After seeing fabricated news stories, or fake news, voters could form false memories, especially if the stories align with their political beliefs, explains a new study published in Psychological Science.
The study was carried out conducted in the week preceding the 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion in Ireland. The researchers suggested that fake news is likely to have similar effects in other political contexts, including the US presidential race of 2020.
“In highly emotional, partisan political contests, such as the 2020 US Presidential election, voters may ‘remember’ entirely fabricated news stories,” says lead author Gillian Murphy of University College Cork. “In particular, they are likely to ‘remember’ scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate.”
Murphy andher colleagues recruited 3,140 eligible voters online and asked them whetherand how they planned to vote in the referendum. Then they presented eachparticipant with six news reports, two of which were made-up stories thatdepicted campaigners on either side of the issue engaging in illegal orinflammatory behavior.
Afterreading each story, participants were asked if they had heard about the eventdepicted in the story previously; if so, they reported whether they hadspecific memories about it. Researchers then informed the eligible voters thatsome of the stories they read had been fabricated and invited the participantsto identify any of the reports they believed to be fake.
Almost halfof 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. Theindividuals in favor of legalizing abortion were more likely to remember afalsehood about the referendum opponents; those against legalization were morelikely to remember a falsehood about the proponents.
Manyparticipants failed to reconsider their memory even after learning that some ofthe information could be fictitious. And several participants recounted detailsthat 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,” Murphy said.
The participantswho scored lower on the cognitive test were no more prone to forming falsememories than were higher scorers, but low scorers were more likely to rememberfalse stories that aligned with their opinions. This finding suggests thatpeople with higher cognitive ability may be more likely to question theirpersonal biases and their news sources, the researchers say.