Mandela Effect, Truth Affect

One increasingly popular internet meme/conspiracy theory doing the rounds is something known as the “Mandela Effect.” Its origins lie in the claims of “paranormal consultant” Fiona Broome, who began to gain popularity shortly after the widely publicised death of South African president Nelson Mandela in 2013. In a series of internet comments, Broome claimed to recall a memory that suggested that Mandela had actually died several years previously, during his incarceration in the 1980s. Soon she had attracted a sizable number of followers and contributors to her website mandelaeffect.com, many of whom also claimed to possess a similar memory. Other examples of alternate collective memories shortly emerged thereafter, ranging from the correct number of US States being 51 or 52, to the name of a popular series of children’s books being titled “The Berenstein Bears”, as opposed to “The Berenstain Bears.” For Broome and her followers, these inconsistencies are not simply a malfunction of group psychology or the result of fallible or unreliable memories, but convincing evidence of a different kind of phenomenon altogether. Multiple theories co-exist, but they all point toward one conclusion: that through one means or another, our reality has experienced some sort of fundamental, if barely perceptible, change, whether it be through some form of time travel,[1] interference from parallel universes,[2] a “glitch in The Matrix” effect,[3] or a result of CERN’s probings into the unknown depths of quantum physics.[4]

Clearly these theories are both premature and immature, not to mention vague and extremely difficult to validate. In every case I’ve encountered, the only shreds of evidence that have manifested are either individual or collective testimonies, or so-called “residue” (pictures of old VHS tapes or other products with misspelled names, that apparently constitute “traces” of the former universe or timeline) – hardly the “absolute proof” many believers suppose it is. I’m not an expert in group psychology by any means, so I couldn’t identify the particular cognitive tricks and lapses at work within those experiencing the Mandela Effect, however David Emery indicates that it may have something to do with “confabulation”, an unconscious technique used by people to bridge gaps and imperfections in memory.[5] Despite being able to validate or explore this idea further, I find this easier to accept than any of the more adventurous explanations, which all seem to require an understanding of memory as picture-perfect and filmic. Many of these alternatives, despite their entertainment value, can be dismissed with a cursory swish of Ockham’s razor.

On a somewhat unrelated note, it’s interesting to compare the scepticism of believers of the Mandela effect to something like pro-Second Amendment lobbyists in the U.S. Whenever a high-profile shooting has taken place in recent times, the typical response of ardent gun owners has not been one in favour of disarmament and the reduction of lethal weapons in circulation; rather that private gun ownership is necessary precisely because of the threat of extremists. Violence is tacitly encouraged under the auspices of defence, in the same way that wars and overseas military campaigns are euphemistically (and cynically) referred to as “peace missions”. Similarly, the more evidence accumulated that, when considered rationally, would weaken the claims made by Mandela effect believers, the more this very same evidence is inverted by these believers into “proof” that, when measured against their and other claimants’ memories, there has genuinely been an alteration of our given reality. That is, contradictory evidence will only strengthen the side who chooses to believe their argument is right, as the very basis of their rationality has shifted out of sync with everyone else’s. One could easily go as far as to say here that at its core, the conspiracy theory phenomenon is deeply and inherently conservative, as it relies on an unquestionable belief in an unorthodox, radically paranoid, and even metaphysical ideological dimension of reality, cutting through the miasma of cognitive dissonance and providing neat answers to complex global problems.

I’m much more interested at this stage in exploring the role of affect in theories like the Mandela effect, specifically in the wider context of what is frequently being identified as a “post-truth” or “post-facts” media landscape. In such a landscape, traditional sources of information are said to be losing authority, leaving the individual in a complex state of mistrust and unease; left to the mercy of personal emotions which are themselves vulnerable to manipulation and political scavenging. In some ways, this is nothing especially new. Adam Curtis traces one form of this media-induced scepticism back to the era of Richard Nixon, whose career-destroying anti-liberal paranoia was directly reciprocated by the very media engine that brought him down.[6] Yet today’s post-facts condition, wherein big data is eschewed in favour of soundbites, “clickbait” titles, and an almost gladiatorial one-upmanship between competing news sources and prospective political leaders, the results are even wider-reaching.

As has been noted, we live now in a society governed by sentiment much more than raw information. As the market for “facts” has become increasingly oversaturated with loud words and vibrant images, and information’s currency therefore devalued, public opinion counts for much more today than the authoritative register of a media “expert” or leading politician.[7] Actually, the most successful voices in these fields nowadays are those who propose what, on paper at least, appear to be radical alternatives to those espoused by “the establishment”, which has been a recurring source not only of hopeless disappointment and failure, but also irritation. A space for alternative points of view and genuine social, economic, and political change is absolutely necessary, yet genuinely positive (and achievable) modes of transformation are frequently drowned out by populist sentiment, often vigorously nationalistic and retrograde, and whose source is usually depressingly close to those with the relevant economic might in the first place.

In these troubled waters, the validity of a fact is much less important than its impact, and how it chimes with an individual’s inner sense of truth. A good testing site for this idea is in recent public reactions to the scale and impact of immigration. For those wishing to give voice to (in other words, politically exploit) anti-immigration sentiment, no statistic or opinion from leading sociologists suggesting that immigration is actually beneficial to an economy is verifiable: there are always opposing statistics and experts, and despite being on a weaker side of the argument both quantitatively (i.e. number of voices and stats) and qualitatively (i.e. the weight of these voices’ qualifications), the flattening out of intellectual authority means that people place more faith than ever before in what they feel to be the truth, based on sensory perception (e.g. the correlation between the presence of migrants in their neighbourhood and that neighbourhood’s stagnating community and local economy) and the enticing promises of popular, media-friendly anti-establishment figures and parties (Nigel Farage and UKIP, Marine Le Pen and Front national, Donald Trump).

The Mandela effect manages to build on and further proliferate the most dangerous aspects of the inwardly-facing post-facts perspective. This conspiracy is a reaction to and a symptom of a world which is now so untrustworthy that even the sensory perception necessary for post-facts to attach themselves is no longer reliable. “Hard” evidence and “soft” subjective experience and recollection undergo a radical subversion, trading places with one another, so that now only subjectivity can be considered trustworthy, and sensory evidence merely useful in reinforcing the idea of an altered reality.

In my last post I considered the similarly ungrounding and subversive tactics of hyperstition, as a subplot within everyday narratives programmed to burst out and become reality.[8] But the essential difference between hyperstition and the Mandela effect is this: while the former is decidedly inhuman and insensitive to the sway of public opinion, the latter is overconsciously human and reliant on the rejection of prominent realisms in order to take hold. Instead of depending on a stable and fixed image of reality, whilst simultaneously knowing that this is not the case, as hyperstition does, the Mandela effect burns its bridges in regards to finding a concrete place to call home, and therefore falls prey to the mutability of its own slippery truth. Reality may alter around it, yet if it does, there is no credible reason not to suggest that the very memories that it relies on to throne it cannot be simultaneously altered in time. One day too, perhaps on another timeline, the theory may be nothing but residue of an alternate view bloggers and conspiracy theorists once touted to explain the glitches in their personal holey narratives.

The mimetic spread of the Mandela effect ungrounds the very basis of what we consider our historical past, and therefore our identities, to be, but this is not its problem. Its problem is that it appoints the radically unreliable and highly mutable human memory as its sole bearer of truth and conviction. What is needed instead is an economy of voices, reliable facts and empirically rigorous evidence to help us to understand our worlds more fully, including what is in our power and interest to change in them. Not a simplification, but a complexity.

Notes

[1] shane (2016) “CONSPIRACY THEORY – THE MANDELA EFFECT”, video available online at https://youtu.be/_3l8idr9QFE.

[2] ReignBot (2015) “The Mandela Effect | Explained”, video available online at https://youtu.be/y6x0ErYV1tE.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jacob Israel (2016) “Huge Shocking Mandela Effect List Absolute Proof”, video available online at https://youtu.be/iw-YiEnHJ4s.

[5] Emery, D. (2016) “The Mandela Effect”, available online at Snopes.com [http://www.snopes.com/2016/07/24/the-mandela-effect/]. Further possible psychological causes and contributors to the Mandela Effect are listed by the website Debunking Mandela Effects (2016), [http://www.debunkingmandelaeffects.com/common-explanations/].

[6] flowelch (2010) “Adam Curtis – A Film about how all of us have become Richard Nixon.” Video available online at https://youtu.be/fxV3_bG1EHA.

[7] Davies, W. (2016) “Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit”, Political Economy Research Centre, available online at http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/thoughts-on-the-sociology-of-brexit/.

[8] Carswell, J. (2016) “A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing”, available online at orbistertius [https://orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/a-note-on-hyperstition-and-hidden-writing/].

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