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Did fake news really help Trump win the election?

As the 2016 election drew closer, headlines such as “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Trump as president” or “WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS…Then 

Fig 1. An example of a fake news headline

drops another bombshell”. There was even a scandal insinuating that in Hillary’s leaked email, “pizza” was just a cover up for a possible human trafficking scheme or child sex abuse ring. In actuality, these events never took place, and several reputable news sources, such as the New York Times and Fox News debunked any criminal activity involving “pizza”. So how did so many people fall victim to the headlines and why were these false memories so wide spread? Is there a possibility they could have helped Trump win the election?

Memory is a system that is important to our day to day lives. Without it we wouldn’t know where to go for food or water and we have to relearn basic tasks, like driving, every day. If memory is so important, how could our brains twists our memories, falsify them, and change our truths? 

Memory is made up of three processes: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding allows us to take in sensory information from our environment before we store it in our short term or long term memory during the process of storage. Retrieval is then where we go to reassess that information. One example could be as simple memorizing vocabulary words for an exam. When you first learn the words, your auditory processes recognize the words, where they are stored into your short term memory. When you study those words at home, they are then stored into your long term memory. During the actual exam, the words are retrieved from your long term memory in order to ace the exam. While our memories decay over time, most false memories are a product of failure to encode or a failure to store information properly.



There are seven sins of memory that explain the failure of these processes, both of commission and omission. The two sins that pertain to this bias and suggestibility. Bias occurs when our current memories are affected by our memories of past experiences. One example that explains bias is the memory, of say, your ex significant other. When you break up, there are strong emotions involved, often negative. These emotions can have a negative impact on your past experiences of your ex and you may forget the positive times of your relationship, focusing on the negative times instead. The second sin is the sin of suggestibility. Suggestibility occurs when others suggestions and ideas influence how you remember the same event. For example, imagine two witnesses watch the same crime occur. When asked to give a description to the police, one witness may say “didn’t he have a beard?”. The second witness may then imagine the culprit with a beard and be convinced her did, even if there was no beard in the first place. 

A study done by Brainerd et al. focused on how word connotations affected people’s memory of those words. They found that as the word connotations became more negative, false memories increased and true memories decreased. 

Fig 2. An example of a situation that may lead to negative emotions

A study done by Porter et al. focused on scenes rather than words. However, they found very similar results. Memory distortion was found to be significantly affected by negative emotions surrounding the scene. In fact, 80% of participants that were in the negative emotion condition falsely remembered a major detail, while only 40% in the neutral and positive misled groups falsely remembered the same one. This shows that while it never took place, less people in the groups that were misleadingly told about the detail remembered it than participants who were never told about it remembered it, just because there was negative emotion surrounding the scene. 

During the 2016 election, Hillary already had some negative connotations about her. One, being she was a woman, two, her emails she was accused of sending, and three, the former oval activities that her husband was doing. When people see the fake news, they could have an increased negative views of her due to the sin of bias. Another thing to note is the speed at which these fake stories could travel. Most were exposed to the population through social media on sites like Facebook. There was a possibility that millions of people read these stories, and talked about it online and in real life. Suggestibility could cause others to change their perceptions of Hillary, and see her in a more negative light.

With all the fake news stories painting Trump in an increasingly positive light and Hillary in an increasingly negative light, there is a high chance that the fake news, in tie with the sins of memory helped Trump to win the 2016 election. 






Brainerd, C. J., & Bookbinder, S. H. (2019). The semantics of emotion in false memory. Emotion, 19(1), 146–159. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/emo0000431


Porter, S., Spencer, L., & Birt, A. R. (2003). Blinded by emotion? Effect of the emotionality of a scene on susceptibility to false memories. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 35(3), 165–175. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/h0087198


McBride, D., Cutting, J., (2016). Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Processes, and Methodology., Sage Publications. 


Silverman, Craig. “Here Are 50 Of The Biggest Fake News Hits On Facebook From 2016.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed News, 30 Dec. 2016, www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/top-fake-news-of-2016.


“Emotion Affects Memory’s Reliability.” NSF, www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=117140.


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  1. laugus22
    December 7th, 2019 at 00:02 | #1

    Hey, Grace! I really enjoyed how you related false memories to an important issue on how news coverage on politics can create false memories. I found the Porter et al. (2003) study that you mention in your post to be very fascinating that negative emotions create twice as many false memories about the scenes (80%) in comparison to the neutral and positive scenes (40%). Using the Trump and Hillary election news coverage as an example throughout your post really puts into perspective how persuasive news can be tying to what we learned in class about reconstructive memories. Learning about how we create false memories based off of certain details makes me question everything I recall to be true.

  2. December 16th, 2019 at 20:25 | #2

    Hi Grace! This blog was very informative and I had found it really interesting to read about reconstructive memory like we went over in class. I thought you explained the sins of memory very well and supported how these are the sources of memory errors due to our reconstructive memory. Since our memory is reconstructive, we need ways to fill in those gaps, and I thought you used relevant examples and studies. I really liked how this topic can be connected to real world issues because it shows how small errors in our minds, or even just our mind process can influence the way that we think or perceive someone.

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