The Conspiracy Entrepreneurs of YouTube
What do Forrest Gump, Jiffy peanut butter, and the Looney Tunes all have in common? They’re all phenomena associated with a conspiracy theory that has made its way into brightly lit and well-managed YouTube channels, rather than coming from paranoid men associated with believing in government cover-ups epitomised by Mel Gibson in the 1997 film, Conspiracy Theory.
The Mandela Effect is a theory posited by Internet users that our world contains certain glitches revealing that something has been inextricably altered, deriving its name from the false collective memory of a group of people that believe Nelson Mandela died in prison.
These malfunctions are often painfully mundane: the spelling of the cleaning product Febreze, Carrie Bradshaw being a character in Sex in the City rather than Sex and the City, and ‘Barbra Streisand’ originally being spelled ‘Barbara.’
These machinations are dutifully listed in /r/MandelaEffect by 338,771 subscribers who believe aspects of our world exist in contradiction to what they know is true. To qualify as a Mandela Effect, according to the thread’s rules, the phenomenon must be one that a large group of people remembers – this qualifier isn’t a difficult one to reach, however, when you’re in a subculture devoted to remembering things that aren’t in this reality.
Reddit is home to such an array of different topics that it’s unsurprising to see a niche developing, but how did the Mandela Effect become such a popular topic for celebrity YouTubers?
The first of these channels to engage with the Mandela Effect appears to have been a man named Shane Dawson, who currently has 8,753,185 subscribers. He began a conspiracy theories series in a February 2015 video “CELEBRITY CONSPIRACY THEORIES!” This initial video, which is now part of a series that spans over 50 videos, discusses how Beyonce may have faked her pregnancy and how Taylor Swift might be a secret 4Chan user.
In September 2015, Dawson uploads “SCARY CONSPIRACY THEORIES!” where he addresses the Mandela Effect for the first time, telling viewers that he does believe in parallel universes and asking what implications this has – maybe there’s a world where Shane Dawson is funny?
Prior to this, Dawson’s canon of work was centred on using different products. “TRYING DUMB LIFE HACKS” and “TRYING BASKIN ROBBINS” are some of his videos where the viewer watches the Youtuber engage in the process of exchanging money for goods and services, and the rewards thereof. This is a familiar Youtube trope, and it is the basis of the “haul” videos common to popular YouTube channels.
One such channel is Tana Mongeau, with 2,262,170 subscribers. In early August 2016, Mongeau posted “6 Conspiracy Theories That’ll FUCK YOU UP” which was unusual among her other videos with titles such as “HOW TO CAKE YOUR FACE LIKE A PRO (Makeup Routine)” and “BIG ASS HOME DÉCOR HAUL.” The video covered the Mandela Effect, among others, with Mongeau adamant it was real.
As with everything, imitation is an indicator of success, and lower profile YouTubers were soon making their own Mandela Effect videos in order to pump up their views.
Approximately 1,300,000 Mandela Effect videos were uploaded to YouTube in 2016. One of the first imitators began in 2015. Kendall Rae (283,971 subscribers) took a break from videos about plus size fashion and wedding plans in September 2015 to post “THIS MAY BLOW YOUR MIND… The Mandela Effect CONSPIRACY THEORIES,” which became the first in a series of conspiracy theory videos that Rae posted. In 2016, Michelle Platti (49,580 subscribers) went from beauty tutorials and vegan recipes to an impressive amount of conspiracy theory coverage, and Alexis Burleson (6,864 subscribers) did a Mandela Effect video among her make-up tutorials.
None of these users appeared to start their YouTube careers by becoming conspiracy theorists, and initially followed the typical “haul” style video, where a YouTuber discusses products they have bought. The appeal of these consumerist videos may have something to do with creating a digital identity. The objects you own become an intrinsic part of your identity, but the ability to buy the objects you desire isn’t always there.
The virtual space of the internet allows users to create a consumer aspect to their self they may not exist physically. In The Virtual Self: A Contemporary Sociology, Ben Agger argued that capitalism has created a situation where we “[consume] advertising images that form identity” in the world of the Internet.
In other words, I can’t afford a Chanel outfit, but I can Instagram a photo of Kristen Stewart in Chanel’s latest ad campaign with a heart eyes emoji as the caption to ensure my peers know I have good taste.
With YouTube, we can live somewhat vicariously through someone else’s purchases and form aspects of our identity. Despite capitalism’s best efforts, however, the self cannot be composed only of a brand-aligned identity, and while it may seem silly, the conspiracy theories playlist acts as a form of intellectual discourse: the YouTuber researches and relays information, and the viewer can absorb this information and disseminate it themselves.
Instead of curating an online wishlist, the viewer can discuss 9/11 conspiracies as a form of small talk. You can’t know why Dawson, Mongeau, and their imitators posted their conspiracy theory videos originally, but they do fill an Internet need. This is evident from the fact that Dawson and Mongeau recently made a collaboration video about the Mandela Effect in October 2016, where they presented themselves as authentic lovers of the theory from when it was an obscure sub-Reddit – before it got trendy.
Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule of Harvard University posited in Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures that conspiracy theories could circulate through “conspiracy entrepreneurs,” individuals who earn money from their circulation of these theories, either directly or indirectly.
YouTubers fit the criteria – as conspiracy theory videos appear to be increasingly popular, it’s an easy way to gain and monetise views when algorithms dictate that because a viewer watched one Mandela Effect video, all the others are relevant, too. For Dawson and Mongeau, links to their merch are associated with all their videos and the popularity of the Mandela Effect indirectly leads to T-shirt sales.
Why are they so popular, though? Sunstein and Vermeule theorised in 2009 that conspiracy theories often occur in the aftermath of a bad event, perhaps because that “provides an outlet for rage and blame.”
The Mandela Effect is not the answer for one defining moment where everything was terrible, but instead lures the viewer into believing something has been changed in the way society functions. This particular belief deals with the world since the 1980s, and the hosts of these popular videos are all under the age of 30. Regardless of the fact that this generation can’t afford houses and are expected to do unpaid internships, it’s a generation whose fate is being decided by their predecessors. Voters between 18-29 preferred Hilary Clinton to Donald Trump by a 55-37% margin. In the Brexit referendum, 75% of voters between the ages of 18-24, and 56% of voters between the ages of 25-49 voted Remain.
Perhaps there is comfort in an explanation that a large group of people can have the rules changed on them and be living in a different version of reality. After all, 2016 seemed to be an illogical year where everything changed and it was difficult to understand why.