May 18, 2019

Deepfakes and false memories

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There’s remembering. There’s forgetting. And then there’s false memory, our memory of an event that never actually happened.

Why it matters: Everyone is vulnerable to false memory. Sometimes it’s subtle: thinking you saw a yield sign when you saw a stop sign. But sometimes it’s life-altering: eyewitness testimony that leads to the wrongful conviction of innocent people.

People can be “very confident in things that never happened,” Duke neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza tells Axios.

What's new: In an age of AI, deepfakes and doctored photographs, misinformation can subtly sculpt our memories. And researchers are concerned about how immediately replaying photos and videos will affect how we remember experiences.

  • Even blatantly doctored photographs — with written disclaimers — of the 2012 London Olympic torch relay and the 2011 Royal Wedding led a subset of viewers to believe more violent protestors had been present and more people arrested at these events than actually were.

How it works: Our memory system often fails not only because we forget things that happen, but also because we remember things that didn't happen, says Cabeza.

  • The brain can distinguish between false and true memories. Cabeza found that high confidence for true memories was associated with greater medial temporal lobe activity, while for false memories it was associated with greater frontoparietal activity in the brain.
  • One explanation for this difference is that recollection is strongly associated with the medial temporal lobe, while familiarity is associated with frontoparietal regions.

This flexibility of our memory systems means that not only can memories be altered, but entirely false memories can be planted.

  • For decades, Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, has pioneered work on false memory to prevent mistaken eyewitness testimonies, consulting on hundreds of criminal cases, including the O.J. Simpson, Ted Bundy and Rodney King trials.
  • “You need independent corroboration to know whether you’re dealing with a real memory or a false memory,” she tells Axios.

Yet planting false memories isn't necessarily a bad thing, according to Loftus. She found that subjects who were led to believe they loved asparagus as children subsequently were more interested in eating asparagus at a restaurant and were willing to pay more for asparagus in a grocery store.

  • “You can use these suggestive techniques to influence people’s nutritional choices, maybe make a dent in the obesity problem in our society. And I think that can be a good thing.”

Go deeper:

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 12:30 p.m. ET: 1,506,936 — Total deaths: 90,057 — Total recoveries: 340,112Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 12:30 p.m. ET: 432,596 — Total deaths: 14,831 — Total recoveries: 24,235Map.
  3. Business: The Fed will lend up to $2.3 trillion — Another 6.6 million jobless claims were filed last week.
  4. Public health latest: Dr. Anthony Fauci said social distancing could reduce the U.S. death toll to 60,000.
  5. Travel update: TSA screened fewer than 100,000 people at airports in the U.S. on both Tuesday and Wednesday, compared to 2.2 million passengers on an average weekday a year ago.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Your hydroxychloroquine questions answered.
  7. What should I do? Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Trump plans second coronavirus task force focused on the economy

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump is preparing to launch a second coronavirus task force focused on reviving the U.S. economy that has been battered by the coronavirus, two administration officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: There is growing energy within the West Wing to start easing people back to work by May 1. But some public health officials, including those on the coronavirus task force, have warned against doing so, raising concerns about reopening America too soon.

New York's coronavirus death toll hits record high for third straight day

799 people died from coronavirus in New York over the past 24 hours, a record high for the third straight day that brings the state's total death toll to 7,067.

Why it matters: Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a press conference that social distancing is helping "flatten the curve" of coronavirus hospitalizations, and that deaths are a lagging indicator. Still, he called the death figures "shocking and painful," noting that the virus has killed more than double the number of people who died in New York on 9/11.

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