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 and her colleagues recruited 3,140 eligible voters online and asked them whether and how they planned to vote in the referendum. Then they 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 behavior.
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. 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.
Almost 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 favor 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,” Murphy said.
The participants who scored lower on the cognitive test were no more prone to forming false memories than were higher scorers, but low scorers were more likely to remember false stories that aligned with their opinions. This finding suggests that people with higher cognitive ability may be more likely to question their personal biases and their news sources, the researchers say.