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False Memories

When Correcting a Lie, Don't Repeat It. Do This Instead.

Correcting false claims can often backfire, spreading them even further.

Pixel2013 / Pixabay
Source: Pixel2013 / Pixabay

False news is spreading at an alarming rate, with a recent study suggesting that false stories on Twitter are 70% more likely to be shared than real stories. At the same time, President Trump has made well over 3000 false or misleading claims since the beginning of his presidency.

How can we fight back against lies and false news? We might think that we should call out and correct false information, but it turns out that this can fuel false claims even more.

When determining whether a given claim is true, we don’t always critically evaluate sources or search for corroborating evidence. Instead, we often intuitively evaluate whether a certain claim feels true. And a claim feels more “true” if it comes to mind with fluency and ease, leading us to mistake what is familiar for what is true.

This is called the “illusory truth effect,” a robust phenomenon that has been replicated in a number of psychological experiments. In the first study to test this effect, researchers at Villanova and Temple University showed participants a number of claims without any information as to whether or not they were true. Then, across the next two weeks, people were shown these claims alongside new ones and were asked to evaluate the “truth” of all these claims. The claims that participants had seen before were rated as more “true” than the new claims, regardless of whether they actually were true.

Recently, researchers at Yale examined this effect in the context of fake news. Participants were shown actual fake news headlines used in the 2016 election, such as “Mike Pence: Gay Conversion Therapy Saved My Marriage,” or “Election Night: Hillary Was Drunk, Got Physical With Mook and Podesta.” Even after just one repetition, participants were more likely to rate articles they had seen before as true. This effect still worked when stories were blatantly absurd or inconsistent with the reader’s ideology, and even when clear warnings appeared alongside the articles suggesting they had been contested by fact-checkers.

Efforts to fact-check news can often backfire, calling more attention to false claims or causing people to get defensive and become more entrenched in their beliefs. Facebook learned this the hard way when it discovered that adding warnings in the feed pointing out that a story is false actually backfired, leading people to share the false stories more. In response to this, Facebook is now planning to shrink the size of fake news in the feed.

Another problem with correcting lies is that we have a hard time processing statements with negations. For instance, one study found that a statement like “John is not a criminal” can evoke the mistaken impression that John is a criminal. Another study found that headlines phrased as questions (“Is John a Criminal?”) can form impressions that are just as negative as headlines phrased as declarative statements (“John is a criminal”). Despite this research, the top fact-checking websites like Snopes and Politifact repeat false stories as questions in their headlines. For instance, Snopes recently published an article called “Did Barack Obama Oversee the Separation of 89,000 Children from their Parents?” If you click on this article, you will see that this claim is blatantly false, but this headline alone might be cementing a false idea in our minds.

So, how do we discredit lies without repeating them and spreading them further? The answer is simple. When reporting false statements, always lead with the truth.

UC Berkeley Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff is one of the most prominent figures to promote this idea. He suggests that when reporting one of Trump’s lies, we should always talk about the truth first. Then, we should briefly note the lie before going back to the truth. He sometimes refers to this idea as a #TruthSandwich.

This strategy might be a successful antidote to the illusory truth effect. Studies suggest that we remember beginnings and endings far better than middles, so calling out a lie — but making sure we put the lie in the middle, where we will least remember it — may help us ensure that the things that feel true to us actually are.

Instead of directly repeating a false claim, consider this framing instead: “The facts are X, but some have falsely claimed Y. Let’s focus on X.” This is a simple solution that journalists, social media managers, fact-checking websites, and individuals can use to make sure that we spread truth, not lies.

When reporting lies, the facts should always come first. This way, our minds will stop confusing “alternative facts” with real ones.

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