In the years following the 2016 election, we’ve all slowly become aware of how widespread misinformation is, as well as the extent to which Big Tech has largely turned a blind eye to it. What we don’t really talk about, however, is how susceptible many of us are to fake news — and how much our preconceived notions of the world play into our willingness to buy into bullshit. An Irish study published in the journal Psychological Science, however, offers a terrifying glimpse at how easily we can be manipulated, and how difficult it truly is for many of us to discern between fact and fiction.
Led by Gillian Murphy, a lecturer at the School of Applied Psychology at the University College County Cork, the study took place one week before the 2018 initiative to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which made abortion totally illegal except in cases where the pregnancy posed a significant risk to the mother’s life. The researchers asked more than 3,000 eligible voters how they planned to vote in the referendum, then presented them with six news stories about the abortion referendum, two of which were fabricated and featured inflammatory behavior from partisans on both sides of the issue. The subjects were then asked whether they’d heard the stories before, and if so, if they had any memories about them. The goal was not just to determine how susceptible the subjects were to the lure of “fake news,” but also whether certain stories were more likely to resonate with them according to their specific political views — regardless of whether the story was true or not.
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As it turns out, nearly half of the subjects reported having previous memories of having read stories that were totally fabricated, with some even reporting details of the stories that were not contained in the (again, totally made-up) articles the researchers showed them. In itself, this is not surprising: as anyone who has watched Jimmy Kimmel’s noxious Lie Witness News segment knows, it’s far from uncommon for people to pretend to be more news-savvy than they actually are, and claiming to have prior knowledge of totally made-up news stories certainly falls in line with that impulse.
What is more terrifying, however, is that people were far more likely to remember false information if it aligned with their political views. And this was true regardless of where they fell on the spectrum: those who supported legalizing abortion, for instance, were more likely to remember false and inflammatory details about people in the anti-choice contingent, while people who were against legalizing abortion were more likely to remember false and inflammatory details about those who supported legalization. In other words, people recalled the information that already confirmed their point of view, regardless of whether that information was true or not — and what’s worse, even after the researchers told them that some of the news stories were fake, they failed to correctly identify which ones.
The implications of this study are clear: not only is it shockingly easy for bad actors to manipulate people by exploiting their biases, but it’s also not easy for people to readjust their perspectives after they’ve been manipulated, even if they’ve been explicitly told that’s the case. “People will act on their fake memories, and it is often hard to convince them that fake news is fake,” co-author Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine said in a press release. With many social media platforms steadfastly refusing to censor or deprioritize inaccurate or poorly vetted information, as evidenced by Twitter allowing the #ClintonBodyCount and #TrumpBodyCount conspiracy theory hashtags to trend after Jeffrey Epstein was found dead, it’s incredibly easy for this information to both spread and appear legitimate to the average media user.
Not everyone is susceptible to the lure of fake news: according to the results of the cognitive tests the researchers gave to the subjects of the study, people who scored low were more likely to remember fake stories that fed into their political beliefs than people who scored higher. Again, this is not super surprising: it makes sense that smarter people would be more skeptical about the media they consume than, uh, the less intellectually rigorous among us. But in the months leading up to the 2020 election, when our feeds will inevitably be barraged with sensationalist headlines and hashtags, these results aren’t exactly comforting.