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Humans and technology

Older users share more misinformation. Your guess why might be wrong.


The news: Misinformation on social media is often fueled by older adults, who share fake news and dubious links more than other age groups—up to seven times more than their younger counterparts. But a new analysis suggests people often make incorrect assumptions about why this might be, which leads some attempts at halting the spread of misinformation to failure. 

Ageist stereotypes: Nadia Brashier, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s psychology department, says there are two popular explanations for why older adults share so much misinformation online—but both are rooted in intuition and stereotypes rather than data. The first reason often given is cognitive decline: that age makes older users less capable of making informed choices than younger users. The second reason is loneliness: that older users are prone to sharing misinformation as they attempt to make connections with other people. But neither fully explains what’s going on, according to Brashier’s analysis, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science

For instance, while it’s true that recollection can decline with age, our ability to process and understand information remains the same as we get older—and general knowledge improves. “Different cognitive abilities actually decline at different rates, and some don’t decline at all,” says Brashier. “These preserved abilities can help older adults compensate for the deficits they do experience.” And as for loneliness, she says, “Older adults are not the loneliest age group, and scientists currently have no evidence that lonely people share more fake stories.” 

Brashier’s work exposes the lack of evidence to support the commonly held assumptions about older people and misinformation, and looks at what other factors—from interpersonal relationships to digital literacy—seem to be at work. There’s no single key to explain why older adults share so much misinformation online, but her analysis suggests that different approaches might be needed to minimize their amplification of misinformation online. 

What goes wrong: Take one example: fact checks. Social -media platforms often rely on fact checks and information boxes to provide context for misleading or false information shared online. But for older audiences, these might have the opposite of the intended effect. “Repeatedly seeing a claim paired with a ‘false’ label ironically increases older adults’ belief in that claim later,” she says. 

But this doesn’t mean that older adults are worse at knowing whether something is true or not. In one study Brashier cites, older adults were actually better at evaluating the veracity of headlines in a survey setting. So current fact-checking approaches are not necessarily the best route for slowing the spread of bad information.

Better options: Instead, if platforms want to more effectively target the ways in which older adults spread misinformation, they will have to look more closely at interpersonal relationships and digital literacy, Brashier argues. In addition to having less familiarity with social platforms than younger generations, older adults tend to have fewer people on the edges of their social spheres, and tend to trust the people they do know more. 

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