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How fake news seduces the elderly

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Who shares fake news? Until today, conventional wisdom held that posting misinformation to Facebook a
 
January 9 · Issue #270 · View online
The Interface
Who shares fake news? Until today, conventional wisdom held that posting misinformation to Facebook and other platforms was largely a byproduct of ideology. The more conservative you were in 2016, the argument goes, the more likely you were to share hoaxes.
But a fascinating new paper published today in the journal Science Advances suggests that something else is afoot. I wrote about it today at The Verge:
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.”
Why do older users share fake news more often? There are two competing theories, for which we still lack good evidence:
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.
I’ll resist the temptation to quote my entire article, and instead ask you once again to read the full thing here.
Two more notes about this study, drawn from my conversation with a researcher who did not work it: Matthew Gentzkow, who has researched the efforts of Facebook’s efforts to slow the spread of fake news.
First: Gentzkow, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, noted that this paper is unusual for recording actual Facebook user behavior, rather than self-reported survey data. Researchers were able to do this because — with users’ consent — they scraped user timeline posts to see which links they had actually shared. It’s one reason why the paper’s findings are more compelling than previous work that has been done on the subject.
Second: who exactly were these Facebook-obsessed seniors? Gentzkow noted that despite Facebook’s near-total penetration of the North American market, in 2016 it was still somewhat unusual to see hyperactive social media use among septuagenarians.
“What’s also true very, very strongly true is the likelihood of using social media declines with age,” Gentzkow told me. “Elderly people use social media at low rates. Who is the 70-year-old who is spending a lot of time on Facebook in October of 2016? That’s not your typical 70-year-old.” Gentzkow speculated that older Facebook users might have a disproportionately strong interest in partisan politics.
In any case, the study has some good news for Facebook and democracy. As researcher Andrew Guess explained to me, the narrower an explanation you can find for a problem, the easier it is to design an effective solution. Assuming that future studies prove out the idea that sharing fake news is primarily a consequence of old age — or the digital illiteracy that old age effectively serves as a proxy for — then we have a good starting point for a fix.

Democracy
Senators Call on FCC To Investigate T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint Selling Location Data to Bounty Hunters
Google search results listings can be manipulated for propaganda
Vietnam threatens to penalize Facebook for breaking its draconian cybersecurity law
Elsewhere
How Cartographers for the U.S. Military Inadvertently Created a House of Horrors in South Africa
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are getting divorced after 25 years of marriage
Twitter hopes you want to watch NBA games from a camera focused on just one player
Reporters At The Sun Are Worried The Drudge Report Is Making Them Become More Right-Wing
Women In Rural India Are Defying Their Communities By Going Undercover On Facebook
Launches
Twitter is rolling out status updates, ice breaker tweets to select users in the coming weeks
Instagram now lets you regram your posts to multiple accounts
Takes
The Truly Viral Movie is Here
And finally ...
Scammers Are Tricking People Into Buying Puppies That Don’t Exist
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and links likely to confuse the elderly: casey@theverge.com
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