Pandemics and infodemics: Research on the effects of misinformation on memory

Greenspan, Rachel Leigh; Loftus, Elizabeth F.
Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies

On social media and in everyday life, people are often exposed to misinformation. Decades of research have shown that exposure to misinformation can have significant impacts on people's thoughts, actions, and memories. During global pandemics like COVID-19, people are likely exposed to heightened quantities of misinformation as they search for and are exposed to copious amounts of information about the disease and its effects. This media environment, with an abundance of both accurate and inaccurate information, is often called an “infodemic.” In the current essay, we discuss the consequences of exposure to misinformation during this infodemic, particularly in the domain of memory. We review existing research demonstrating how inaccurate, postevent information impacts a person's memory for a previously witnessed event. We discuss various factors that strengthen the impact of misinformation, including repetition and whether the misinformation is consistent with people's pre-existing attitudes or beliefs. We conclude by describing how social media companies and individual users can help prevent the spread of misinformation and the ways in which cognitive science research can inform these approaches.