Cognitive biases and false memories: The psychology behind fake news and their spread in India

  • The impact of fake news and the fight against it is rapidly growing in India and the world

  • Recent studies have also argued for fake news having a significant relationship with false memories

  • Most of the fake news in India is corroborated to induce communal tensions that further tempers with the public’s perception about the current socio-political scenario

The believable nature of rumours and the reasons behind their proneness to spread across the masses has been widely discussed in the field of social sciences. Thanks to research in cognitive and social psychology this is no longer a ‘debatable’ topic. Fake news, a more systemised and tech-savvy methodology for rumours, has been strongly linked to people’s psychological mechanisms and their flaws, posing a danger to both individual and societal harmony.

More recent studies have also argued for fake news having a significant relationship with false memories. A study published in the Psychological Science journal argued that potential voters may create false memories about events that never occurred through their regular consumption of fake news circulated by the media. Such findings make it crucial to understand the psychological backstage of fake news and their vast conquer of the common minds.

Both the impact of fake news and the fight against it is rapidly growing in India and the world. Using social media as a facilitator, the expansion of forged information has proved to be a central cause behind long-term political deception as well as in death and destruction. The content of fake news could be as minimal as the headline that claims a seize of Dawood Ibrahim’s assets or something as bizarre as the tendency of men from Saudi Arabia to feed on their own wives.

 Cognitive biases and false memories: The psychology behind fake news and their spread in India

Representational image. Image courtesy: Reuters

At times, subtle doctored videos or images are circulated to induce a false opinion about certain communities or political parties. For example, the viral images of Priyanka Gandhi wearing a cross or images of destruction by earthquakes being circulated as impacts of surgical strikes.

Most of the fake news in India is corroborated to induce communal tensions that further tempers with the public’s perception about the current socio-political scenario. The question stands still: what psychological tendency of humans drive them to fall for such information and what factors make this process feasible? Moreover, what can be the future of people’s psychological individuality if fake news continues to penetrate their lives.

The faults in our cognitions

A major portion of fake news in India produced by both online and print media is destined to target the Muslim population, somehow making attempts to link any event to the Indo-Pak rivalry. This notion is supported by the abundance of such fake news regularly busted by platforms such as Alt News. But what makes a common consumer easily believe in such headlines before they are busted? It turns out there is an orchestra of unconscious cognitive processes at work here.

Dr David Braucher, a contributor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis Journal attributes this to the term, implicit bias, a predisposed likelihood in humans to group people into categories. Implicit bias makes sure we attribute a certain event or action to a category of people of whom we already have criteria full of good or bad stereotypes.

This implies that it is likely for a Hindu fanatic to easily believe this misinterpreted information by Postcard News that claimed a celebration of Pakistan’s independence day in West Bengal to be true because upon reading this the implicit bias tends to associate this information with the previously stored misconception about potential “anti-nationals” in the state of WB. The key here is that the process of implicit bias takes place out of conscious awareness and hence doesn’t leave room to reconsider such assumptions.

“There’s an assumption that fake news exacerbates polarisation. But it might be the case that polarisation exacerbates fake news,” Adam Waytz, an associate professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School, said in an interview with Insight. The idea behind constructing fake news is supported by the already established communal division.

Once a side has been picked, a typical brain constantly scans for validation of this choice. This leads to the next element at work, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to a rapid irrational filtering of information until we find the one that confirms our beliefs about a particular phenomenon while rejecting contradictory views. This is best illustrated in fake WhatsApp texts that either “warn” of a potential communal danger, find misleading meanings in people’s names, or tell you that HIV and EBOLA viruses have been detected in Nestle products. An endnote like ‘this information is coming from the Home Ministry/NASA/IMA’ will do the job. At times, news that were once mere WhatsApp texts, turn into bulletins since people working at media outlets are also not immune to such cognitive biases.

Since something the person already holds convictions about is confirmed by a citable source, albeit its falsehood, the person no longer looks or entertains the actual facts. But this brings us to further inquiry about the extent to which people are willing to hold these convictions and eventually get sucked into the black hole of fake news?

Fake news and false memories

This is what new research into false memories and fake news attempts to answer. The concept of false memory comes from the advent of psychoanalysis referring to the memories recalled by the person of events which haven’t actually occurred and yet are remembered as true events. Though the concept did not offer much to clinical setting, it became a topic of fascination in social and forensic psychology.

The study conducted by five researchers provided more than 3,000 participants with six political news reports, two of which were fake that portrayed campaigners of either side engage in illegal behaviours. The participants were then asked to recall if they remember the events of the six stories or have any memory of them. Close to half of the participants claimed to have a memory of the made-up stories with some even narrating rich details about the event that never took place. The study illustrated the extent to which we can fall for fake news that it may even register in our brains as concrete memories. A key statement of the study stated that it was more likely for people to create false memories about events which aligned with their already held beliefs.

One of the researchers included Elizabeth Loftus, a pioneer in the field of forensic psychology. Speaking to Science Daily, Loftus said, "People will act on their fake memories, and it is often hard to convince them that fake news is fake. With the growing ability to make news incredibly convincing, how are we going to help people avoid being misled? It's a problem that psychological scientists may be uniquely qualified to work on."

Loftus’s statement is consistent with research that posits how false memories can also lead to the development of delusions observed in the schizophrenia spectrum. It asks us to picture a straight-lined continuum on the one extreme of which lies a regular rightwing leaning person’s usual tendency to believe the news that shows the missing JNU student, Najeeb Ahmed’s joining in Islamic State using a fake picture. But as the continuum goes forward the same tendency may harbour the will to act upon such news exhibiting the strength of a delusion which cannot be changed no matter the amount of evidence is presented. And this extreme is precisely what we witness in the lynchings caused by mere WhatsApp forwards.

As humans, we have a unique ability to derive meanings out of things we observe but this ability, only central to our species, is not free of its dark side — the consumption of fake news and the public’s acceptance of it despite their bizarreness. Cognitive biases and false memories lie at the core of people’s ingrained propensity to believe in fake news and then sharpen their prejudice about certain groups, products, policies and eventually governments. The fascinating, and equally dangerous, aspect that psychology highlights here is that the only thing behind the devastating outcomes of fake news is nothing but our own minds playing clever tricks on us.

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Updated Date: Oct 30, 2019 09:43:22 IST


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