Fake news can lead to false memories

September 8, 2019

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Fake news can lead to false memories

Voters may form false memories after seeing fabricated news stories, especially if those stories align with their political beliefs, according to research in the journal Psychological Science.

The research was conducted in the week preceding the 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion in Ireland, but the researchers suggest that fake news is likely to have similar effects in other political contexts, including the U.S. presidential race in 2020.

What the researchers say: “In highly emotional, partisan political contests, such as the 2020 US Presidential election, voters may ‘remember’ entirely fabricated news stories,” says the lead author. “In particular, they are likely to ‘remember’ scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate.”

The study is novel because it examines misinformation and false memories in relation to a real-world referendum, she explains.

The Irish and American team of researchers recruited 3,140 eligible voters online and asked them whether and how they planned to vote in the referendum.

Next, the experimenters presented each participant with six news reports, two of which were made-up stories that depicted campaigners on either side of the issue engaging in illegal or inflammatory behavior. After reading each story, participants were asked if they had heard about the event depicted in the story previously; if so, they reported whether they had specific memories about it.

The researchers then informed the voters that some of the stories they read had been fabricated and invited the participants to identify any of the reports they believed to be fake. Finally, the participants completed a cognitive test.

Nearly half of the respondents reported a memory for at least one of the made-up events; many of them recalled rich details about a fabricated news story. The individuals in favor of legalizing abortion were more likely to remember a falsehood about the referendum opponents; those against legalization were more likely to remember a falsehood about the proponents. Many participants failed to reconsider their memory even after learning that some of the information could be fictitious. And several participants recounted details that the false news reports did not include.

“This demonstrates the ease with which we can plant these entirely fabricated memories, despite this voter suspicion and even despite an explicit warning that they may have been shown fake news,” the researchers said.

Participants who scored lower on the cognitive test were no more prone to forming false memories than were higher scorers, but low scorers were more likely to remember false stories that aligned with their opinions. This finding suggests that people with higher cognitive ability may be more likely to question their personal biases and their news sources, the researchers say.

The lead researcher said that understanding the psychological effects of fake news is critical given that sophisticated technology is making it easier to create not only phony news reports and images, but fake video, as well.

“People will act on their fake memories, and it is often hard to convince them that fake news is fake,” he said. “With the growing ability to make news incredibly convincing, how are we going to help people avoid being misled? It’s a problem that psychological scientists may be uniquely qualified to work on.”

So, what? The idea that people can be susceptible to fake or fabricated stories—even about themselves—is not new. Many moons ago researchers proved this by interviewing people who had been to Disneyland in LA. In the room was a life-size image of the character Bugs Bunny. A majority of the interviewees “remembered” meeting someone dressed as Bugs in Disneyland. Many remembered specifics of the conversation they had with the character and other details.

Of course, Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character (he belongs to Warner Bros.’s Looney Tunes division) and therefore they couldn’t have met him in Disneyland. But the image—even without prompting by the researchers—created the “memory.”        

What is new, and frightening, is our modern ability to create false memories, and attitudes and beliefs based on them, on a mass scale.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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