There is something much more dangerous and subtle than fake news and disinformation: creating false memories to spread mass delusion.
Despite decades of research, we still can’t distinguish true memories from false ones unless we can independently verify or falsify the remembered facts, which is either impossible or hardly worth the effort.Philip Ball, Presenter of Science Stories on BBC Radio 4.
Alan Castle PhD argues that presenting people with misinformation—some information or event that is inconsistent with the truth of what happened earlier but is highly believable, can lead to not only some initial confusion, but it can then alter memory.
It becomes relatively easy then to introduce false memories to any individual or group of individuals by simply providing them with fake evidence.
Fascinating in this regard is an experiment carried out by Dr Rob Nash in 2009 where he managed to digitally alter the footage of an event several subjects took part in to include a series of different actions to the ones that actually occurred in the initial experiment.
When Dr Nash showed the same subjects the altered video footage several days later, all subjects remembered taking part in those actions although they never actually did.
Cited in BBC’s Focus magazine, Prof Chris Brewin of University College London warns that “either uncritically accepting false memories, or disbelieving genuine recovered memories, has the potential to do immense harm.”
For the issues, crisis and reputation management practice, false memories are very difficult and time consuming to disprove, especially when mass delusion and mass disinformation occur.
When groups of disenfrenchised, affected or disgruntled stakeholders swear blind that they have seen, heard or witnessed the same thing, how do you dispute it? How can you prove it’s not true? How can you tell them that they were all the subject of a psychological implant / mind manipulation experiment?
You can’t because they won’t believe you – would you? What you can do though – if you have the time, the budget and the specialised support, to verify these stakeholder groups’ recollection by using cognitive interviewing and applied interrogation techniques.
Footage of any kind can be altered, as we well know – this what deep fakes are all about and having the specialised equipment to detect such fakes is not cheap nor easy.
Most importantly, when it comes to mass delusions and false memories, the “trust bank” is of paramount importance: it’s what that client/employer has done to earn trust, to establish respect and demonstrate transparency.
Rebutting false memories need not be impossible – these memories are not attached to facts nor hard evidence; they are attached to “feelings” and sensory perceptions.
From a corporate perspective, one can never talk too much, explain too much or engage too much. The electronic footprint, archive pages, SEO, papers published and events attended cannot be altered. The “trust bank” is built on past actions and current deeds.
To fight misinformation, false memories, mass delusion and so much more one needs to understand their starting point (the mind), the way they are created (the psychological and technological processes) and the purpose of the agression (why this happened).
Memories are unreliable – a verifiable trail of evidence and actions is.