In June 1989, the Chinese army crushed a protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square with tanks and live ammunition, killing hundreds of people. Then the government washed out the massacre with propaganda. It told its citizens that the dissidents had assaulted the soldiers.
Watching these events from the safety of the United States, Elizabeth Loftus recognized the regime's strategy. It resembled the memory-distortion techniques she had researched as an experimental psychologist. Time was dissolving authentic memories of the uprising, and the regime was substituting its version by inducing people to repeat it in public seminars. "The Chinese government strategy of 'political reeducation' takes advantage of these features known to coerce memory modification," she wrote:
Each class member makes a public pledge of allegiance to the "lie." All the right psychological high-tech ingredients are in place for the lie to become the truth, reason enough for us to view the future of memories of Tiananmen square with foreboding pessimism. If handled skillfully, the power of misinformation is so strong and controllable that a colleague and I recently postulated a not-too-distant "brave new world" in which misinformation researchers would be able to proclaim, "Give us a dozen healthy memories, and our own specified world to handle them in, and we'll guarantee to take any memory at random and train it to become any type of memory that we may select …"
Actually, this unfolding dystopia wasn't Brave New World. It was 1984, George Orwell's novel about a totalitarian state controlling its population through memory revision. Loftus saw this threat becoming real. Manipulations of memory were "assaults on its very essence," she wrote. "We should worry about whose memory is next. Memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing."
In later years, Loftus returned to this theme. She criticized rosy history textbooks, political spin rooms, and photographic tampering by authoritarian regimes. "Are these simply memory distortion techniques applied on a grander scale?" she asked.
Then photo tampering hit home. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times published an Iraq-war photo that had been doctored for aesthetics. A year later, London's Daily Mirror ran fake pictures of British troops torturing an Iraqi prisoner. Another bogus photo, altered to pair John Kerry with Jane Fonda at an anti-Vietnam War rally, snookered American pundits and poisoned Kerry's public image as he emerged from the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.
Intrigued by these fabrications, Loftus and two colleagues conducted an experiment to test whether doctored photos could modify political memories. They selected two famous protests: Tiananmen Square and a peace rally in Rome. To a photo of the Rome rally, they added menacing protesters and police in riot gear. To an iconic image from the Beijing uprising—a lone man blocking a column of tanks—they added throngs of people lining the route.
The revisions worked. Compared with subjects who saw the real photo of Tiananmen, those who saw the doctored photo were twice as likely to estimate that more than 500,000 people had participated. And compared with subjects who saw the real photo from Rome, those who saw the doctored photo were four times as likely to say that people had died in the protest. Loftus expressed alarm at the spread of photo manipulation, calling it "a form of human engineering that could be applied to us against our knowledge and against our wishes." "We have to figure how we can regulate this," she warned.
Last week, Slate tested the same techniques on political memories in the United States. We altered four images, took a fifth out of context, and mixed these five fake scenes (which involved Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama), with three real ones. Half of our readers who participated in the experiment remembered the fabricated episodes as true, and when they were asked to guess which of the four incidents they had seen was fake, 37 percent picked the wrong one. The dangers of 1989 persist in 2010.
Click here to view a slide show on how Slate edited history.