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A recent study has found that, seeing fabricated news stories, particularly those which align with one’s political beliefs, may lead voters to form false memories. The concluding findings reveal relatively new insights surrounding this area of research, as the study ‘examines misinformation and false memories in relation to a real-world referendum’. This sheds light on how difficult it may be to ‘undo’ spurious memories once they have been created.

The study, which involved 3,140 participants being shown fabricated news reports, was conducted during the week preceding the 2018 referendum on legalising abortion in Ireland. Its results suggest that nearly half of the participants claimed to have had prior memories of at least one of the made-up events detailed. Further, even after being told that the articles they had read might include wrong or made-up information, many failed to question their false recollections. Additionally, participants were more prone to creating false memories if the reports had lied about the side which they opposed.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Gillian Murphy, has said that ‘in highly emotional, partisan political contests […], voters may “remember” entirely fabricated news stories’, and she goes on to highlight how ‘in particular, they are likely to “remember” scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate’. Researchers suggest that the fabrication of ‘fake news’ and its proliferation may likely have similar effects in other political contexts, such as the upcoming 2020 US presidential race.

Applicants for Psychology may consider how memory is a reconstructive process and how we, as humans, may be ‘vulnerable to suggestion distorting our recollections, without our conscious awareness’. Particularly, students can reflect on how the proliferation of false information, especially via social media platforms, may affect voter behaviour, because voters may be both likely to believe ‘fake news’ and be prone to falsely recalling made-up events which never truly happened. Students should contemplate the potentially alarming implications which underlie these findings.

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