An opinion column last week in the Los Angeles Times included these four sentences that should be interesting to readers of this newspaper, many of whom are senior citizens:
“Researchers have found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. Recent studies also show that age is the strongest predictor of engagement with fake news. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news sites as young users. Old age predicted (this trend) even when accounting for partisanship, education and overall posting activity.”
Everybody who has a Facebook page has seen something forwarded by a friend that seems sketchy — or simply inaccurate. But if the column by Harvard psychology post-doctoral fellow Nadia Brashier and Harvard psychology professor Daniel Schacter is accurate, older users of the internet are being fooled a lot more often than younger ones.
How can this be? Older people are supposed to be wiser and more experienced than the rest of us. Those who raised children and spent time with grandchildren have developed the ability to know when they’re being played.
It may help to explain this problem by eliminating some of the things are not the main cause of it. For starters, the researchers dismiss the idea that cognitive decline among the elderly is the reason senior citizens tend to share more inaccurate information. Nor is it loneliness, or the desire for more attention.
Brashier and Schacter note that all older people are not among society’s loneliest age groups. That indistinction is held by people in their late 20s, mid-50s and late 80s.
Instead, they say a person’s “positive emotions” increase with age. This means older people are less likely to question the accuracy of claims sent to them on social media. They also tend to think their friends and relatives would not send them fake news.
Another factor is that the number of people over age 65 on social media is higher than ever.
“A decade ago, only 8% of Americans over 65 used a social media site,” the authors wrote. “Today, that figure is up to 40%. These older users probably have less experience with sensationalized content, like clickbait titles. They also tend to conflate native advertisements, designed to feel like ‘real’ stories, with news articles, and fail to spot manipulated images.”
Finally, the skill of deception keeps improving. Disinformation specialists can use computer software and artificial intelligence to create fake documents or realistic videos of events that never happened.
There are ways for senior citizens and anyone else on social media to unmask news they see that is truly fake. The website snopes.com has a deep archive of information that often can verify the accuracy of internet posts. Typing in a few words of a story on Google or any other search engine is another easy way to find out just how true it is.
Unfortunately, it’s even easier for someone of any age to click that “share” button without verifying a questionable claim. Which means many of the people who love to criticize fake news are actually helping to spread it.