Fake news
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Could fake news lead to false memories?

Who could forget when Boris Johnson famously said that the BBC put out fake news? Well, if you remember that, I’m afraid you’re the victim of false memory – I completely made it up, but it sounds plausible, so your brain may have filled in the gaps. Research has revealed that false memories may have major consequences for fake news – but what are they exactly?

Fairly apparently, having a false memory is when you don’t remember something exactly as it happens – your memory of an event may be distorted, or even completely made up. This is frequently the case when thinking about events from your early childhood – often, a combination of eyewitness accounts (those from your parents), videos and photos help create the impression of memory, even when you don’t actually recall it.

A false memory is when you don’t remember something exactly as it happens – your memory of an event may be distorted, or even completely made up

Using suggestive information like these helps manipulate what people believe – in one study, participants were shown a video of a car accident, and then made to remember something completely different by researchers. You may have been the victim of this yourself – it’s one of the tools that a confident magician can employ, particularly in ‘is this your card?’ tricks.

However, the false memory may have more sinister applications. According to Elizabeth F. Loftus, a researcher and professor of cognitive psychology and human memory: “It’s pretty easy to distort memories by supplying [people] with suggestive information. But then, later, we began to ask just how far could you go with people. Could you implant false memories into the minds of people for things that never happened?”

According to Elizabeth F. Loftus, a researcher and professor of cognitive psychology and human memory: “It’s pretty easy to distort memories by supplying [people] with suggestive information

The answer, it transpired, was yes.

In one study, 70% of subjects were made to believe they had committed a crime such as theft or assault simply by using common memory-retrieval techniques. Similarly, intense interrogation for crimes can make people honestly believe that they are guilty and lead to confessions for events that never happened. In an example from the early 20th-century, a young man was accused of murder and, despite having an alibi for the crime, he became convinced of his own guilt after questioning. He was incredibly willing to repeat his story to everyone, and it became more detailed each time. He was hanged a week after his arrest.

In one study, 70% of subjects were made to believe they had committed a crime such as theft or assault simply by using common memory-retrieval techniques

One theory to explain these false memories is called ‘fuzzy trace theory’ – extremely roughly, given a few gaps in memory and some suggestions, the brain may fill in the gaps itself. So, if you have a list of related words (sleep, dream, bed, tired, etc.) and are then asked to remember them, you may come up with related examples that weren’t in the list at all. Fuzzy trace suggests there are two types of memory – verbatim (you remember something vividly) and gist (fuzzy representations of a past event). As you age, you tend to rely more on gist memory, because it has a more powerful influence after a delay (revising for a test, for example).

Now, as you progress from childhood to adulthood, your verbatim memory improves and your gist memory increases. So, on the list example, you’re more likely to come up with a word that wasn’t there and remember the whole list. Older brains become more interested in meaning – it’s not that your memory necessarily gets worse, but your brain is more interested in joining the dots and reporting that, rather than verbatim reality.

Fuzzy trace suggests there are two types of memory – verbatim (you remember something vividly) and gist (fuzzy representations of a past event)

False memories happen to everyone and they aren’t particularly a cause for concern – indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, relying on gist memory can be better for us, as we make healthier decisions in terms of risk-taking. Where it becomes problematic is, as ever, when politics comes into the question.

In a study held weeks before the 2018 Ireland abortion referendum, volunteers were shown fabricated news reports. Nearly half of them claimed to have memories of at least one of the events, with the likelihood increased if the fake news lied about the side they opposed. Some even recalled further details that weren’t in the fake reports. Importantly, after being told that the stories were false, many refused to question their beliefs, highlighting how hard it is to ‘undo’ false memories once they’d been created.

Where it becomes problematic is, as ever, when politics comes into the question

Fake news looks to be of major concern during the 2020 US presidential election, and it’s hard to know exactly what can be done to tackle it. You’re more prone to it if it hurts your enemies, and you may not even realise you’re misremembering. They say that everyone in politics is a liar – who knew that your brain was also keen to get in on the act?

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