In 2016, I got a tip from a friend about an eerie new phenomena spreading across the internet. Following the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, people began reporting that they remembered him having died in jail sometime in the 1980’s. They claim to have no memory of his release from prison, his inauguration as the first black president of a post-apartheid South Africa, his Nobel Peace Prize, historic two term presidency, or the decades he spent as a prominent statesman and world leader. Their recollection is that Mandela’s death triggered a violent revolution, although they do not offer a cohesive alternate history. From the perspective of someone who lived through these events, and actively followed international affairs at the time, it is impossible to forget such an iconic public figure.
Throughout the 1980’s, the South African police state routinely attacked funerals for victims of apartheid. International awareness of the rioting in the segregated townships grew when Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko in the 1987 film Cry Freedom. A decade earlier Biko had been beaten to death in police custody, and become an iconic martyr of the movement that Nelson Mandela went on the lead from prison. In the 1980’s major motion pictures had much deeper cultural penetration than the analog news media. So, it is logical to presume that people might misremember events, conflate two imprisoned foreign dissidents, and misidentify images of elderly Mandela, producing false memories.
Because I clearly remember watching Mandela walk out of prison in 1994, and lead South Africa until he voluntarily retired in 1999, I am not really capable of holding an unbiased opinion on whether it happened. No one has ever produced a newspaper or video clip to prove Nelson Mandela died in prison. The absence of any evidence to support the alleged memories of his premature death has not disabused those who believe they remember it occurring decades earlier. Why?
There are a range of psychological theories to explain why groups of people believe things which are manifestly untrue. To better understand why this particular false memory exploded into a popular phenomena, we can start with the person who coined the phrase “the Mandela Effect” in 2009. Fiona Broome is a paranormal investigator who was first published in Fate magazine in the late 1970’s, and has established a respectable reputation in her field. Broome describes the Mandela Effect as an uncanny coincidence, too many people having the same false memories. Broome has compiled reports from thousands of experiencers claiming to have memories that do not conform to the historical records. She does not endorse any conspiracy theories related to this phenomena, only that attempting to explain the phenomena is an interesting thought experiment.
So, that should be that. But, of course, that wouldn’t be worth writing about.
Mandela’s actual death in 2013 caused the phenomena described by Fiona Broome four years earlier to take on a life of its own. In researching the tip to investigate the phenomenon, I found that along with Broome’s own website there were dozens of strange Youtube videos that recounted the alleged proliferation of false memories. These Youtube videos did not take the rational moderated stance that Broome espouses. To the contrary, the videos asserted that the phenomenon had a known cause.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research, popularly know the acronym C.E.R.N. (from their French name Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), was founded in 1954 to advance scientific knowledge through multinational cooperation. Their primary laboratory located outside of Geneva, Switzerland, employs over two thousand scientists, technicians, and administrative staff. Research groups working at C.E.R.N. have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics three times (1984, 1992, and 2013). The organization was also responsible for major advances in computer sciences including the development of the internet during the 1980’s, and the World Wide Web in the 1990’s.
It would seem to be the research into subatomic particles that won the 2013 Nobel Prize that inspired the conspiracy theories about the Mandela Effect. All the Youtube videos I found insisted that the anomalous false memories were caused by a rift in the space-time continuum created by experiments conducted at C.E.R.N. While C.E.R.N.’s research into particle physics is fascinating, fully explaining it is beyond the scope of this article and has no potential to produce the Mandela Effect as originally described by Broome. C.E.R.N.’s Large Hadron Collider was still under construction when Broome published her first book on the Mandela Effect in 2009, and wouldn’t conduct successful experiments until a year later. But, after the Large Hadron Collider was operational pseudo-scientific claims it was causing the Mandela Effect proliferated on the internet.
Better qualified experts than myself have debunked the notion that it is even possible for the Mandela Effect to be caused by any of the research conducted by C.E.R.N. While we could blame it all on poor scientific literacy, I observed another peculiarity about the Youtube videos raising awareness of this phenomenon. Each of the videos I found was uncommonly long, running over ninety minutes. Watching these videos I observed the presentations had a number of intriguing commonalities. The extended run times were not a reflection of the content itself, to the contrary they were highly repetitive. Information that could easily fit into an half-hour video was reiterated multiple times for no obvious reason. This tendency to present the same examples and explanations over and over caught my attention. One video could be written off to bad organizational skills, but, several videos suggests it was intentional. On top of this, the narrations were similar as were the soundtracks: each featured a steady monotonous voice over, backed by techno music that featured specific sound waves used in hypnotic induction.
Whomever was responsible for producing these videos was deliberately using hypnosis techniques to implant false memories in the minds of susceptible viewers. Combined with conspiracy theories that the false memories were being caused by experiments at C.E.R.N., the attempt to hypnotize viewers forced me to the conclusion that what we were looking at was a deliberate psychological operation. Who might do this, and why, remains open to speculation, but, my job is to explore the facts behind popular conspiracy theories not promulgate new ones.