Most seniors have heard the term fake news and are aware that the spread of misinformation online is a problem. While people of all ages fall victim to fake news, studies have shown that older adults are more vulnerable to fake news and digital misinformation. One study showed that Facebook users age 65 and older posted seven times as many articles from fake news websites than adults age 29 and younger.1 Older adults are also less likely to be able to spot the difference between advertisements that are designed to look like real news stories and articles that are actual news stories.
What is fake news?
Fake news refers to news stories that are false, but which appear to be legitimate news stories. The internet is a common source for fake news, with fake news frequently promoted and disseminated on social media. While fake news often has a political bent, fake news can be about any topic. For example, a considerable amount of fake news has been produced about the coronavirus and about vaccines.
Why are seniors vulnerable?
One important reason that seniors are more likely to share and believe fake news is that seniors did not grow up using the internet and computers. This relatively new role that technology plays in seniors lives makes it harder for seniors to spot the difference between fake news or misinformation and legitimate news.2 The relationship between seniors and technology is less natural than it is for younger generations, who have spent much, if not all, of their lives using computers and the internet.
Another factor is that the tendency towards confirmation bias strengthens with age, meaning that older adults are more likely to interpret new information in a way that reinforces their preexisting beliefs.3 Some scholars have posited that declines in memory may also make it hard for elderly persons to distinguish between fake and real news. Other scholars believe that older adults are actually better at distinguishing between fake headlines and true headlines. These scholars believe that something about the format and use social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, makes older adults more likely to believe.
What steps can seniors take to address this issue?
As coronavirus-related misinformation has spread in the United States, it has become more important for seniors to learn how to distinguish between misinformation and real news. If you believe the argument that seniors have more trouble spotting fake news than younger groups because of digital illiteracy, then it follows that this is a problem that can be addressed through digital education. Digital literacy is something that can be learned and improved. One way to improve your digital literacy is to take a course or attend a webinar on digital literacy. MediaWise is a nonprofit that offers digital literacy courses for seniors. These courses teach seniors how to check facts and provide tools and techniques for evaluating online content.
One way to check whether an article or other piece of news is fake by going to fact checking websites, such as Snopes.org, Politifact.com, or FaceCheck.org, to verify the information. Seniors can use these websites to search a particular story in order to verify that story’s veracity. These websites also publish their own articles debunking common fake news stories. Another option for seniors looking to learn about a particular topic is to visit the website of a reputable source for information on that topic. For example, if you want to learn more about Covid-19, you can visit the websites for your local or state department of public health or for the CDC.
Seniors looking to distinguish between fake news and real news can ask themselves a series of questions to aid them in the evaluation of new information. Questions to consider include4:
- Who wrote the article or information?
- Is the information current and up to date?
- Is there a company or other organization who sponsors the website that contains the information?
- Is the website reputable?
- Does the author of the article have any credentials?
- Does the website address or support different perspectives of the topic at issue?
- Is the article selling or promoting a particular product?
1 NPR, https://www.npr.org/2020/02/26/809224742/with-an-election-on-the-horizon-older-adults-get-help-spotting-fake-news; The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/10/older-people-more-likely-to-share-fake-news-on-facebook.
2 NPR, https://www.npr.org/2020/02/26/809224742/with-an-election-on-the-horizon-older-adults-get-help-spotting-fake-news.
3 NPR, https://www.npr.org/2020/02/26/809224742/with-an-election-on-the-horizon-older-adults-get-help-spotting-fake-news.
4 Senior Planet, https://seniorplanet.org/news/2020/03/25/spotting-fake-news/.