People older than 65 share the most fake news, a new study finds

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Older Americans are disproportionately more likely to share fake news on Facebook, according to a new analysis by researchers at New York and Princeton Universities. Older users shared more fake news than younger ones regardless of education, sex, race, income, or how many links they shared. In fact, age predicted their behavior better than any other characteristic — including party affiliation.

The role of fake news in influencing voter behavior has been debated continuously since Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. At least one study has found that pro-Trump fake news likely persuaded some people to vote for him over Clinton, influencing the election’s outcome. Another study found that relatively few people clicked on fake news links — but that their headlines likely traveled much further via the News Feed, making it difficult to quantify their true reach. The finding that older people are more likely to share fake news could help social media users and platforms design more effective interventions to stop them from being misled.

Today’s study, published in Science Advances, examined user behavior in the months before and after the 2016 US presidential election. In early 2016, the academics started working with research firm YouGov to assemble a panel of 3,500 people, which included both Facebook users and non-users. On November 16th, just after the election, they asked Facebook users on the panel to install an application that allowed them to share data including public profile fields, religious and political views, posts to their own timelines, and the pages that they followed. Users could opt in or out of sharing individual categories of data, and researchers did not have access to the News Feeds or data about their friends.

About 49 percent of study participants who used Facebook agreed to share their profile data. Researchers then checked links posted to their timelines against a list of web domains that have historically shared fake news, as compiled by BuzzFeed reporter Craig Silverman. Later, they checked the links against four other lists of fake news stories and domains to see whether the results would be consistent.

Across all age categories, sharing fake news was a relatively rare category. Only 8.5 percent of users in the study shared at least one link from a fake news site. Users who identified as conservative were more likely than users who identified as liberal to share fake news: 18 percent of Republicans shared links to fake news sites, compared to less than 4 percent of Democrats. The researchers attributed this finding largely to studies showing that in 2016, fake news overwhelmingly served to promote Trump’s candidacy.

But older users skewed the findings: 11 percent of users older than 65 shared a hoax, while just 3 percent of users 18 to 29 did. Facebook users ages 65 and older shared more than twice as many fake news articles than the next-oldest age group of 45 to 65, and nearly seven times as many fake news articles as the youngest age group (18 to 29).

“When we bring up the age finding, a lot of people say, ‘oh yeah, that’s obvious,’” co-author Andrew Guess, a political scientist at Princeton University, told The Verge. “For me, what is pretty striking is that the relationship holds even when you control for party affiliation or ideology. The fact that it’s independent of these other traits is pretty surprising to me. It’s not just being driven by older people being more conservative.”

The study did not draw a conclusion about why older users are more likely to share hoaxes, though the researchers point to two possible theories. The first is that older people, who came to the internet later, lack the digital literacy skills of their younger counterparts. The second is that people experience cognitive decline as they age, making them likelier to fall for hoaxes.

Regardless of age, the digital literacy gap has previously been blamed on users’ willingness to share hoaxes. Last year, WhatsApp began developing a program to promote digital literacy in India — where many of its 200 million users are relatively new to the internet — after a series of murders that may have been prompted by viral forwarding in the app. That program is aimed at users of all ages.

At the same time, elderly Americans are prone to falling for so many scams that the Federal Bureau of Investigations has a page devoted to them. It seems likely that a multi-pronged approach to reducing the spread of fake news will be more effective than trying to solve for only one variable.

Guess and his colleagues hope to test both hypotheses in the future. It won’t be easy: how to determine whether a person is digitally literate remains an open question. But at least some of the issue is likely to come down to design: fake news spreads quickly on Facebook in part because news articles generally look identical in the News Feed, whether they are posted by The New York Times or a clickbait farm.

Future research could decipher what people see in the News Feed, and whether there is a relationship between seeing fake news stories and sharing them. They speculate that users may be more likely to share fake stories if they were previously shared by a trusted friend.

Matthew Gentzkow, who has researched the efforts of Facebook’s efforts to slow the spread of fake news, said the new study’s findings about age could help tech platforms design more effective tools. (He was not involved in the NYU-Princeton study.)

“The age result in this paper points very directly toward at least narrowing down the set of solutions that are likely to be most effective,” said Gentzkow, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. “If the problem is concentrated in a relatively small set of people, then thinking about the interventions that would be most effective for those people is going to take us a lot farther.”

Comments

This does not surprise me in the slightest. Everyone knows that one racist uncle or grandpa in the family who forwards spammy links around the clock.

"For me, what is pretty striking is that the relationship holds even when you control for party affiliation or ideology. The fact that it’s independent of these other traits is pretty surprising to me. It’s not just being driven by older people being more conservative."

It’s an age thing, not an ideological/racist thing. Older people are possibly more targeted then younger people as well. With falsified stories being more skewed to attract their attention.

"This just in, old fools are both old and foolish."

Older people are less likely to fact check, more likely to gravitate towards outlets that deliver news aligned with their political views, and less inclined to independent critical thought.

The study this article is based on doesn’t agree with what you’re saying here. The fake news stories shared were overwhelmingly conservative so there very clearly is something ideological going on here.

So that’s why nobody trusted crooked Hillary and Creepy Bill

I came here to confirm just this. Some of the email threads I get from my uncle and dad’s friends are insane. For especially egregious emails, I reply-all to the back-log senders/recipients with some facts.

This headline should have been

FW: FW: FW: FW: PEOPLE OLDER THAN 65 SHARE MOST FAKE NEWS, STUDY FINDS

"Migrant caravan coming to walk on lawn."

Old man yells at cloud shaped like promiscuous woman

They seem to be more susceptible to many other phishing, scams, etc. Probably why so many of these target the elderly, they’ve found that it works.

Absolutely this. Older folks have long been targeted by con-artists, scams, and grifters, this is just a new form of the same old trick.

To the surprise of absolutely no one.

"If it’s on the Internets, it must be true!" Source: grandma.

Older folks were not raised to question what they read on the internet from a very young age. They’re playing catch-up in nearly every way compared to younger people. It’s really up the the younger generations to help educate the older ones on the rules of the road regarding the web. And not belittle them and write them off as too old to matter. Just as younger generations hate when older folks write them off as too young to care about more then themselves.

I’m sorry, I thought that their forefathers spent an entire lifetime making old people matter. They gave the country Social Security because the old literally died of poverty. They gave the elderly Medicare because they starting dying of entirely treatable diseases. They gave the elderly retirement plans, 401Ks, and ROTH IRAs. Most recently, they were given the ability to buy health insurance with the Affordable Care Act. And their generation also just so happened to fight this every step of the way.

Forgive me for cutting seniors a bit less slack about being utter idiots, despite practically forcing the world to revolve around them for the last 85 years.

Who hurt you?
You know what? It’s okay. Let it out. They can’t hurt you anymore.

They’re still alive, so apparently they can.

I knew it!

This is a trash reply.

I think if you re-read the post you’ll see its very evident who in particular they are upset at.

Someday you will be old. Remember everything you just wrote at that time, and how you apparently don’t need any of those things you just mentioned. I’m sure you’ll turn all of it down.

btw, you know a 401k and Roth IRA is something you pay into, right? Nobody "gave" anybody those.

But please, if you choose not to save any of your money, be my guest. I’m sure you won’t be relying on any of the rest of us to pay your medical and other bills once you’re too old to work. Or maybe you’ll just beg your kids for help instead.

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