News and Views

Fake News Can Give Us False Memories, Study Finds

23 Aug 2019
Dr Gillian Murphy, lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology, UCC: Our memories directly impact our behaviour, and so the next question is whether this kind of false memory could really change how someone intends to vote.

Voters may form false memories after seeing fabricated news stories, especially if those stories align with their political beliefs, according to a new study led by UCC's Dr Gillian Murphy.

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

"In highly emotional, partisan political contests, such as the 2020 US Presidential election, voters may 'remember' entirely fabricated news stories,” said lead author Dr Gillian Murphy, a lecturer at UCC’s School of Applied Psychology, UCC. “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, Murphy explained.

Dr Murphy and her colleagues, including leading memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, 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 behaviour. 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 eligible 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 favour 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,” Dr Murphy added.

For more on this story contact:

Lynne Nolan, Media & PR Officer, UCC: 087 210 1119 or lynne.nolan@ucc.ie.

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