Mass hysteria and the hoax have been around forever. In the old days, seizures, delusions and worse could break out within entire communities: whole nunneries meowing like cats in the Middle Ages; the widespread miscarriage of justice in the Salem witch trials; the Tanzanian laughter epidemic that spread from school to school in the sixties.
Today, a generation of children have grown to adulthood never knowing a time when the world wasn’t a global village. The next generation will take social media and the viral meme for granted the same way previous generations did with transatlantic travel and television.
The instantaneous transfer of information and ideas brought about by the internet and the advent of social media has given the hoaxer wings, allowing a lie to travel around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Meanwhile the emotional contagion that allows hysteria to infect whole societal groups – the same phenomenon that causes lynch mobs, religious mania and other even more bizarre manifestations – can be transmitted worldwide with a simple meme.
The hoax has merged with the psychological phenomena of hysteria to bring us the viral lie, a self-propagating infection of the mind. We live in an online world where the truth is easily ignored in favour of crackpot conspiracy theories and outright lies.
These are the days of truthers and birthers, of groupthink and the woozle, of fake news and alternative facts. Here are some of the lies that the Internet has helped make true.
15. Nelson Mandela Died In Prison In The 1980s
Let’s begin with the urban myth that gave its name to the allegedly paranormal phenomenon that describes it: The Mandela Effect. This is the peculiar tale of the many, many people around the world convinced that Nelson Mandela, the former revolutionary turned elder statesman of African politics, actually died in prison in the eighties.
And this isn’t some vague gaffe, a case of mistaken identity. They remember details: reading about his passing in school; watching the funeral procession on television; a legal battle with his widow. Even stranger, a significant proportion of the people under this delusion actually share memories, corroborating specifics with one another in online discussions with the bewildered, paranoid defiance of people who believe in alien abduction.
While flakes and kooks concoct elaborate theories about alternate realities, psychiatrists call the phenomenon “confabulation”: the confident expression of detailed false or distorted memories without the conscious intent to deceive. With the rise of the web, the potential for a hysterical mass duplication of the details of these invented events is far greater.
In real life, Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990 after 27 years of confinement, in a political move that triggered the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and saw him become the country’s President four years later. Mandela actually died – at home, surrounded by his family – in December 2013, at the age of 95, prompting days of mourning worldwide, as well as serious confusion amongst those who thought he’d been dead for twenty years.
14. Scrappy Doo Was Horribly Unpopular And Ruined Scooby-Doo
It’s practically axiomatic: everyone knows it. Scrappy-Doo killed Scooby-Doo on television in the early eighties. The loudmouthed, pugnacious little nephew of the titular cartoon character was so obnoxious, so irritating, that he poisoned the well, causing ratings to plummet and the show to be cancelled.
It’s such a widespread opinion, in fact, that it’s made its way into the recent reboots of the franchise: in a post-ironic twist, the masked villain of the first Scooby-Doo live action feature in 2002 was Scrappy himself. Even more definitively, “the Scrappy” is the name of a common trope in fiction describing characters so universally loathed that they become toxic for the fanbase, with notorious examples including Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars franchise, Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Shia LaBeouf. There’s just one problem, of course: it’s not true.
In 1979, the Scooby-Doo franchise was struggling in the ratings after a decade of success, and Scrappy-Doo was introduced in an effort to juice the show’s formula. And he succeeded. Scrappy-Doo, far from being a franchise-killer, carried a show on the verge of cancellation to another seven years on the air.
It’s only since then that the public has soured on the feisty little puppy, with repeat viewing allowing another two generations of kids to grow up hating Scrappy with a passion. And the internet, of course, has made this a thousand times worse, giving those haters a platform and the opportunity to form ranks.
13. The Smell Of Crayons Is The Eighteenth Most Recognizable Scent In The World
This demonstrates an excellent example of the phenomenon known as “the woozle effect”, in which numerous citations of a thing with no actual authority behind it result in an assumed authority. In this case, it’s the numerous reports that a study from Yale University showed that the smell of a new box of Crayola crayons is the eighteenth most recognizable scent in the world, ranking just in front of peanut butter and coffee.
Now, it’s possible that there actually is a study of this kind, although no one can actually find it. However, the dozens of sites that have repeated this tidbit of trivia over the years – including Crayola’s own website – have only cited the study in the broadest of terms, phrased in almost exactly the same manner as the second sentence in this entry. No more information or analysis, no mention of the basis of the study or its methodology and of course, no links to the study itself: that’s the woozle. To the millions of people who’ve read this assertion over the years, this is now simple fact.
The woozle, of course, is named after the invisible and (it turns out) imaginary monster hunted by Winnie The Pooh and Piglet in A.A. Milne’s classic story. The two friends follow the creature’s tracks for some time, noting that the tracks grow increasingly numerous the more they pursue it, only to have it revealed that they’ve been following their own footprints in a circle.
12. Fraudsters Are Trying To Steal Your Money Using Your Voice
Since October last year, word of the latest dodgy telephone scam has been spreading like a middle-aged waistline. The story goes that, upon connection, the thieves supposedly ask the question “can you hear me?”, recording a “yes” answer and using it to make unauthorized payments and charges in the victim’s name.
There’s something about these scam warnings that ensures they go viral faster than any other form of hoax. Maybe it’s because they don’t seem to have any ulterior motive behind them – who profits from a warning about banking security? Perhaps that’s why this one in particular has been shared by major news organizations, citizens advice authorities and even the police.
Regardless, even the slightest look into the Can You Hear Me? warning can’t help but find it ridiculous. Even if it were possible to use a voice recording to make payments on someone else’s account, in order to do so you would need all the other information and security measures that account has in place – and you’d probably have to say a lot more than “yes” to access anything.
In addition to that, any scam like this would hinge upon the necessary organizations holding records of their customers’ voices that would stand up to the necessary rigorous testing. They don’t, and probably can’t: anyone who’s ever worked in phone-based customer service knows exactly how hilarious that idea is.
As it stands, a little digging reveals no one who has actually been scammed of any money in this way.
11. Rosie The Riveter Was Identified In 1994
In yet another example of the woozle effect, J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It” wartime propaganda poster, often casually referred to these days as “Rosie The Riveter”, has become one of the most iconic images in American pop culture since its rediscovery in 1982.
Back in the 1940s, with so many men fighting overseas, women would make their contribution to the war effort by working in the factories and shipyards. When Miller’s poster was republished in a book of wartime imagery, the image of “Rosie The Riveter” quickly became associated with feminism and female empowerment, and was used as the front cover of the Smithsonian magazine in 1994.
That’s where Geraldine Hoff Doyle first saw the poster. A former wartime metalworker, in 1984 she had seen an image of an oddly familiar young woman operating a metal lathe that was supposed to have been the inspiration for Miller’s piece. A decade later, she saw the poster itself and made the connection: she had unwittingly been the model for the seminal artwork.
Upon her passing in 2010, Doyle was venerated by dozens of online publications online as “Rosie”. As more and more unverified reports were published as fact, the sheer numbers began to give her claim undue authenticity… because Doyle was wrong on both counts. In 2015, the photo was identified as one Naomi Parker, and had been taken when Doyle was still in high school. Not only that, but Miller worked using live models, not photographs.
10. The News Of The World Intruded In The Case Of A Missing Teenager
On 4th July 2011, the Guardian newspaper in the UK alleged that, nine years earlier, reporters working for the low rent English tabloid The News Of The World had hacked into the voicemail of missing 13 year old Milly Dowler.
Supposedly, in order to get the jump on every other newspaper covering the story The News Of The World had listened to the voicemail messages left on her mobile phone and deleted some in order to make room for others. Apparently this gave Milly’s parents hope that their daughter was still out there somewhere, still alive and able to check her voicemail – false hope, as it turned out when poor Milly’s body was finally recovered.
Already under siege over other allegations that the paper had hacked into the phones of celebrities and others, this was the final straw. Amid a massive public backlash and with advertisers withdrawing in droves, The News Of The World announced that it would close on 7th July 2011, after 168 years in circulation.
Months later, the true situation was clarified: the newspaper’s investigator charged with targeting phones to be hacked had not infiltrated Milly Dowler’s mobile phone until after the supposed deletion of the voicemail messages. It turned out that Milly’s phone was set to automatically delete voicemail messages after a certain period of time.
Despite this, there are plenty of people who still believe that the tabloid interfered in an ongoing investigation and made police and family believe that a missing and murdered teenager was still alive.
9. Sinbad Starred In A Genie Movie In The Nineties
In a stranger and more complicated variant of the Mandela phenomenon, a frankly astonishing number of people around the world have convinced themselves that comedian, actor and professional mononym Sinbad was the star of a movie in the 1990s entitled Shazaam!, about an incompetent genie summoned by two children.
It’s a delusion that pops up again and again, perpetuated and accentuated by discussion online. Fans of the “movie” write up what they recall of the plot and describe the old school video cassette cover. They even share their memories of seeing the film, providing autobiographical context: this is what I was doing, this is where I was living, this is who I was back then.
Of course, the film doesn’t exist. No independent record has ever been found of it, and Sinbad himself – who one would imagine would be the foremost authority on the subject – has repeatedly denied ever making the movie. Naturally, this hasn’t stopped the Shazaam! truthers from going on (and on) about it.
Weirdly, the fact that a genie movie from that time period does exist – Kazaam, a godawful 1996 vehicle for basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal – hasn’t stopped them either. Rather than admitting that the fake movie they have in their heads is a distorted version of the real film, they’ve incorporated the real film into the delusion, insisting that Kazaam and Shazaam! both exist and that the former is simply a crappy remake of the latter.
8. A Pop Music Icon Lied About His Education
From 2005 to 2010, Korean-Canadian hip hop artist Daniel “Tablo” Lee was that rare breed of pop star – both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. His band Epik High had released seven hit albums in seven years, winning multiple awards in their native South Korea, and Lee himself had published a bestselling book of short stories. More than that, Tablo had attained even more celebrity notoriety in 2009 when he married Kang Hye-jung, one of the country’s biggest movie stars, while she was three months pregnant with his child.
That was enough for certain people in the fan community to target him. In mid-2010, two separate fan sites began voicing serious doubts as to the veracity of Tablo’s education, as reported in the press. Lee had been a coterminal student at one of America’s most prestigious colleges, Stanford University, meaning that he had simultaneously earned both his bachelor’s degree and his masters within a three year period of attendance.
There were those who insisted that it couldn’t be done, or was highly implausible… and their claims reached the front pages of the newspapers. Suddenly Lee was a pariah, his family receiving death threats as he found himself being forced to justify his background.
He published his transcript and other documentation. It wasn’t enough. Tutors and classmates confirmed his attendance on camera for a documentary on the subject. The swell of opinion against him swelled further. Finally, in October 2010, police confirmed Tablo’s version of his own life story, and issued an arrest warrant for the troll responsible, while Tablo himself initiated civil court proceedings against several others.
Despite all of the evidence in his favour and the backing of all the relevant authorities, to this day tens of thousands of Korean fans still believe that Tablo faked his education.
7. The Yellowstone Supervolcano Could Erupt Any Day
It is absolutely 100% true that beneath Yellowstone National Park in the US lies a sleeping giant: a massive active supervolcano with three huge calderas from previous eruptions. The Yellowstone caldera is the largest on the American continent, and it has been speculated that, were it to erupt, a significant proportion of the USA would be affected by wind-flung ash, ruining the climate and fouling agriculture over a vast proportion of the country.
Worse, the last three eruptions from Yellowstone are considered to have taken place 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 630,000 years ago. Taking that on board, people have long hypothesized that we’re about due for another catastrophic eruption: at least four films have been made on the subject since 2005.
The National Parks Service and the US Geological Survey have both spent an inordinate length of time refuting these allegations. For twenty-five years or so, scientist have been able to accurately pinpoint the signs that a volcanic eruption is due… and we’re reliably informed that, while a new eruption may be due, “due” in this case is likely to mean sometime between 1,000 and 10,000 years in the future.
Despite this naysaying of the doomsaying, however, a large and vocal proportion of American society remain convinced that Yellowstone National Park is a ticking time bomb of geological hate, ready to fling ash and magma miles into the sky and turn our futures into the kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia that nightmares are made of.
6. “All Quotes On The Internet Are Completely True.” – Winston Churchill
Anyone who’s been kicking around social media for long enough will have seen one of those viral quote memes falsely attributed to some long-deceased but respected celebrity. Albert Einstein seems to be the one who gets misattributed the most. However, icons of old who’ve had “inspirational” fake quotes attributed to them include Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe and Gandhi, amongst many others.
Bizarrely, to that list of heroes and legends we can now add one Donald J. Trump, who has had the following, probably entirely fictional quote misattributed to him as coming from a non-existent 1998 profile in People Magazine:
“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”
Now, the motivation for misattribution of quotes is usually to add the weight of celebrity to some motivational slogan in order to see it shared as authentic wisdom. In all cases, however, the misattribution relies on the quote seeming to be something that person might have said.
Although the purpose in this instance is clearly to embarrass Trump, the MO remains constant. It looks exactly like something Trump would say, which is why everyone at the time believed it – and why many still do, despite the evidence that it’s a fraud.
5. The Prime Minister’s Little Piglet
Like most politicians who’ve reached the dizzy heights of the world stage, there are matters that former British Prime Minister David Cameron probably wishes he’d handled better, or hadn’t arisen at all. It’s fair to say that those other politicians don’t number “scandal involving sexual relations with a dead pig” amongst their regrets, however.
For Cameron’s political enemies, “Piggate” was the gift that kept on giving. Based upon an unsupported anecdote from an unauthorised biography published in 2015 by a man with a very public axe to grind, the story went that at University, as part of some bizarre initiation into a private club, the future Conservative Party leader placed a private part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead pig.
As soon as the press found out about the excerpt from the book, media coverage went bananas. It didn’t matter one bit that no corroboration was ever attached to the story, or that the incident had almost certainly never happened. Far from it – it was accepted from day one that “Piggate” was the result of one petty man’s rather childish attempt to screw with someone he believed had screwed with him.
The truth of the matter was more or less irrelevant: this was a story about the Prime Minister ****ing a pig. The gags came thick and fast (if you’ll pardon the expression): the best of which was almost certainly the genius-level statement that this was his own personal “Bae Of Pigs” crisis. Amazing.
4. Vaccines Have Contributed To The Rise Of Autism
There’s no doubt that the number of recorded cases of autism in children has been on the rise for some time. However, there’s little to no scientific evidence to support the assertion that vaccinations are responsible for this rise. As we begin to learn more and more about how the autistic spectrum works, it’s far more likely to be a case of redistributed diagnosis, with children previously defined as suffering from learning difficulties, amongst other things, now being labelled autistic.
In point of fact, the scientific evidence against vaccines has been discredited time and again, while the evidence for vaccines continues to be peer-reviewed and supported by medical and scientific authorities alike.
But autism in children is a hot button issue. People want to feel as though there is a single dramatic fix that can prevent the incidence of the condition in future generations of children. And, to be honest, people also want to have someone or something concrete to hold accountable for the current generation of autistic children. The children can’t be to blame, and the parents have done nothing to cause it – but someone has to be at fault.
That’s why, despite the lack of significant evidence to support an anti-vaccine stance, activists continue to campaign on the issue, citing increasingly elaborate conspiracy theories to explain the scientific community’s consensus on the subject. When the basis for your case revolves around unwieldy numbers of people plotting in secret, you’re officially entering bat country.
3. Red Rooms Exist On The Dark Web
The 21st century update of the snuff videotape, the Red Room is supposedly a hidden webpage on the dark web where those in the know can watch (and, theoretically, participate in) humiliation, torture and even murder.
Taking its name from an inventive Japanese horror flash animation dating back to the early 2000s, the idea of the Red Room has only gained in currency over the fifteen or so years since, with the very existence of the dark web having triggered regular waves of public hysteria.
That’s “dark web”, as opposed to “deep web”: the former is a subset of the latter. The deep web refers to sites that are not indexed by search engines, and includes online banking pages, webmail and video on demand, amongst many others. The dark web, on the other hand, refers to deep web sites that are hidden from normal browsing, only accessible by password or specific software or coding.
The very idea fills parents with horror, grim fantasies of child pornography, drug dealing and worse flashing before their eyes… and yes, you can find that kind of thing, if you know what you’re looking for. But live murder?
Despite well over a decade of uneasy rumours – and the constant queries from people of a certain personality type who feel compelled to search out extreme content online – there’s never been any evidence of a real life Red Room anywhere on the dark web. You guessed it… it’s another woozle.
2. Facebook Is About To Claim All Of Your Content Unless You Act Now
This has been around for a while: the idea that Facebook is patiently waiting to seize all of the images, video and other content you’ve uploaded over the years for its own nefarious purposes. Only by swiftly posting a specifically worded legal notice to your Facebook profile can you exempt yourself from becoming a victim of Mark Zuckerberg’s sinister machinations.
It’s sweetly naive to imagine that you can protect your content from being swiped by getting in quickly with a pseudo-legalese status update, as though it’s some sort of faerie spell that protects you from e-harm. The truth is that you can’t legally protect yourself by asserting your rights online. If, as the conspiracy theorists claim, signing up to Facebook gives the social media behemoth free access to all the personal crap you put up there, then a panicked “cease and desist” style post isn’t going to magically shield you from the consequences of those terms and conditions you ticked YES to.
But don’t worry about it. Facebook isn’t planning on stealing your stuff, or claiming ownership of your personal data, and it isn’t setting out to make all of your posts public either. Essentially, none of the dire warnings and doomsaying about Facebook users offering up their photos to be culled by the dark blue god they worship are true.
Except that thing about using your personal data to target advertising tailored to your specifications. They absolutely do that.
1. Tom Cruise Went Insane On Oprah’s Sofa
In May 2005, the world’s biggest movie star appeared on the world’s biggest talk show, fronted by the world’s biggest television personality, and had the world’s most public meltdown; jumping up and down on her couch, seizing and shaking her by the shoulders and laughing hysterically throughout the interview.
Except, of course, none of that really happened. The actual interview lasted 43 minutes, but the chances are you’ve only ever seen a heavily edited version – some of the ones that went viral only last a few seconds.
Tom Cruise had stepped out of his heavily stage-managed media comfort zone to appear on Oprah that day. Neither he nor Oprah herself were prepared for the screaming hysteria his appearance would incite in the studio audience, and he appears blindsided by her grilling him over his brand new relationship. Most of the first ten minutes sees Cruise running on panicked instinct, trading on crowd pleasing moves commonplace on the red carpet – playing to the packed gallery while he tries to regain control of the interview and the room.
In the full footage, Cruise stands on Oprah’s couch once, and then again a little later – but it’s prompted by Oprah herself, who had earlier reminded him of his passionate response to a speech at a fundraiser, when he’d been so moved that he’d stood on his chair to applaud. And the moment when he grabs Oprah’s shoulders? You can hear him, half jokingly, pleading with her to talk about the movie he was there to promote.
Embarrassing? Sure. Meltdown? Not even a little.