We often overestimate the role older age has in susceptibility to misinformation, according to a new study about fake news. While people over 70 do have a harder time distinguishing real from fake, those in their 60s have about the same amount of media literacy as college students.
“People have this perception that older adults are going to perform worse than young adults across the board,” one of the study’s co-authors, Prof. Brian Cahill, told the University of Florida’s news outlet. “But that is not the case.”
The study, published on May 2 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, looked more deeply into how and why fake news was shared online. In the early stages of the pandemic — from May to October of 2020 — they evaluated the analytical reasoning, affect, frequency of news consumption, and ability to distinguish real new from fake news in two groups of people: college students, and adults between the ages of 61 and 87.
Is it real news, or is it fake?
People were asked to read 12 news articles, half real and half fake, both about COVID and other news topics, including stories about crime, religion and politics. The real articles were from reputable news organizations like the Washington Post and the New York Times, while fake articles were stories that had been debunked by the fact-checking site Snopes, or were pulled from sources like the satirical site World Daily News Report or the pro-Trump misinformation site True Pundit. The study participants then had to evaluate whether or not the articles were real, how confident they felt in their assessment, and whether they would share the article on social media.
“We wanted to see if there was an age difference in determining whether news is true versus false,” the study’s lead author Prof. Didem Pehlivanoglu told the University of Florida’s news outlet.”We specifically wanted to look at this because we know that with aging, most people show some decline in their cognitive abilities. But we also know some information processing abilities are preserved or even improved.”
They found that “overall news veracity detection was comparable between young and older adults.” For the most part, the older adults were no more likely than the college students to believe the fake news. This was true both about COVID news and news more generally. Previous studies on the topic have found that older people — and specifically Baby Boomers, the generation born between the end of WWII and the mid 1960s — were more likely to share fake news on social media. Researchers suggest that the difference might simply be willingness to share: it may not be that Boomers are more likely to believe the fake news than Gen Z, just that they’re more likely to share it.
But they also found that there was more variation within the older group based on their levels of analytical reasoning, affect, and news consumption frequency. The oldest participants — those above age 70 — did have more trouble telling real news from fake than either the college students or the people in their 60s. And surprisingly, the over 70 group who most frequently read or watched the news were less likely to identify fake news. This could be due to what previous researchers call the “illusory truth effect”: the more you read or come across a false claim, the more likely you are to believe it. If older people are regularly consuming news from suspect sources, they may lose the ability to identify real from fake.
There are a number of initiatives that aim to help seniors understand more about the digital world. The nonprofit group Older Adults Technology Services provides classes and resources, for instance, and there are a number of news articles online with tips on how to identify misinformation.
And according to a study published in Scientific Reports in April, these kinds of resources are really helpful: undergoing a one-hour self-directed course about fake news before the 2020 U.S. election helped seniors “significantly” improve their ability to distinguish fake news from real news.