Social media has accelerated the creation and dissemination of fake news and misinformation, more so among older generations. Many of us have experienced our parents, uncles and aunts fall prey to this when they unwittingly post doctored images/videos or conspiracy theories on our family Whatsapp groups or on Facebook. This piece in the Huffington Post using references to several research studies attempts to understand why the elderly are relatively more vulnerable to misinformation than say the millennials. Whilst the article is set in the American context, a lot of the factors could apply to India or for that matter anywhere in the world given the penetration of social media across the globe. However, some of the conclusions seem to reflect the website’s liberal leaning positioning.
The piece starts by postulating the obvious factor of cognitive decline with age as the likely reason for older adults being a more prolific vector of misinformation but takes a more nuanced view later on.
“Older adults consume more misinformation and are more likely to share misinformation,” said Briony Swire-Thompson, a senior research scientist at Northeastern University who specializes in social media networks. During the 2016 election, users over 65 shared more fake news than any other age group and seven times more than users between 18 and 29. In 2020, Trump has dedicated almost half of his reelection campaign budget to Facebook ads — many of which include blatant misinformation — to users over 65 years old.
In the coming decades, this issue will only take on greater importance. America is about to embark on an unprecedented experiment in the political effects of an aging society. By 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65. By 2060, the ratio will be one in four. Over the next four decades, as the overall population grows by 25%, the number of people over 85 will nearly quadruple.
…seniors are becoming increasingly reliant on the internet for information. Over the last decade, older adults reporting that they get their news from social media rocketed from 8% to 40%. Facebook, one of America’s primary delivery devices for partisan, misleading and outright false information, is growing fastest among people over 50. Meanwhile, the percentage of teens reporting Facebook use fell from 71% in 2014 to 51% in 2018.
…and most obvious explanation for older internet users’ increased vulnerability to misinformation is the effect of aging on the brain. A huge body of research has demonstrated that the same factors that make older Americans susceptible to financial scams — lower impulse control, slower cognitive function, higher rates of social isolation — also make them vulnerable to misinformation.
In the July study, researchers found that baby boomers with lower wealth, worse cardiovascular health and higher levels of loneliness and depression had the most severe rates of cognitive decline. These findings add to a growing body of research indicating that baby boomers are in worse health than their parents’ generation at the same age, an effect generally attributed to higher stress, worse diets and the rising cost of health care. Older Americans falling prey to internet conspiracy theories, in other words, could be just another side effect of American inequality.
Nadia Brashier, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, points out that a strictly biological explanation for older Americans’ vulnerability to misinformation leaves a lot out.
“It’s tempting to blame cognitive decline because that’s what comes to people’s minds first,” Brashier said. “We associate getting older with impairment, but different cognitive abilities decline at different rates, and some don’t decline at all.”
Older Americans, Brashier noted, are actually better at some cognitive tasks than younger people. For example, they tend to know more about history and politics, giving them a better gut-check against obvious misinformation (“The president can remain in office for five terms,” for example). This may explain why, according to a study published in September, older adults are less likely to believe COVID-19 misinformation than younger Americans.”
So what then causes older adults to fall prey to fake news on social media? The author cites studies which point toward digital illiteracy. The ubiquity of the mobile phone has meant that older adults leap frogged their digital journey into a world with information at their finger tips.
“….Where older adults do struggle, however, is with memory and digital literacy. If younger Americans are digital natives, older Americans are digital refugees, drifting onto social media platforms slowly and haphazardly.
Older Americans are worse at distinguishing news from sponsored content, spotting manipulated images and separating factual information from opinion. They also lack basic information about the structures and incentives of social media — in a 2019 survey, just 18% of Facebook users over 65 knew that the site used an algorithm to organize their feeds and deliver recommendations. Around one-third thought Facebook staffers were hand-picking stories according to their relevance and credibility.
David, a graduate student in California, watched his father drift down the internet rabbit hole shortly after retiring, cashing out his pension, and buying an RV.
“Suddenly my dad who had worked his whole life had nothing to do,” David said. “So this 52-year-old man who had never used a computer gets on YouTube. That’s when the algorithms got to work on him.”
Within months, David’s dad was posting conspiracy videos about Bigfoot and the moon landing. Soon political conspiracies started to show up: Hillary Clinton and her pedophile ring, George Soros and his global network of secret banks.
Social media is almost perfectly designed to exploit the vulnerabilities of cognitive decline and digital illiteracy.
Every story on Facebook looks the same, whether it’s from The New York Times, InfoWars or your racist neighbor. While older and younger Americans are roughly equal in their ability to tell the difference between legitimate sources and sketchy conspiracy websites, the ability to remember the source of information is one of the first skills to decline with age.”
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