In attempting to figure out why the mind creates false memories, Dr Gillian Murphy’s research into so-called ‘fake news’ caused quite a global stir.
As we gear up for another general election here in Ireland, Twitter, Facebook and every social media platform under the sun will be vigilant for any bad actors trying to sway voters with so-called ‘fake news’.
With tensions high and a lot at stake, deliberate attempts at disinformation – or just a simple misinterpretation of a story – can be enough to sway an electorate to believe things that were never true to begin with.
Yet one of the biggest questions waiting to be solved isn’t a political one, but a psychological one: how do we fall for fake news?
That was the focus of one group of researchers led by Dr Gillian Murphy, a lecturer in applied psychology at University College Cork (UCC), who published a study in August last year. The study looked at whether disinformation can be so effective that it creates false memories.
Based on data gathered the week prior to the 2018 Irish abortion referendum, the results showed that false memories were indeed being created, helping to reinforce the beliefs of people who fell on either side of the debate.
As part of this research, more than 3,100 people were asked how they would vote in the referendum and were also presented with six stories, including two fabricated, inflammatory stories. Almost half of respondents were adamant that they remembered stories that never happened.
The findings were startling. Not long after it was published, it sparked a global news frenzy with Murphy’s research being reported across the world – arguably something of a rarity for leading Irish research.
A study heard around the world
Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Murphy admitted the reaction was quite surprising.
“I’ve never been on Fox News before,” she said, laughing. “My friends and family found it hilarious.
“But sometimes in research, it can be a bit of a lottery [when your work is covered by the media]. If you’re working on something that’s a bit trendy, you can do really rigorous, great research, but it might just not capture people’s imaginations.”
In explaining why she thought it took the world by storm, Murphy said it wasn’t just because the term fake news is so ingrained in daily political and online discussions.
“I found people are really interested in the concept of false memories,” she said. “A lot of people have this intuitive idea that their memory works like a video camera, but every now and then we encounter things in our lives that just aren’t true.”
Murphy stressed that one of the most surprising and important findings is that our susceptibility to false memories does not play politics; those on both sides of the 2018 referendum who took part in the study were equally susceptible.
A flexible brain
It begs the question that with millions of years of evolution behind us, why are our memories still such an unreliable filter of information? According to Murphy, there might be a real benefit to having memories that are flexible.
For example, we often engage in something called ‘counterfactual thinking’. In essence, it’s those alternate reality versions of yourself that you dream about; such as what your life might be like if you were born in a different country.
“That mechanism we have for taking something exactly as it happened and then changing it; that is why we’re so susceptible to things like fake news or false memories,” she said.
“It’s not an accident, it’s more of a feature than a bug.”
So is it possible to train our brains to better spot and block out the minefield of disinformation out there? And if so, do we just have social media and the internet to blame?
Not really, according to Murphy, who described what her research has found.
“What we’re trying to do is to moderate or identify [false memories], or possibly make that process a bit more conscious,” she said.
“Maybe we can become a bit more aware of it. It’s not that any of us are stupid or that social media is rotting our brains, it’s a fundamentally positive message, but we’re encountering things that are hijacking that.”
Now on to feminism
Looking to the future, Murphy’s research will continue to dive deeper into the topic of false memories and disinformation. Not only that, but her work will stay on top of some of the most pressing cultural issues of the day, such as how false memories spread in the area of feminism and the #MeToo movement.
Not stopping there, she is also working with colleagues at University College Dublin and in the UK, examining how susceptible leave and remain voters are to news around Brexit.
While both are yet to be published, Murphy said that initial findings showed those who took part responded “in almost the same way” as the 2018 referendum study.
So with a general election upon us, is she concerned that social media companies have not done enough to work with psychologists and others to find an answer to stopping the spread of disinformation?
“I certainly wish social media companies could be a bit more responsible, but I do hold some empathy [for them] as it’s difficult,” she said.
“It’s not that there’s a clear solution that psychologists know about but are refusing to apply, it’s that we’re all a bit lost at the moment and trying to develop solutions. Even ones we think should work often don’t. That’s very interesting to us as psychologists.”
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