Memory is a notoriously imperfect thing, open to suggestion, amendment, and distortion over time… however, experts worry that social media is exacerbating this problem by blurring the line between individual and collective recollection. Given that human understanding of history shapes human thinking about the future, the results could be catastrophic. In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers note that while people often interpreted and misrepresented history for political ends, social networks are proving a powerful tool for shaping memory, and users need little prompting to conform to a majority recollection of an event, even if it is wholly erroneous. Harvard University memory psychologist Professor Daniel Schacter said:
Memories are shared among groups in novel ways through sites such as Facebook and Instagram, blurring the line between individual and collective memories. The development of internet-based misinformation, such as recently well-publicised fake news sites, has the potential to distort individual and collective memories in disturbing ways.
The study cites claims of terror attacks in Sweden by President Donald Trump as a key example. While purely fictitious, the story spread like wildfire on social media, and the study suggests some may still believe such a strike did occur, despite the claim’s quick debunking. Moreover, the fantastical attacks had real-world consequences, as Trump used them to justify a travel ban on the citizens of seven countries.
Undoubtedly, communication has a significant effect on memory. Research previously demonstrated that people conversing about the past could reinforce aspects of an event by selectively repeating them, and expurgate aspects by de-emphasising or ignoring them. Psychologists at Princeton University, led by Professor Alin Coman, also showed that you could especially induce a person to remember or forget aspects of a story when someone in their own social group relays it. Given 62 percent of American adults get the bulk of their information from social media, false or distorted information shared on social networks could travel far and wide indeed.
Positively, the rise of social media also made it possible for researchers to investigate how collective shape memories much more effectively. Even in 2010, monitoring communication in groups of ten or more required several rooms for private conversations, a large number of research assistants, and much time. Now, multiple participants can interact digitally in real time, with their exchanges tracked electronically, and the findings analysed by one or two human researchers. In 2016, a group led by Coman used social media tracking software to determine how the structure of social networks affects the formation of collective memories in large groups for the first time. The researchers fed information about four fictional Peace Corps volunteers to 140 participants from Princeton University and divided the group into fractions of 10.
First, they asked the participants to recall as much information as they could about the volunteers individually. Then, they took part in a series of three conversations… online chat sessions lasting a few minutes each… with other members of their group, in which they recalled the information collaboratively. Finally, they tried to recall the events individually again. The researchers investigated two scenarios… one in which the group formed two sub-clusters, with almost all conversations taking place within the sub-clusters, and one in which it formed one large cluster. Although people in the single cluster agreed on the same set of information, those in the two sub-clusters generally converged on different “facts” about the fictional volunteers. This comparison, Coman believed, revealed the importance of “weak links” in information propagation. These are links between, rather than within, networks… acquaintances, say, rather than friends… and they help synchronise versions of events held by separate networks, driving the formation of community-wide collective memories.
Timing is very important… Coman’s research showed that information introduced by a weak link is only likely to shape the network’s memory if the weak link introduces it before its members talk amongst themselves. Once a network agrees on what happened, collective memory becomes relatively resistant to conflicting information or alternative analysis:
Many consider the fact that information can freely circulate in a community is one of the most important and constructive features of open and democratic societies, but creating such societies doesn’t inherently guarantee positive outcomes. Nevertheless, there are two positive potential takeouts from the findings. For one, in some countries, jurors are forbidden to take any notes they have made during a trial into the deliberation room, a legacy of the historic belief that a group remembers more reliably than the individual does. In fact, using notes could protect jurors from retrieval-induced biases and group-level social influences. Second, it could assist with the transmission of crucial information to the public during emergencies. High-anxiety situations enhance retrieval-induced forgetting, so officials should draw up a short but comprehensive list of key points, make sure that all officials have the same list, repeat those points often, and monitor any flawed information that ends up circulating. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, for example, many people held the mistaken belief that being in the same room as an infected individual was enough to catch it. The best way to kill that rumour would’ve been to explain repeatedly and effusively that the only way to transmit Ebola is through bodily fluids. If one understands the nature of the false information, one can suppress it just by mentioning information that’s conceptually related, but accurate.
8 March 2017