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Fake news in the referendum: Did you fall for it?

UCC and UCD psychological study ‘implanted’ false memories in survey to explore how they might affect votes.

IN THE FINAL stretch before the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, TheJournal.ie highlighted a research study which aimed to investigate the link between what news stories voters were exposed to and how they cast their ballot on 25 May.

Initial results from the study, which analysed a survey completed by 4,000 respondents and hosted on an independent survey site (Qualtrics.com), has shown researchers from UCC and UCD that at least 43% of those surveyed ‘remembered’ at least one event that never actually happened.

Dr Gillian Murphy, of the School of Applied Psychology in UCC, writes:

Readers were shown a series of purported news stories concerning the referendum campaigns and were asked if they remembered each story and how they felt at the time.

These stories ranged from Simon Coveney very publicly changing his stance from No to Yes, to the No campaign being forced to destroy thousands of posters purchased with US funding, to the Centre for Bioethical Reform displaying graphic images of abortions outside maternity hospitals.

One of these stories was a complete fabrication – did you spot which one?

We found that 43% of readers ‘remembered’ at least one event that never happened.

Most interestingly, people’s false memories were more likely to be in line with their existing beliefs about the referendum, so No voters were more likely to remember a fabricated Yes scandal and Yes voters were more likely to remember a fabricated No scandal.

The study

After answering some questions about their voting intentions and feelings about the campaigns, each study participant was shown a synopsis (a short description and a photograph) of four true stories and two false stories.

The true stories were carefully balanced so everyone saw stories that were equally positive or negative for the Yes and No campaigns. For example, one group of participants saw a story about Saoirse Ronan and other Irish actors calling for a Yes vote, while the other group saw a story about Mickey Harte and other GAA figures calling for a No vote.

For balance, the group who saw the Saoirse Ronan Yes story were shown a story about TD Carol Nolan being suspended from Sinn Fein after voting against the abortion referendum, while the other group saw a story about Simon Coveney changing his mind on the issue of abortion and announcing he would vote Yes. Despite this balance, many participants commented that the survey was biased (eg, a Yes voter said ‘Is this survey a No campaign scam?’ and a No voter said ‘Is this a survey or just a pro-choice advert?’ after both viewing the same version of the survey).

False memories

Each participant saw two false stories, one about the Yes campaign and one about the No campaign.

One story concerned illegal funding of posters, while the other story concerned inflammatory comments made by Yes and No campaigners linking the 8 th amendment debate to the high-profile Belfast sexual assault trial. For the purpose of this article we’ll just look at the story about the illegal posters. Every participant saw one of these two stories:

yesno Source: Dr Gillian Murphy via UCC

Both stories had a grain of truth and could be seen as believable. Amnesty International was ordered to return a donation from George Soros in December 2017, while Facebook announced a ban on all ads from foreign sources just weeks before the referendum.

But crucially, neither group’s posters were found to be funded with foreign money and none were destroyed at any point on this basis.

As you can see in the graph below, No voters were more likely to ‘remember’ the fabricated Yes story and Yes voters were more likely to ‘remember’ the fabricated No story.

Graph_Study1 Source: Dr Gillian Murphy

This difference is statistically significant and demonstrates that our false memories are likely to form in line with our pre-existing beliefs. It is also important to note that the participants shown in the graph are those who said they specifically remembered this event happening. An additional 10-15% of participants said that they had no memory of the event but they believed it had happened.

When asked how they felt when they learned about these events, participants’ responses demonstrate rich and detailed memories. Yes voters more readily ‘remembered’ that No posters were illegally purchased and destroyed (“I had my mind made up prior to these posters, however, after this story I was disinterested in the No campaign as I didn’t agree with the involvement of other countries in our countries decisions” – Female, 24, voting Yes).

The No voters who did ‘remember’ this event were more likely to defend the actions (“I don’t think anything wrong happened and the posters shouldn’t have been burned” – Male, 19, voting No). Likewise, No voters more readily ‘remembered’ that Yes posters were illegally purchased and destroyed (“Thought it was hilarious!” – Male, 71, voting No) while Yes voters were more likely to defend the illegal posters (“I didn’t see theproblem and feel the posters should have been kept” – Female, voting Yes) or even ‘remember’ the event more positively (“I felt proud because they were honest and reacted well” – Female, 23, voting Yes).

After viewing the stories, we told participants that “some people who undertook this study were shown fake news stories (stories concerning events that did not happen, the stories were created by the researchers)” and asked them to select any stories they believed to be fake. Even when alerted to the possible presence of fake news, participants could not reliably detect the fabricated stories (eg, the fake No posters story was selected by 22% of participants, while a true story about problems with ChecktheRegister.ie was identified as false by 16% of participants).

‘Fake news’ affects voters

We all believe our memories are real and accurate. However decades of psychological research has demonstrated that our memories are often very inaccurate and can be manipulated by false information. Something as simple as using the definite article (did you see the stop sign?) rather than the indefinite article (did you see a stop sign?) has been shown to double reports of seeing a non-existent stop sign.

Manipulating memory in this way can also affect behaviour. One study by Professor Elizabeth Loftus, a world-leading memory expert and a co-author on this study on Irish voters, had participants complete a childhood food-experiences questionnaire and provide them with a ‘personally-tailored food-preferences profile’. Inserting one untrue statement into the feedback (‘you once got sick after eating strawberry ice-cream’) resulted in 40% of participants adopting this false memory, reporting an aversion to strawberry ice-cream and declining to eat it. This is a simple demonstration of how implanted false memories can influence our later behaviour.

Most readers might now be thinking that they are too knowledgeable about the referendum to be fooled by false stories. However research by a co-author on this study, Dr Ciara Greene at UCD, demonstrated that the more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to construct false memories.

Dr Greene said: “Knowing a lot about something, and crucially, being very interested in it, means that we have a lot of stored memories relating to that topic. This means that when we encounter a new piece of information – for example, a fake, but plausible news story – it’s more likely to activate these old memories and trigger a false sense of familiarity.

“What we consider plausible is influenced by our experiences and beliefs. In the present study, a committed Yes voter might find negative stories about the No campaign more plausible and consistent with their own prior experience; the likelihood of creating a false memory around a No campaign scandal is therefore higher for this person.

“This finding is significant as we have demonstrated how easily ‘fake news’ can implant false memories in the minds of voters during a political campaign. For ethical reasons, we didn’t mislead participants about the facts of the referendum and we only let them believe the fake news stories for a few minutes before fully debriefing them. However, it is entirely possible that implanted memories could affect voter behaviour if left uncorrected.”

More to learn

In future work, we intend to examine what factors predict susceptibility to false memories and what strategies voters can employ to become more critical media consumers.

Thanks also to my co-authors Dr Ciara Greene (UCD), Professor Elizabeth Loftus, Professor Linda Levine and Becky Grady (University California Irvine) and the Royal Irish Academy who supported this research.

If you’re interested in this work, please consider participating in the second part of this study by completing the survey linked below. You’ll be asked some questions about how you felt the moment you heard about the referendum results and how you’re feeling now.

The survey will take less than 10 minutes and you’ll be invited to take part in up to three more surveys over the next 12 months.

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About the author:

Dr Gillian Murphy

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