News Brief

Disinformation can lead to false memories

Reading a fake news story can lead us to have false memories, according to a new study carried out during the 2018 Irish abortion referendum. Researchers in Ireland and the U.S. teamed up to look at what happens to our memories when we come across disinformation, and conducted the peer-reviewed study during the week leading up to the vote, recruiting more than 3,000 participants.

They found that people often responded to fake news by saying that they had a pre-existing memory of the event. Researchers also found that where news stories aligned with voters’ existing beliefs and biases, they were more likely to have a supporting recollection of the story.

“It was what we expected to find,” said Ciara M Greene at the University of Dublin, one of the researchers on the study, who explained how they built upon existing research about false memories. The study marks the first time researchers have looked at the effects of fake news on memory in the context of a democratic event.

They chose the 2018 Irish abortion referendum, Greene explained, due to its historical significance and because the polarizing subject matter contained a density of information that voters were bombarded with during the campaign.

“You couldn’t move for posters, and there was constant, endless media coverage of the referendum. It was really immersive,” Greene explained.

The high-stakes referendum forced people to divide into two camps, and led participants to have emphatic responses to the material they were shown, the study found. Voters were more susceptible to creating false memories after they were exposed to stories that lined up with their beliefs.

“It was a very polarizing event, the kind of event where people are forced into a binary choice,” Greene said. “And that tends to force people into a polarization of their views.”

The referendum, which took place in September 2018, was conducted amid heightened fears about the potential for bad actors to hijack the campaign with misleading content – Facebook and Google took steps to block foreign advertisers from running ads in Ireland. “There was a lot of suspicion about fake news and yet people still fell for a lot of it,” Greene said.

Even after being told that some of the stories may have been fabricated, many of the participants in the study didn’t want to dispute their own recollections. “People were very resistant to changing their mind,” Greene said. There’s an element of motivated reasoning at play. We believe what we want to believe and it is very worrying.”

“This demonstrates the ease with which we can plant these entirely fabricated memories, even despite an explicit warning that they may have been shown fake news,” said lead author Gillian Murphy of University College Cork in a statement.

“Even if you use really unconvincing false photos – intentionally bad fakes – they increase the rate of false memories,” Greene said. Which is a concerning prospect as fake content and “deepfakes” are becoming ever more convincing.

The researchers will continue their work by examining the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum and the #metoo movement.