On learning Russia had staged a massive disinformation campaign in the 2016 presidential election, schools across the country began adding digital literacy classes to their course offerings.
A new study, though, suggests those classes might be targeting the wrong age group. Researchers from New York and Princeton universities checked the data and concluded it wasn’t kids who were sharing those fake news stories. It was their parents and grandparents.
The study found that those over the age of 65 were seven times more likely to share a fake news story than those under the age of 30.
Andrew Guess, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton and a co-author of the study, says folks who didn’t grow up using computers often lack the skills they need to separate the fake from the real.
“They are simply more susceptible to the kinds of online content that happened to be weaponized in that particular election,” he told National Public Radio.
Those who fell victim to these disinformation efforts weren’t necessarily less educated or less well off financially. Researchers saw no connection between education or income and the sharing of fake news.
Gender also seemed irrelevant. Men and women seemed equally likely to fall victim.
The researchers did find a link to politics. Eighteen percent of Republicans shared links to fake news sites compared to less than 4 percent of Democrats.
Still, researchers said, it wasn’t so much that Republicans were more vulnerable to disinformation as that they were more likely to be targeted. Much of the propaganda favored Donald Trump and worked against Hillary Clinton.
Susan Nash, a visiting scholar at the Stanford University Center on Longevity, says the problem with fake news didn’t start with the internet.
“When I was pregnant with my second child, my 70-year-old mother-in-law called to ask if I was still swimming at the public pool,” she wrote. “She had read in a print newsletter that swimming in a public pool could cause birth defects. It didn’t matter that no scientific evidence backed up this article; she wanted me out of that pool.”
Now, she says, millions of older Americans are getting their news through social media, and they’re falling victim not just to political hoaxes but to the same sorts of health scares that tripped up her mother-in-law.
“As a member of the over-60 crowd myself,” she wrote, “I believe we must teach older people to be smarter online, and soon.” She cited a recent YouGov poll in which 44 percent of participants over the age of 65 admitted they had fallen for fake news.
Part of the problem is what the researchers call confirmation bias. The fake news stories tend to confirm what we already believe to be true.
How can society address the problem?
Nash suggests offering media literacy classes at public libraries, senior centers and other places where older Americans gather. These classes won’t necessarily teach older Americans how to search the internet as quickly as their grandchildren, but they can offer useful tips such as how to spot questionable websites and where to go to find information you can trust.
Nash also suggests public awareness campaigns urging older Americans to think twice before spreading false information.
“We all know an informed democracy is the only way democracy works,” she told NPR. “And if we don’t teach them how to evaluate what they’re seeing, then we are poisoning our electorate.”
Kelly Hawes is a CNHI Indiana columnist.