Our access and exposure to media dramatically increased over the last decade, specifically in terms of quantity and available modalities with widespread implications for different aspects of human life. Media engagement impacts how we form relationships with strangers to how we experience life as a whole. One such impact, perhaps less commonly discussed, is media’s effect on human memory and how this affects the way we recall history.
Ironically, the overall effect of media documentation on memory is more detrimental than beneficial. While one might assume that more documentation, communication, and modes of delivery would improve memory for historical events, the literature suggests that media affects the content of memories, the recollection of memories, and the capacity of memory, ultimately influencing the way we remember history. In this piece, I present information on the ways media negatively impacts human memory and highlight the importance of presenting accurate information.
Media’s Impact on the Content of Memories
The content of our memories is central to our human existence. Without our memories, we function untethered to our personal and cultural histories, leaving us without a foundation to carry out our lives. Importantly, our memories represent the backbone of our personalities and the framework for how we approach new experiences and make decisions about the future. Without memory, most of us would not survive given that we rely on past learning to make critical decisions for our current actions. Unfortunately, modern-day memory is exposed to new challenges with the influx of media exposure, which has important implications for what we can remember.
Media modifies not only what we remember but how we remember. For example, a news report, tweet, or Facebook post that includes false information can impact what the reader recalls about the event. This idea is supported by studies showing that introducing misleading or false information about an event can lead to an inaccurate recollection. Along the same lines, the use of strong or sensationalized language can influence what details are remembered about an event, such as whether something or someone was present. Thus, when headlines that use strong verbiage are widely broadcast, there is risk for memory distortion if the information is exaggerated.
It turns out that the format with which sensationalized language is presented also influences the believability of information. One study found that stories reported via newspapers were more likely to be believed than when televised, highlighting the importance that written press take care to not embellished stories. It is possible that the long-time existence of newspapers as a means to convey news makes them more credible than the newer modalities, such as Twitter or Facebook.
Social media also poses a threat to memory, specifically in the formation of memories. One way to understand social media’s affect is through the “illusory-truth effect”, whereby people tend to rate familiar statements as more true than new statements. This is especially pertinent to the fake news phenomenon. According to the illusory-truth effect, when information is presented over and over again on social media platforms, it is more likely to be deemed true.
Moreover, people’s memory of the source for where they learned information is also affected by familiarity. According to one study, people attributed more familiar information as coming from a credible source, highlighting the feasibility of transmitting false information when illegitimate news sources repeatedly present false stories and facts on wide-reaching platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Media’s Impact on Memory Storage
Media not only affects our ability to recall events clearly; it also impacts our memory capacity by removing the burden of remembering from our brains and serving as the brain’s external hard drive. With the advent of Wikipedia, internal memories for events are no longer necessary. Thus, we only need to recall where and how to find information about an event, rather than the event itself.
Researchers refer to this decreased dependency on internal memory storage as the “Google effect”. Studies show that people who expect to have access to information later on more readily forget information than those who did not. Furthermore, people show better memory for where to locate the information than the actual information.
This reliance on external sources for storage highlights the role that social media plays in how well we remember things. A recent study demonstrated engaging in social media during an event or any form of externalization of their experience of an event decreased memory of the experiences. This effect was observed when people were asked to take photos or notes about the experience, but not when participants were asked to reflect on the experience. Therefore, it is likely that our generation and subsequent generations will not remember historical events as vividly or as accurately as previous generations given our frequent documentation of major events. Most importantly, we rely on external sources, such as Facebook and Instagram to remember significant events, placing great responsibility upon us to become accurate recorders of historical events.
The points reviewed herein provide insight into how media affects the formation of memories. Sadly, not only do we have diminished capacity for recall, we are influenced by how news is presented and from where the news is sourced. Such susceptibility to news manipulation through language and repetition, together with reliance on others to experience and document history, increases our risks for accepting false narratives and inaccurate accounts of history. It is imperative for us to share results about media’s impact on memory with the gatekeepers of these platforms, given our memories which root us personally and culturally and thus ultimately define our history.