Researchers draw connection between fake news and false memories

Based on a new psychological study, fabricated news stories are likely to invoke false memories among voters, especially if the stories are based on political beliefs.

Reports suggest, the study was conducted in the week prior to the 2018 referendum which legalized abortion in Ireland. However, according to researchers, fake news are capable of having similar effects in political contexts such as the US presidential election in 2020.

“In highly emotional, partisan political contests, such as the 2020 US Presidential election, voters may ‘remember’ entirely fabricated news stories,” reported lead author Gillian Murphy of University College Cork. “In particular, they are likely to ‘remember’ scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate.”

Murphy elaborates that their research is especially valid because it studies false memories and misinformation with regards to real-world referendum.

For the experiment, 3,140 eligible voters participated and they were asked about their opinion and the way they planned to vote in the referendum. Moreover, the participants were given six news reports, out of which, two were made-up stories about campaigners who were engaged in inflammatory or illegal behavior. The participants were also asked about the events depicted in the stories previously and if they attached specific memories to it.

Furthermore, the researchers informed the participants that some of the stories were fabricated and then asked the participants to identify if any of the reports appeared to fake to them. The test was completed by means of a cognitive test.

The results concluded, that almost half of the participants associated a particular memory with at least one of the made-up event, some even recalled specific details about the fabricated news story. It was found that individuals who were in favor of legalizing abortion associated a falsehood about the referendum opponents, whereas those against the legalization could associate a falsehood with regards to the proponents.

The results also found that several participants were unable to reconsider their memory even after they were told that some of the provided reports were fabricated. Additionally, some of the participants also remembered details which were not part of the false news.

“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,” Murphy commented on the experiment results.

Experts also indicate that participants who scored less on the cognitive tests were more likely to develop false memories, in comparison which the ones who had higher scores on the test. Thus participants with higher scores were more likely to question their personal biases along with their news sources.

Researchers are drawing plans to expand their findings in order to study the influence of false memories in connection to the MeToo movement and the Brexit.