Voters can form false memories after seeing fake news stories, especially if those stories align with their political beliefs, according to new research out of Ireland.
The research was conducted in the week before the 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion in Ireland, but researchers suggest that fake news is likely to have similar effects in other political contexts, including the U.S. presidential race in 2020.
“In highly emotional, partisan political contests, such as the 2020 U.S. presidential election, voters may ‘remember’ entirely fabricated news stories,” said lead author Gillian Murphy of University College Cork. “In particular, they are likely to ‘remember’ scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate.”
According to Murphy, the study is novel because it examines misinformation and false memories in relation to a real-world referendum.
For the study, the researchers recruited 3,140 voters online and asked them whether and how they planned to vote in the referendum.
Next, each participant was presented 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 before. If they did, they were asked to report any specific memories about it.
The researchers then told the voters that some of the stories had been fabricated. They invited the participants to identify any of the reports they believed to be fake. Finally, the participants completed a cognitive test.
According to the study’s findings, nearly half of the participants reported a memory for at least one of the made-up events. Many 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, while those against legalization were more likely to remember a falsehood about the proponents, the researchers discovered.
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, the researchers said.
“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 said.
Participants who scored lower on the cognitive test were no more prone to forming false memories than those with higher scores, the researchers said. Low scorers were more likely to remember false stories that aligned with their opinions, they added.
This finding suggests that people with higher cognitive ability may be more likely to question their personal biases and their news sources, according to the researchers.
According to pioneering memory researcher Dr. Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, 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,” said Loftus, who participated in the research. “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.”
The researchers plan to expand on the study by investigating the influence of false memories related to the Brexit referendum and the #MeToo movement.
The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.