There is no question that fake news is a real problem. Especially in online venues, it’s hard for people to filter what is from legitimate sources and what is not. But now, in addition to reinforcing people’s biases or swaying people’s opinions in harmful directions, a new study finds that fake news may actually cause people to remember things that never actually happened.
Fake news is prevalent, especially during polarizing political times, like the 2016 US Presidential election. What makes fake news hard to stop is that it is so appealing – fake news stories often outperform legitimate news stories.
The Pew Research Center found that 23% of Americans have shared a fake news story, and 14% of those shared it when they knew it was fake. Google and Facebook have attempted to find and limit the propagation of fake news, although some criticize that their efforts are not enough. Ways to find fake news include anomaly detection, natural language processing and other forms of AI analytics, as well as everyday readers being educated in knowing what to look for.
A recent study led by Gillian Murphy from the University College Cork found that when people are shown fake news, they often “remember” false memories. In the study, they showed 3,140 people six news stories associated with the 2018 referendum to legalize abortion in Ireland. Two of the stories were false. Almost half of the respondents “remembered” a memory associated with one of the false stories – and this was more likely to happen when the news story was reporting unfavorable news about the other side. Sometimes these “memories” were not even included in the false news story. When warned that some of the stories may be false, few people reconsidered their memories.
These false memories may be especially prevalent in issues that are highly polarizing. The results of this study show that the effects of fake news can be far reaching. They penetrate our psychology, and can further divide us as a country and as a world.