People often think of the Internet as the domain of millennials who have difficulty telling the difference between truth and rumor. However, recent studies in the United States have determined that today more fake news is being shared on social media by the 65-and-older age group than any other.
Fake News and the Rise of Social Media
“Fake news.” The phrase is a common one since President Trump’s election in 2016, but stories full of false information have been around for centuries. With the boom of internet and social media, information is being created increasingly faster. This makes it harder to correct false statements with true facts than simply post a fake story and move on to the next one. Add to this that many writers are no longer true journalists and the filter that used to be in place to keep fake news out has been virtually obliterated.
When social media began, it was mainly for 18 to 30-year-olds. Facebook began as networks of college students and Twitter for people interested in sending mass SMS-like messages or microblogging. Over the years both gained more and different user bases, and today active Facebook users are increasingly those over 65. With younger people using and posting on Facebook less, it is logical that they would be sharing fewer fake news articles.
Social Media as a Source of Information
For some people, social media is their primary or only source of information. The problem is that on sites such as Facebook, a link from a reliable source of information such as The New York Times is formatted the same as a link from an unreliable one. Someone just taking a quick glance as they scroll through their news feed often just notices the title and photo and doesn’t look closely at the website its from. Twitter can be even worse as links are often shared in a mini format, leaving it to the user to click through to see what the content and source are. As a result of this mixture of reliable information and hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and otherwise misleading news, people are often left wondering what is true and what is fake.
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Adding to the problems with social media as a source of information is the echo chamber effect. There have always been social circles that people turn to when they are looking for trustworthy information. On social media, as a result of constantly copying those in one’s circle and unfollowing and ignoring those with differing opinions, echo chambers are created. These segregated bubble networks mean that people end up seeing only what they want to see. Repeatedly, faster and faster. In the end, many end up not even reading articles, only skimming the often clickbait titles and forming opinions on these rather than the actual content.
A YouGov study in 2016 found that, while fake news links were shared by only 8.5% of the participants, this number changed when broken down into age groups. Facebook users in the 65 and older group shared over two times as many fake news articles as those 45 to 65, and almost seven times as many as the 18 to 29 group! A similar study was done on Twitter during the same time period (that of the US presidential campaign and election), which comparably found that older people shared more information from shady websites.
Why Are More Older People Sharing Fake News?
No one is certain why older people are more likely to share false information, but there are a few theories. One is that due to the brain’s aging, people are less likely to tell when something is a hoax than when they were younger. Governments are constantly warning older folks about scams, both on- and offline. Another theory is that digital literacy is lacking in the older generation than those who started on the internet at a younger age. This digital literacy includes such skills as noticing style red flags like poor spelling, unnecessarily emphasized words and phrases, and excessive punctuation usage. Younger people are more likely to note these and not share articles that contain them.
The content of many fake news messages shared by those 65 and older is also to blame. Often the subjects most widely shared surround health, illnesses, and diseases. As people age, they generally suffer more health problems, so it is only natural they look for information about the subject and pass along “helpful tips” they may see. They exhibit an excessive level of cautiousness, almost to the point of paranoia. They would rather they and their loved ones be safe than sorry later, but many go to an extreme that can be worrisome or just annoying, depending on the recipient’s viewpoint.
Although the sharing of false information has existed since before Internet, today’s forms of communication make these stories spread faster and farther than before. It is important for everyone to be on the lookout for fake news and try to stop the spread. Before you share another story, why not take a moment to try to go back to the original source?