The photoshop problem: the menace of misremembering

Whenever there’s an American election approaching it makes me so happy to not be an American citizen. As much as there’s so much wrong with British politics, the amount of negative campaigning and vitriol that’s involved in campaigns across the political spectrum in US elections is so childish and pathetic that it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that nearly half of Americans didn’t turn out to vote in 2012.

Over the summer there was an image floating around the internet of Hilary Clinton shaking hands with Osama Bin Laden.  Needless to say, the image isn’t real. It’s an image which came from Freaking News‘ photoshop competition. 

Of course, never letting the truth get in the way of a good story, since this image surfaced there have been reports that Bin Laden funded Clinton’s campaign. Thankfully, it’s been debunked by Snopes – and hopefully not too many people believe it.

The photoshopped image reminded me of a Freakonomics blog post I read a couple of years ago. The blog was about research conducted by Slate and researchers at the University of California, and the University of New York.  The study was about ‘false memory’ which saw 5,269 participants questions about their memories for three true, and 1 fabricated ‘political event’. Each false event was accompanied by a photo depicting an event (such as Obama shaking hands with the President of Iran).

Here’s the clincher. Half the participants falsely remembered that the false event happened. With 27% of them remembering that they saw the event happen on the news.

The participants political views were a huge factor in the research. Conservatives were far more likely to remember an event which made a democrat look bad (such as the above example) and liberals were far more likely to remember something that made a Republican look bad (such as Bush vacationing with a sports star in the midst of Hurricane Katrina).

There’s a lot of research showing motivated false reasoning is a real thing which significantly alters peoples views of politics. A follow up to the above discussed study supported the explanation that falsified events are more easily planted in the minds of people when they are in agreement with their political beliefs.

Anyone can misremember of misspeak, Clinton herself was in trouble when she infamously misspoke about being under fire when she landed in Bosnia in 1996 as first lady:-

“I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

It later transpired Clinton wasn’t fired at, and she blamed the mistake of a confused confliation of multiple state visits.  Speaking to Freakonomics about this situation Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of California and leading scholar in memory said:

What I love about this example is that it shows you that all that education, all that experience, all those IQ points — that Yale Law School degree, it doesn’t protect you from having a false memoryMany individuals wrote in details that expanded upon just the claim: ‘I remember seeing this photograph, I remember seeing this photograph of President Obama shaking the hand of the president of Iran.’ And they may even tell you something about the feelings they remember having at the time they saw that photograph for the first time. But of course they couldn’t have ever seen it before because it was completely made up with Photoshop.

This is the menace of memes. When a photo is shared on social media (as the Clinton/Bin Laden one primarily was), there’s is no accountability. While yes, there are libel laws coming into place, these are vague and outdated – and few people really know about them.

an online comment, such as a tweet, is potentially libellous in England and Wales if it damages someone’s reputation “in the estimation of right-thinking members of society”. It can do this by exposing them to “hatred, ridicule or contempt”. – BBC WebWise

Don’t believe everything you read on social media.


6 thoughts on “The photoshop problem: the menace of misremembering

  1. Being gullible and believing everything that one sees or reads is one thing. Outright lying is another completely. You give Hillary a pass on her having “misspoken” about being under fire in Bosnia. How ridiculous is that. Misspeaking is making a slight error in time or perhaps how many people were walking with you at an event. Not a cut and dried “under fire or not under fire” distinction. Being in imminent danger, like being shot at by snipers as you run for your life with your head down across an airport tarmac, is not something that one makes a mistake about by saying it happened when it is pure fiction and never happened at all. As a journalist, I would hope that you would at least call a lie exactly what it is: A LIE.

  2. I agree with Luke. Miss peaking is just the current term used to avoid accountability. Lying is not telling the truth. I have a college degree and I know the difference. So do politicians. But there is not much accoutabiility today in American politics, what with our current President flouting the law for his own agenda and candidates campaigning with a plan but never revealing details of what they will do to change things for the good of the country. This is the reason more than half of our citizens don’t vote. They are tired of no integrity in our leaders. We the people are not stupid.

  3. Fuck that bitch ….she been lying for decades she shouldnt dish it out if she cant take it …

    Trump 2016

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