“If you repeat a lie enough, it becomes the truth.”
That quote has been attributed to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. I say attributed because even though there are many reports of him saying it, there is no public record that he actually did.
In other words, it could be a lie that has become the truth simply because it was repeated enough times.
I learned that fact while researching a similar quote I’ve seen attributed many times to Donald Trump:
“You tell people a lie three times, they will believe anything. You tell people what they want to hear, play to their fantasies, and then you close the deal.”
One report said it came from the book “The Art Of The Deal,” which was written by Trump and writer Tony Schwartz. It is a lie that is easily proven simply by reading the book.
But that lie has been repeated enough times that a significant number of people now believe it to be true, even though there is an indelible public record proving it is not. This phenomenon is not new, but it is one that seems to be growing -- I believe -- because of digital media, especially social, and its ability to spread misinformation so quickly and among so many people. Goebbels would be proud.
The phenomenon has a name. It’s called the “Mandela Effect,” because it was a mass false remembering of the life -- and especially the death -- of the South African leader that coined it.
“The term 'Mandela Effect' was coined by self-described 'paranormal consultant' Fiona Broome, who has written on her Web site that she first became aware of the phenomenon after discovering that she shared a particular false memory — that South African human rights activist and president Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s (he actually died in 2013) — with many other people,” explains an entry on Snopes.com.
I’m sourcing Snopes, because there is no reference for it on Wikipedia, which simply redirects the term to an entry for “false memory.”
I first learned about the Mandela Effect when my friend Tom Siebert asked me if I remembered something from the 1980s James Bond film “Moonraker.”
“Do you remember the character Jaws?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said as my brain instantly produced images of giant Richard Kiel, and the prosthetic metal teeth his character was named for.
“Do you remember his girlfriend,’ Tom asked?
“Maybe, sort of,” I replied.
“Do you remember what attracted Jaws to her?” Tom asked, adding: “Do you remember she had braces?”
“Not really,” I said as cloudy images of a young woman with braces began to form in my head.
Tom, an ad man (Initiative, Huge and Digitaria) and journalist (Adweek and MediaPost), writes a regular column for San Diego alternative newsweekly San Diego City Beat, and had just written about a Mandela Effect in which people remember Jaws’ girlfriend Dolly having braces in the film, even though all public records show her without them -- even original analogue VHS tapes.
Tom’s column explored potential conspiratorial reasons why Dolly no longer has braces and after he published his column he said he was even contacted by quantum physicists who said it potentially could be evidence that alternative realities are slipping into the one that most of us consider to be real.
I offered Tom my own theory: That the shift from analog to digital media makes it difficult for people to source and cite indelible public records to confirm what actually happened. Digital media inherently are more malleable and fungible than analogue media.
Yes, you could always manually retouch photos, paint phony versions of masterpieces or publish fake copies of Adolph Hitler’s diary, but it was harder to replace actual facts with alternative facts in analogue than digital media. And it was easier to detect when something was altered of faked when someone did.
Another big problem with digital media isn’t how it distorts the public record of facts and information, but how it alters the way people perceive it. It is more difficult for people to discern “real” information from “fake” information in many digital interfaces. Hence the phenomenon of “fake news,” not just as a new kind of publishing enterprise, but in the way we think about, disseminate and spread information to each other.
If you search the false Trump attribution “you tell people a lie
three times” on Twitter you will see the top of the feed features a tweet from
someone citing it as fact, and also embedding a video GIF showing two Donald Trumps slapping skin.
I first became aware of this digital news-filtering problem before social media or even the Web existed. Another friend and public relations research expert Mark Weiner, who is now head of Prime Research, conducted some research in the early days of commercial online services and found average people could not distinguish between the PR Newswire and the Associated Press when they read it in their newsfeed on CompuServe.
Apparently, neither can the White House, which broke from tradition during the first official press conference of the Trump Administration by taking its first question not from the AP, but from the New York Post.
Politics aside, the danger of Trump’s “running war” with the media is that if it removes standard protocols for working with the press then it threatens to alter the public record of truthful information from the top down, as opposed to the bottoms up way it has been happening to date: social media, fake news, fringe conspiratorial theories, etc. I’m dubbing this the Trumpela Effect. If my theory is correct, that will somehow become part of the public record. Not just because it was published by MediaPost, but because of the malleable distortionary nature of digital media, and how it can alter the public record.
I can tell you this, because I recently had my own firsthand experience distorting the public record for political purpose. While I was live-blogging MediaPost’s Marketing: Politics conference in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 17, I posted a verbatim comment made by Bob Garfield who was moderating a panel that was, ironically, about the role social media, fake news, Internet trolls, etc., played in the 2016 presidential election. His panel included a top media operative for Bernie Sander’s campaign, Revolution Messaging’s Jenn Kauffman.
To illustrate the point, Garfield turned to Kauffman and said, “I would never put words in your mouth, but we’re live blogging this event and do you think the headline could be something along the lines of ‘Jenn Kauffman: Hillary Campaign Staff, Not Hillary, Should Be Thrown In Jail.’”
And because I always take my cues from Bob Garfield, I blogged that -- verbatim -- including the headline. I can tell you it is verbatim, because I have an indelible public record of it and you can even watch it yourself 15 minutes and nine seconds into the embedded conference video below (unless someone forces me to take it down later).
Almost immediately following the post, I began receiving emails from colleagues, Kauffman herself, her boss, my boss and a barrage of supporters asking me to take it down or change the headline.
I responded to all of them that we have an editorial policy of not altering the public record of what we publish, but that when we get something wrong we publish new information in the form of corrections, clarifications, addenda, etc. to set the record straight. We also cross-link the new information with the original publication and add a note to the original item explaining that.
This is an old school approach to journalism. It comes from the print era when you literally could not alter the public record of what you published, because it was printed on ink and paper and already on newsstands, in mailboxes, or in readers' hands.
This policy is not popular, but I’ve tried my best to maintain it for the 14 years that I’ve edited MediaPost for the reasons I cite above: because I think indelible public records are more important than ever. Even when they are wrong, because they are a part of the historical fact, and when they are wrong should be corrected as part of the historical fact, not covered up by a digital redo.
I lost the battle and was forced to a change the headline of the “live” blog post, but I believe that just creates a distortion of what actually happened, because there are email versions of the original headline still in people’s inboxes, and because some people had already read it.
Ironically, one of Kauffman’s main arguments for us to alter our headline was because digital media like Google searches and distribution via social media would decouple the headline from the full post that explained the context of it. I say it’s ironic, because some of those digital memories still exist, but there is not public record explaining why the headline was changed. Well, until now, which is why I am cross-linking to the original blog post so anyone reading it will know exactly what transpired.
We live in an era when truth has become so malleable in large part because of digital media, that it is more important than ever before to have indelible public records so people can decide for themselves what the truth is.
Based on the first week of the Trump Administration’s war with the media, I’m not optimistic that will be the case. It is remarkable that the first battle was over facts for which indelible public records existed. In the case of the administration’s first salvo -- the battle over coverage of Trump’s inauguration audience size -- there was photographic evidence as well as eyewitness accounts, and even mass transit ridership statistics. In the case of Trump's claims that the press had conspired to misrepresent his conflict with the intelligence community, there is video of his own public statements.
In retrospect, I think the major news media have done a remarkable job of maintaining their composure and not allowing Trump’s team to bait them into an actual war. They have, for the most part, covered the alternative facts put out by the Trump Administration for what they are.
It must be incredibly difficult for them, especially when Trump strategic advisor Steve Bannon eggs them on, telling the media to “shut up” and labeling them the “opposition party.”
I’ve tried to understand what the play is. I think there are many reasons. Some of it is the brilliant art of misdirection that Trump has demonstrated so well throughout his career. Some of it is simply to lower the baseline of truth so that when really important issues come up for the media, the administration will simply reiterate its battle with the “dishonest” media and their “fake” news. Some of it, I suppose, is simply to rattle, fatigue and disrupt the media so they have less energy and focus on the really important issues.
I don’t know, but we will all soon find out as history creates itself before our very eyes -- whether we believe or not, and whether we alter it or not -- in the media, and in our memories.
I’d like to end by quoting a source who tried to explain it. And there is an indelible public record, because it is from a book he wrote himself:
“All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.
“It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.” -- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf