A new study confirms something we all already suspected to be true: people older than 65 are more likely to share fake news on Facebook than people of other ages. Age was a better predictor of sharing fake news than any other factor, including sex, race, income, social media usage, or even political affiliation.
The study, published in Science Advances, looked at the behavior of Facebook users before and after the 2016 election.
In early 2016, the academics started working with research firm YouGov to assemble a panel of 3,500 people, which included both Facebook users and non-users. On November 16th, just after the election, they asked Facebook users on the panel to install an application that allowed them to share data including public profile fields, religious and political views, posts to their own timelines, and the pages that they followed. Users could opt in or out of sharing individual categories of data, and researchers did not have access to the News Feeds or data about their friends.
One perhaps somewhat surprising result of the study was that sharing fake news is actually pretty rare. Of the people studied, only 8.5 percent shared one or more links to a fake news site. Perhaps less surprisingly, more conservatives than liberals shared these kinds of stories. The study found that 18 percent of Republicans versus 4 percent of Democrats shared fake news during the period of research.
But regardless of their politics, what the research hammered home is that people who share fake news are older.
The Verge writes:
But older users skewed the findings: 11 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,’” Andrew Guess, one of the paper’s co-authors, and 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.”
The study didn’t investigate the reasons behind older people’s vulnerability to misleading information online, but it’s probably fair to guess that a lack of digital literacy is at least somewhat to blame. The researchers are interested in investigating that hypothesis in the future.
Older voters, in addition to being more vulnerable to hoaxes, tend to be more conservative. In 2016, people 50 and older voted for Trump at a much higher margin. Old people are also much more likely to vote in general. So even if sharing fake news is relatively uncommon, it impacts some of the people who are most likely to vote, which should be a major cause for concern.