False Memory & COVID-19: How Misinformation Tricks Your Brain

A study published in December 2020 revealed that COVID-19 fake news can lead to formation of false memories.

Published
WebQoof
4 min read

Video Editor: Mohd Irshad Alam

Yesterday, a friend of mine told me that doctors belonging to the World Health Organisation (WHO) had taken a complete “U-turn” on their finding about novel coronavirus.

Digging a little deeper, I found that her claim stemmed from a viral video that was debunked by several fact-checking organisations, including The Quint’s WebQoof.

The utter belief of my friend that the claim was true and that it had happened made me wonder whether misinformation plays a role in creating false memories.

Well, the answer is YES, and you’re not alone in this.

But first, let’s understand from an expert as to what is meant by a false memory. We spoke to Dr Kamna Chhibber, clinical psychologist at Fortis Healthcare about the concept of false memory. She said:

“A false memory is a situation in which an individual would believe in the reality or the veracity of the memory that they possess without realising that the memory that they possess, has in fact been fabricated.”

On being asked about how false memories are created, she said there are several reasons.

“For certain individuals, they are easily suggestible, and that factor could play a role in the development of a false memory. At the same time, for a lot of people, when they get a lot of misinformation, or they get fake news or false information, that’s when a false memory can also get created.”
Dr Kamna Chhibber, clinical psychologist at Fortis Healthcare

“Misattributions of the reasons about why a situation occurred can also lead to the generation of false memories. Your own emotional states are a big factor in deciding how you interpret a situation and what is the memory that you form of it,” she added.

A study conducted by MIT researchers Cameron Martel and David G Rand and Gordon Pennycook from the University of Regina, Canada, in October 2020, had found that “emotion plays a causal role in people’s susceptibility to incorrectly perceiving fake news as accurate.”

There is a common reliance on emotions while believing whether a piece of information is true or false.
There is a common reliance on emotions while believing whether a piece of information is true or false.
(Photo: Erum Gour/ The Quint)

Cameron Martel, PhD student at MIT, who is studying misinformation and the spread of false news online, told The Quint that one of the sources to consider for heightened emotion is “how much emotion the person is experiencing while encountering online content and how much they rely on emotion while determining whether or not to believe new information.”

You can read the full story here.

STUDY SHOWS A LINK BETWEEN COVID-19 FAKE NEWS AND FALSE MEMORIES

A study published in December 2020 in Ireland, titled as ‘Individual differences in susceptibility to false memories for COVID-19 fake news,’ revealed that COVID-19 fake news can lead to formation of false memories.

The research conducted on 3,746 participants showed that vulnerability to this misinformation depends on the amount of knowledge a person had about the novel coronavirus and their ability to think critically.

False Memory & COVID-19: How Misinformation Tricks Your Brain
(Photo: Arnica Kala/ The Quint)

Some people had memories for both true and fabricated stories, but these participants provided “more specific sources for the true stories than for the fabricated stories.”

What does this mean? The study points out that the actual knowledge of a topic enhances a person’s ability to differentiate between true and false stories and reduces the tendency of forming false memories.

OBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE VS PERCEIVED KNOWLEDGE

Before moving on, let's understand the difference between objective knowledge and perceived knowledge. Being objective is when we base our opinions on facts and not personal feelings. Perceived knowledge, on the other hand, is merely the feeling of having knowledge, without actually having evaluated it.

False Memory & COVID-19: How Misinformation Tricks Your Brain
(Photo: Arnica Kala/The Quint)
The Ireland study, too, showed that objective knowledge was the key. Greater objective knowledge about COVID-19 reduced the likelihood to form false memories even after one was exposed to fake news about COVID.

In fact, it increased the chances of forming true memories.

The study mentions “…Interventions aimed at increasing critical thinking, or improving subject-knowledge, may help to reduce susceptibility to COVID-19-related fake news.“

Multiple researches, for instance, and the one conducted by Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, have shown how people can form false memories after being exposed to fabricated stories, especially if those stories aligned with their political beliefs.

CHALLENGES POSED BY FALSE MEMORY

False memories getting generated through misinformation pose major challenges. Dr Kamna says, “Repeated exposure to that information leads to further solidification and belief in that particular information. It becomes hard for individuals to be able to dispute that information on their own. In fact even when evidence may be available to the contrary, they still struggle to let it go.”

“What they also end up doing, of course, unintentionally, is that they would pass on that particular information to other people within their ecosystem, leading to the spread of that fake news,” she added.

In order to make sure that your understanding of a particular piece of information is accurate, one must reflect on it, try to probe, question, and verify through credible and reliable sources as to what the reality is.

(Not convinced of a post or information you came across online and want it verified? Send us the details on WhatsApp at 9643651818, or e-mail it to us at webqoof@thequint.com and we'll fact-check it for you. You can also read all our fact-checked stories here.)

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