So, we’re nearing the end of 2019 and finishing it off with a bang, here in the UK we will have a General Election. This election isn’t about Brexit, despite what the media would like us to think, this is about our future, our children’s future and the future of public services such as the NHS and Education. These issues are hotly contested, and because of this, the coming election is a storm of emotions, sublimation, ‘fake news’ (thanks to Donald for that one) and mud-slinging from all corners. Your average election then, right?
The difficulty is that the media has so much power now; whatever is presented in the press via, video or audio, is immediately deemed the truth. We have all heard about how the Conservatives changed one of their CCHQ Twitter accounts during the recent Politically televised debates, calling itself ‘Fact Checking’ account, falsely debunking statements of truth. I am reasonably confident that if I were to behave in the same way, and someone made a complaint, I would no longer be able to practice!
This phenomenon, of hearing a ‘fact’ often enough that we start to believe that it is true, is called the “Illusory Truth Effect”. This phenomenon affects people in different ways, irrespective of your cognitive profile– how ‘smart’ you think you are, score, or come across. The more we hear a piece of information, the more we believe it; this is why precisely what we hear/see/read in the media is so important, if it is repeated often enough, we believe it. The response by Dominic Raab, the Conservative Party Foreign Secretary, on the BBC Breakfast TV Show was “no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust”. We know this is wrong, though, don’t we? How many of you get your news from Social Media now? That quick thumb scroll through Twitter while you’re picking the kids up from school, or on the way to your next meeting, or while having a cup of coffee- we all do it, and we all pick up information from it, to say that we don’t is deflective and obtuse.
I wonder if you have heard of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal? A story broke in December 2015 by a journalist called Harry Davies for The Guardian. The story gave detailed information of how the Cambridge Analytica company gained knowledge from (what, at the time, was believed to be) over 50 million Facebook US profiles, without their consent. Cambridge then used this data to enable them to advertise politically and to build a software program that has the power to influence and predict voting choices. All without Voter’s knowledge. The story finally broke in March 2018 when an ex-Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistle-blower, Christopher Wylie, who had been an anonymous source for an article in 2017 in The Observer by Carole Cadwalladr, headlined “The Great British Brexit Robbery”, went public.
So, did you know about this? Follow the links to learn more about the story as I don’t have time or space to write up here. You may ask why is this relevant to me? Well, the app created was called “This is your digital life” and gained consent (permission) from a couple of hundred thousand Facebook users to collect the answers to the data questions asked. All well and good, right? Yes, but what Facebook didn’t inform their users was that they also used the data and profiles for their Facebook friends in their online social circles. 87 MILLION of these profiles used without the owner’s consent. This meant that the data wasn’t just limited to users in the US, but all over the world, too. At this point, our story becomes more pertinent and of more interest to those of us in the UK.
Cambridge Analytica had links to another company, AggregateIQ (AIQ), who played a pivotal part in the 2016 Brexit Vote Leave campaign. AIQ accounted for 40% of the campaign budget for the Vote Leave campaign. Can you see where I am heading here? All of this happened, without your knowledge and even may have influenced how you voted at the time.
Coming back to the illusory effect, had you accessed your Facebook in 2016, or even your Twitter in 2019, you would have seen the information that you would have deemed to be tru, By the sheer fact that you had read it, and perhaps understood it published elsewhere, once, twice, three times.. how many times before you even stop questioning the data, never mind the source? I know, I know, life is too busy, it’s not relevant to you… so many reasons why this shouldn’t be an issue, but it is.
When do we stop questioning and start following? This journal article explains how even when we know a ‘fact’ is untrue, we still need reinforcement of the truth to enable us to ensure that we do not automatically accept the original ‘fact’ as the truth. That sounds quite complex, however if, for example, you have been told, or learnt, that a Goldfish has a three-second memory, Now, you hold that ‘fact’ as the ‘truth’ because you have heard it or been told it many times before. However, the truth is that goldfish have a memory span of about three months.. the Great Wall of China is NOT visible from space, despite what we were told as children; nowhere in the Bible does it say there were three Wiseman (just Wisemen!) and although 41% of US adults believe we coexisted with Dinosaurs, we actually missed them by 64 million years; all great examples of how the Illusory effect works! So, to mediate for these ‘facts’ we hold as the truth, we need to reinforce the true facts for us to override the incorrect facts. Simples…
My point throughout all of this, is who’s truth do we believe? Where do we get our information from? This isn’t just about politics, this is about how you live your life. It is about your narrative. Are people on benefits, for example, all lazy or cheats? No, it’s what you’ve read and heard over and over again in the media. The truth is that we all have difficulties in life, and we would hope that when we need help, it will be there for us. That help will only be there, if we look at what we are being taught and told and challenge it. It is easy to let sleeping dogs lie and go along with the Illusory effect; however, at the end of the day, is it helping you? Have you made the right decisions? Are they your decisions and not the decisions that the media/politicians/parents/work colleagues/friends want us to have?
We can only affect real change if we are informed about the decisions we are making and the choices we take; can you say that you are informed? Are these your beliefs, or the ones you have grown up on? Whichever it is, vote with your heart and your conscience; the Illusory Effect can be challenged, but only if you are open to it! As a strong proponent for Social Change, and an advocate for justice and equality, and maybe perhaps a little bit of the researcher in me, I am voting with my rational mind and with the policies in mind. I am voting for what is going to make my family, my children, my friends and my communities future lives better!
If you’re interested in finding out what my stance is, from a Counselling Psychologist in Training point of view, follows this link to a great organisation called ‘Psychologists for Change’. This organisation is a group of likeminded psychologists, psychology graduates, academics, applied psychologists and more who believe in applying psychology to policy and political action; trying to make all our lives better.