The Mandela Effect, fake news and elections

My Word: The Mandela Effect came into use long before Donald Trump helped the terms “Fake news” and “Alternate facts” go mainstream. At least that’s how I remember it.

A BOY WEARS a mask of the late South African president Nelson Mandela outside his former house in Soweto. (photo credit: THOMAS MUKOYA / REUTERS)
A BOY WEARS a mask of the late South African president Nelson Mandela outside his former house in Soweto.
(photo credit: THOMAS MUKOYA / REUTERS)
Nelson Mandela’s name lives on long after his death in 2013. It’s not just for his role as human rights activist and former president of South Africa. In an unusual legacy, his name is commemorated in the so-called Mandela Effect, which, ironically enough, is related to his non-death.
The term was coined by writer and paranormal researcher Fiona Broome in 2009 after she spoke at a conference about how she remembered his death in jail in the 1980s and many among the audience had the same collective memory of the event, which of course never happened. The Mandela Effect, which gave its name to a movie last year, refers to this type of mass but false memories.
An example, given to me by my ever-surprising son, is the common (mistaken) perception that the Monopoly man icon wears a monocle. (Did you just Google that to check?) People play games and the mind plays tricks. While you’re in a doubting mode, you might as well look for Curious George’s tail – look very hard, you still won’t find it. A quick Internet search also reveals that Vikings did not wear horns on their helmets. The horns appeared centuries later in a staged performance of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Several well-known Mandela Effect cases come from the cinema world – it’s Loony Tunes, not Toons, by the way. Although the Wicked Queen said “Magic mirror on the wall ...” this is not reflected in the way most of us remember it, with a double “mirror.” By now it’s common knowledge that the famous line in Casablanca “Play it again, Sam!” is actually “You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it!” But that is too long for our memories, or at least, for our needs for brevity for quotability.
“Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem,” as the quote from Apollo 13 really goes.
Neil Armstrong’s death in August 2012 is not recalled as often as Mandela’s, but Armstrong will always be remembered for saying: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – despite the fact that he himself remembered it differently. Armstrong maintained that what he actually said was: “That’s one small step for a man...” but people back on Earth either didn’t hear the “a” or dropped it.
Ripleys.com last year shared some legendary misquotations, starting with Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Citing The New York Times, Ripleys says the closest quote by Gandhi is, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.” This is not pithy enough to survive the world of social media memes.
Marie Antoinette lost her head and we lost what she really said. Hint: It was not “Let them eat cake.” That came from a book titled Confessions written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau more than a decade before her execution, according to Ripleys.
THE MANDELA EFFECT came to mind this week ahead of the US presidential elections.
There are several theories regarding why some false memories live on in such a way. “Mandela moments” (as my friend calls them) easily lend themselves to conspiracy theories hence it shouldn’t be surprising to discover that among the possible explanations cited in various articles is that the effect stems from the possibility that there are alternate realities or universes taking place simultaneously.
Other explanations involve memory-related issues such as confabulation. (This is such a great word, I had to drop it into a column some time.) Confabulation occurs when the brain fills in gaps to make more sense of memories. Priming or suggestion can also alter how we perceive an event: An example, given by verywellmind.com, is the difference between asking how short a person is, vs. how tall a person is. And information learned after an event can change the way we remember it.
The Mandela Effect came into use long before Donald Trump helped the terms “Fake news” and “Alternate facts” go mainstream. At least that’s how I remember it.
There is a thin line between distortion, disinformation and propaganda. With the help of the social media, this is often as hard to find as the tail on the original Curious George. Sometimes an innocent mistake is repeated and goes viral. Jokes and pranks, too, can take on a life of their own in cyberspace. And while lies might not have legs, they seem to have wings that help them travel the globe.
My colleague Seth J. Frantzman this week wrote a thought-provoking article sparked by the suppression by Facebook and Twitter of the New York Post story revealing Hunter Biden’s incriminating emails. Frantzman queried the wisdom of having anonymous third-party fact-checkers working for the social media giants determining what information we are allowed to see.
Can we trust anything in the alternate universe of cyberspace? I regularly check stories on the Snopes site to see whether something has been debunked, but who checks Snopes?
There is an expression in Hebrew: “Lech tochiah she’ain lecha ahot” “Go prove you haven’t got a sister.” It sums up the difficulty in disproving an absurd rumor. The origin of the saying is itself disputed. One version traces it back to a Yiddish story by Shalom Aleichem, another claims it comes from an American textbook on delivering political speeches with the hypothetical question of what to do if someone in the audience heckles you by accusing your sister of being a prostitute. (The fact that I couldn’t find the original version of this textbook doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, does it?)
Politicians are particularly prone to the sort of exaggeration or half-truth that can chip away at their standing. It’s a form of verbal caricature. A falsehood can quickly become accepted truth – repeat a lie often enough and all that.
Along with the impact of social media, it’s likely that the popularity of certain satire shows also plays a role in forming public perceptions. An oft-repeated theme in a skit on Saturday Night Live or Israel’s Eretz Nehederet drives home a message and creates a new general memory.
Examples abound. One case that came to mind as I gathered material for this column was the anecdote that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suffers from distorted memories himself. Detractors usually note how Netanyahu described seeing British soldiers training when he was a child even though the Mandate ended the year before he was born. The source of the claim was an article in Yediot Aharonot in November 2006 (talk about a long life). The paper later printed a clarification that the prime minister had referred to the former British barracks where IDF soldiers had trained afterwards. The misquote, in bold letters, was added at the editing stage.
Conspiracy theories are thriving: For example, on the one side, QAnon accuses leading Democrats of heading an international ring of child smuggling for pedophiles and on the other, there are snowballing claims that Donald Trump faked his bout with coronavirus. (Incidentally, despite what some people choose to remember, the president did not tell people to drink bleach – not in those words nor in words to that effect.)
Will these alternate facts and the Mandela Effect influence the US elections? Possibly. But don’t quote me on that. It’s hard to know what to believe. Maybe we are losing the plot as conspiracy theories evolve. We all need a reality check.
As someone said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That someone was not Albert Einstein, by the way.
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