Kimberly Fenn, MSU – Social Media Memories

Dr. Kimberly Fenn

Dr. Kimberly Fenn

Is your Facebook feed distorting your ability to recall events accurately?

Kimberly Fenn, a psychologist at Michigan State University, is studying the way social media sharing can distort memory.

Dr. Kimberly Fenn is associate professor of psychology and director of the Sleep and Learning Lab at Michigan State University. Her research explores the effect of sleep on memory and learning, as well as memory consolidation, learning and skill acquisition, mathematical learning, gesture and learning, and implicit and explicit learning.

Social Media Memories


Psychologists have long known that memory is imperfect and prone to distortion. Specifically, memory can be altered due to information that is acquired after the original memory.

For example, if you think back to a salient memory in your life, perhaps your high school graduation, your memory feels very real, almost like a video playing in your head. However, it is highly likely that your memory is composed not only of things that you actually experienced, but also of other experiences that were later integrated with the original memory, possibly discussions with family and friends or pictures or videos of the event.

Given that memory is prone to this form of reconstruction, we were interested in how emerging technology might affect memory. Individuals now obtain a vast amount of information through the internet and social media. Although some information on the internet is verified, much of it is not. Individuals are permitted to freely post information, without verification, particularly on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Therefore, we were concerned that social media may be having a pervasive negative effect on true memory. We designed an experiment to test the extent to which false information on social media sites would be integrated into memory. We had participants view a simulated event and then gave them information that conflicted with the event, known as false information. Some of our participants saw the false information in a Twitter feed and others saw it in a similar feed, not associated with social media.

Importantly, all participants were told that the information was written by previous participants in the experiment. This allowed us to test the effect of the medium of presentation (not the source of the information). We found that when false information was presented in Twitter, participants were less likely to integrate it into memory. This means that their memory of the event remained more accurate than those in the other condition. They also reported trusting the information less if it was presented in the Twitter feed. This suggests that people approach information on Twitter with a healthy skepticism that may reduce the likelihood of false memories from social media.