead its about pandering to prejudices.
The scary moment for me was when a government minister a few years ago was on the Today programme and been asked about the plan to set up the bureaucracy to charge up front non EU people using the NHS. When it was pointed out that the 'problem' was so minor that the cost of the programme was double any recouped money. The minister said its important to spend that money because "people feel" health tourists are fleecing the NHS.
Its similar to the Labour rights insistence both that "peoples concerns about immigration are legitimate" whilst all the while knowing the stats prove their concerns to be largely illusory.

Obviously there was always unscrupulous demagogues and dodgy editors who pushed stuff they knew was un-true. But Post Truth politics is about the conscious public rejection of trying to ground your politics in reality.