The term ‘fake news’ has become unavoidable over the past few years, and it was a term that was thrown around a lot during the last election cycle in 2016 – including by President Trump himself.
It has a few different meanings in real terms. Some use it to dismiss any political story that they happen to disagree with, but the true definition is a news story, usually published online, that is blatantly false, and fabricated for clicks or ad revenue.
A recent study has published its finding about those kind of sites, and who shares the misinformation on social media. Interestingly, it’s found that the worst offenders for sharing fake news articles are those over the age of 65.
On average, this demographic of Facebook users shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group, according to a study published Wednesday in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal.
The researchers also broke down the users by political leanings, with conservatives apparently more likely to share stories from fake news domains, according to the data. Still, even accounting for the effect of ideology, partisanship, education and the number of web links shared, the study found that older folks were more likely to share fake news than younger people, regardless of their leanings.
“No other demographic characteristic seems to have a consistent effect on sharing fake news, making our age finding that much more notable,” authors Andrew Guess, Jonathan Nagler and Joshua Tucker wrote.
The study relied on users’ Facebook sharing history, instead of asking them to self-report that history – so the data was more reliable because it bypassed bias and human error on the part of the users. Using the online polling firm YouGov, it asked respondents to provide access to parts of their Facebook profiles, including timeline posts and external links.
Those shared links were then compared with a list of fake news domains compiled by BuzzFeed News. The study authors additionally removed partisan and hyper-partisan domains such as Breitbart News and CNN, to focus solely on sites that produced intentionally or systematically false news stories.
The resulting list of fake news domains includes sites such as abcnews.com.co, The Denver Guardian, and Ending the Fed – sites that wrote demonstrably false stories during the election cycle.
It’s important to look at the bigger picture here. On the whole, the vast majority of Facebook users did not post any fake news stories from these sites. The study found that more than 90% of respondents shared no stories from fake news domains, and the just 8.5% shared at least one such article.
Still, the difference in activity between those over 65 and the youngest category in the study was “large and notable,” as the authors said. About 11.3% of people over 65 shared links from a fake news site, while 3% of those between 18 and 29 did, the authors wrote in The Washington Post.
So what is it about people over 65 that causes them to be more likely to spread fake news? Well, one of the possible reasons is that they lack the digital media literacy skills to determine trustworthiness online, the authors suggested. For example, a senior citizen would be less likely to look at the website that the story came from, and might also lack the intrinsic knowledge as to how trustworthy that site was.
It’s worth mentioning the age demographics of Facebook, and how that could have tied in to the results of the study. Although Facebook used to be thought of an a platform for the younger generation, the average age of Facebook users in the USA is 40.5 years old.
The researchers say that more research is needed to better understand the interaction between age and online political content. The authors suggested the issue may also be related to aging’s effect on memory.
An interesting study, that’s for sure!