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Jan. 11, 2019, 7 a.m.
Audience & Social

Old people are most likely to share fake news on Facebook. They’re also Facebook’s fastest-growing U.S. audience.

So if you think you have a “solution” for misinformation, it had better not be something that only targets digital natives.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

People over age 65 are most likely to share fake news. Elderly Americans were most likely to share fake news around the election, even after controlling for political affiliation and ideology. Only a small percentage of people shared fake news in the first place, but those who did were likely to be over 65. The Verge’s Casey Newton:

Eleven 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,'” coauthor 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.”

As you can see from the above charts, it was also true that conservatives and Republicans shared more fake news than liberals and Democrats did. But the biggest gap by far was between young and old.

No other demographic factor — sex, race, education, or income — had “anywhere close to a robust predictive effect on sharing fake news,” the authors write, and the link between age and sharing fake news is “a challenge and an opportunity for social scientists.” For instance:

It is possible that an entire cohort of Americans, now in their 60s and beyond, lacks the level of digital media literacy necessary to reliably determine the trustworthiness of news encountered online…Research on age and digital media literacy often focuses on youth skills acquisition and the divide between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” but our results suggest renewed focus on the oldest age cohorts.

Within this cohort, lower levels of digital literacy could be compounded by the tendency to use social endorsements as credibility cues. If true, this would imply a growing impact as more Americans from older age groups join online social communities. A second possibility, drawn from cognitive and social psychology, suggests a general effect of aging on memory. Under this account, memory deteriorates with age in a way that particularly undermines resistance to “illusions of truth” and other effects related to belief persistence and the availability heuristic, especially in relation to source cues. The severity of these effects would theoretically increase with the complexity of the information environment and the prevalence of misinformation.

Some thoughts:

— The pace has slowed since late 2017/early 2018 — and the concept of a fake-news-fighting browser extension or game feels particularly dated at this point — but I still get pitched a fair number of apps and projects that aim to (for instance) offer less “biased” news or rank sources or whatever. I cannot wait to email these people back with a link to the above study and a note that says, “Come back when you’ve geared it toward the elderly.” We all have some older relative who shares a lot of hoaxes, but it’s sort of satisfying to see that this isn’t a one-off, it’s an actual trend.

I don’t think that most of the startups that pitch their hoax-busting digital products really want to focus on older Americans. It’s not very glamorous when your target audience goes from “digital-savvy millennials who are connected 24/7” to “old people sharing crazy stuff on Facebook.” But that may be the audience that needs the most help with this.

— It’s yet another reminder that apps, extensions, blah blah other solutions geared toward digital natives are probably pretty useless. It does, however, give me a little more hope for the various “trust indicator” projects that aim to, for example, provide checklists or explainers or ratings alongside stories on newspapers’ sites or within the pages of print newspapers. I also think again about Sam Wineburg’s Stanford research on teaching people to read laterally online.

— The researchers in this study used actual Facebook data and received rare support from Facebook, making this quite a bit more robust than most past studies we’ve seen (which have relied on, say, people’s own memories of their sharing activity, or on the Twitter API). As the study’s authors explained in The Washington Post:

With support from the National Science Foundation, the Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab at New York University commissioned a panel survey during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. After the election, respondents were asked whether they were willing to share information about their available timeline posts on Facebook, including external links they had posted on their profiles.

About 1,300 respondents agreed to share this information using a Facebook app developed by the SMaPP Lab and approved by Facebook for research purposes. Because these respondents had previously answered our survey questions, we also had data on their age, ideology, self-reported partisan identification, and so on.

— I’m trying to keep a check on ageism when I cover this story. My mom, who is in her early sixties, quit Facebook this week after being very active there for a long time. She quit for reasons of principle, after reading one too many articles about the company’s evils. She said that in a Facebook post on why she was leaving, and I was overwhelmed by the number of her friends of similar age who came to debate/comment/yell at her for leaving/say no one person can solve the problem/say there is no alternative for communication. It was — well, I found it sort of baffling, to be honest.

But as younger people abandon Facebook in droves — often not bothering to announce they’re leaving, because none of their friends are there anymore anyway, simply signing off and not coming back — we’d do well to remember, once again, that Media Twitter’s experience on and opinions of Facebook is not necessarily representative of the norm. We may think of Facebook as a platform for old people now, we may find the ways that they are using it maddening or baffling, but an awful lot of them are using it. From Pew last October:

Around eight-in-ten (81%) of those ages 18 to 29 use Facebook — about twice the share among those 65 and older (41 percent). However, the share of older Americans who use the platform has doubled since August 2012, when just 20 percent of those 65 and older said they used it.

In October, Emarketer reported that “while younger users are leaving Facebook at an even faster pace than we previously expected, older age groups are accessing the social platform more — particularly the 55-to-64 and 65-plus age groups.” The company projected that Facebook’s usage among 55- to 64-year-olds would increase by 4.9 percent in 2018, while usage among those ages 65 and older would increase by 6 percent (although the growth is beginning from a smaller base) — at the same time as use falls in the 11-and-younger, 12-to-17, and 18-to-24 age groups.

If the predominant group sharing fake news on Facebook is the elderly, it is a real problem, because the elderly are becoming the primary users of the platform.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Jan. 11, 2019, 7 a.m.
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