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People 'remember' false stories after reading fake news, says new study of abortion vote

The study was carried out by UCC in the weeks leading up to the referendum.

The study talked to people in the lead up to the Eighth Amendment referendum.
The study talked to people in the lead up to the Eighth Amendment referendum.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

VOTERS ARE MORE vulnerable to believing fake news stories if they match their own personal worldviews or ideologies, according to a new University College Cork study analysing the 2018 Eighth Amendment vote. 

It found that people are 14 times more likely to claim they remember a fake story if it matches their own beliefs. 

The study, by University College Cork’s Dr Gillian Murphy, was one of the largest of its kind ever carried out in Ireland. 

With concerns about fake news growing, the research suggests that everyone is susceptible to false news stories – especially if they appeal to pre-existing beliefs.  

The research, which took place in the weeks leading up to voting day, used the 2018 referendum – which eventually saw 66.4% of voters back repeal after years of polarised debate – to find out how likely people were to believe and “remember” fake stories.  

“The implications for upcoming elections are that voters are vulnerable to not just believing a fake news story, but falsely recalling that the event truly happened,” Murphy said. 

“Warnings don’t seem to help and so we need to develop new strategies to combat this problem,” she added. 

The study

As part of the study, readers were shown a series of purported news stories about the referendum ahead of voting day on 25 May. They were then asked if they remembered each story and how they felt at the time. 

Readers were shown a series of six news stories concerning the referendum campaigns and were asked if they remembered each story and how they felt at the time – as part of the study, four were true and two were false. 

Participants were also asked whether they remembered where they had heard about the event, such as from television or from social media. 

The first false story – which had two versions – claimed that either the “yes” or “no” side were told to destroy campaign posters purchased illegally using money from foreign sources. 

study The stories shown to participants in the study. Source: Gillian Murphy/Association for Psychological Science

Both versions of the story could be seen as believable. Amnesty International was told to return a donation from George Soros in December 2017, while in the weeks leading up to the referendum Facebook announced a ban on ads from foreign sources. 

The second fake story involved comments by pro-choice or pro-life campaigners in relation to the Belfast rape trial that involved Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding and which dominated headlines for several weeks in 2018. Statements about the trial were attributed to campaigners on both sides of the debate and shown to the participants. 

Those taking the survey were also asked how they planned to vote and how important the referendum was to them. 

With a total of 3,140 participants, the study is one of the largest ever memory experiments ever undertaken in Ireland. 

The research found that 56% of people correctly identified the four true stories, while 32% were not fooled by the false stories. 

Almost 50% of participants reported remembering at least one of the two fake stories – 37% of people said they had a specific memory of hearing or seeing one of the stories, while 11% said they had a more general memory. 

It also found that 63% of people either believed or said they remembered at least one of the false stories. 

Importantly, the study found that the proportion of true stories remembered by “yes” and “no” voters did not differ significantly – those in favour of repeal remembered 57% of true stories, while those against remembered 58%. 

It found that 54% of yes voters said they remembered or believed the “no” poster story, compared to only 38% of no voters. 

Similarly, 40% of no voters remembered the “yes” poster story, compared to only 30% of yes voters who believed or remembered the story. 

The study notes that people formed “rich and detailed false memories” of the campaign:

 Responses to the “no” poster story included, “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 years, voting “yes”)

Another response from a 19-year-old male voting no was:

I don’t think anything wrong happened and the posters shouldn’t have been burned.

When it came to the Belfast rape trial comments, “yes” and “no” voters were equally as likely to remember or believe the false stories – however the survey found this data less valuable as people were more likely to focus on the trial itself as opposed to the fake comments. 

Participants also took a cognitive ability test – the survey found that participants were 11% less likely to report a fake memory for every one-point increase in their test score. 

However, writing for TheJournal.ie last year about the survey’s initial findings, Murphy warned that “the more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to construct false memories”.

Even after being warned that some of the stories might have been fabricated and being asked to identify which ones, 15% failed to identify any that were false. Only 31% of people who falsely remembered a poster story actually realised, after being warned, that it was fake. 

The findings, the authors wrote, “demonstrate the ease with which memories for fabricated scandals can be created during emotional, highly consequential political campaigns, with almost half of participants reporting a false memory”.

TheJournal.ie assisted Dr Gillian Murphy with the study. 

TheJournal.ie regularly works on factchecks, including recently in the 2018 referendum and the 2019 European Parliament elections. TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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