Fortunately, more than 90% of the users in the study didn’t share articles laced with misinformation. But of those that did, researchers found that “the oldest Americans, especially those over 65, were more likely to share fake news to their Facebook friends”. This remains true even when factoring in things like ideology.
The researchers found that as they ascended through the age groups, each group shared more fake news than the last, meaning young people shared the least amount of fake news, and people 65 and older shared the most.
The researchers found that conservatives were more likely to share fake news than liberals, but considering the way fake-news skews conservative and plays into conservative beliefs, that isn’t surprising.
‘Fake news’ has become such a ubiquitous term since the election that it’s almost lost all meaning. But in this case, ‘fake news’ refers to genuinely fake articles shared from sites designed to trick people by looking almost like legitimate news sites, while sharing ridiculous headlines like ’42 Reasons Barack Obama Is Literally A Lizard Person’.
So no, ‘fake news’ doesn’t refer to news stories or opinion pieces that you personally disagree with. The team behind the study deliberately excluded partisan news sites like Breitbart, focusing exclusively on spammy fake news sites of unknown origin.
Throughout 2016, Buzzfeed reported on fake news websites that were publishing inaccurate and straight-up bizarre articles across the US in the lead-up to the presidential elections. You know the ones: the kind of sites that publish articles with ‘proof’ that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, with names that almost sound legitimate, like WorldPoliticus.com.
These fake news factories don’t just churn out political content, however. Many of them also publish fake celebrity news; a specialty of theirs is articles about celebrities moving to random American towns that no celebrity would ever want to live in. What are the benefits of publishing an article that says Eminem is moving to Salina, Kansas? I have no idea.
These websites rely on people’s laziness; they hope you’ll read the headline and maybe the first paragraph, but nothing more. They rely on a lack of media and internet literacy and prey on people who don’t know the tell-tale signs of a fake website: cheap, crappy graphic design work and no bylines, for example. It makes sense that some older people might not be completely across this stuff: they didn’t grow up on the internet the way we did, spending 10 hours a day immersed in online communities from a young age.
Other tools younger people might know about that older internet users might not are things like Snopes, or Google’s Reverse Image Search that allows you to search for other uses of an image across the web, or the WayBack Machine, to see how the website has changed since its creation. One I personally rely on is the WHOIS domain lookup tool that allow you to look up the owner of a domain address – you’d be surprised how many spruikers of fake news can’t be bothered paying extra for private registration.
The researchers relied on cognitive and social psychology to suggest that the effects of ageing may weaken “resistance to ‘illusions of truth’”, and that may be partly to blame. According to Sarah Emerson over at Motherboard, this aspect would only strengthen the argument that Facebook has a responsibility to moderate fake news before it gets out of hand.
Don’t stress: despite older users sharing the most fake news, the sharing of fake news stories was still pretty rare during the 2016 election. Take that, Russia!