Fake News Can Create Fake Memories, Study Says

A stand hostess attaches a photo to a wall themed against Fake News at the annual re:publica conferences on their opening day on May 2, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

As social media companies scramble to up their efforts against fake news ahead of the 2020 election, a study published in Psychological Science reveals that these untrue stories can create false memories in voters — especially if the stories align with their political beliefs.

According to Psych Central, the study, which was conducted prior to Ireland’s 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion, is novel because it shines a light on misinformation and false memories in the context of a real-world referendum.

“In highly emotional, partisan political contests, such as the 2020 U.S. presidential election, voters may ‘remember’ entirely fabricated news stories,” said Gillian Murphy, lead author of the study. “In particular, they are likely to ‘remember’ scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate.”

Murphy and his team gathered 3,140 voters online and asked if they planned to vote in the referendum and how they planned on doing so. Afterward, each participant was presented with six news reports — two of which were fake news stories that showed campaigners conducting “illegal or inflammatory behavior.”

Following exposure to the fake news, participants were asked if they had heard about the event in the story before. If they did, they were asked to report on any specific memories they have of the situation. Finally, the research team told participants that some stories were fake and asked them to identify any they believed were fake before they were put through a cognitive test.

The findings of the study revealed that almost half of the participants reported a memory for at least one of the events described in the fake news stories. Many of these memories contained rich detail, and Forbes reports that these false memories were more likely to form when the news story reported unfavorable news about opponents. Interestingly, participants that favored abortion legalization were more likely to remember false memories about referendum opponents, while participants against abortion were more likely to remember false memories about the proponents.

The study also revealed that the fake memories remained strong even after participants learned that some information they were presented was fake.

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Murphy believes that the study reveals how easy it is to implant false memories into a person’s head — even in the face of suspicion and warnings of fake news.

Per The Inquisitr, the term “fake news” has become a slur used by Donald Trump against his opponents in the media, and his supporters have joined him. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent recently accused British journalist James Dyer at an airport for being part of the “fake news media.”

Despite being shocked at the situation and admitting it was unprofessional, Newsweek reports that Dyer declined to file a formal complaint — even at the urging of CBP.

“Perhaps just CBP could better communicate what is and isn’t appropriate to border personnel,” he said. “I respect his right to hold whatever views he wishes.