Americans over 65 years old are more likely to share fake news articles on Facebook, according to a study conducted by New York and Princeton university students. For the study, students partnered with research firm YouGov to recruit 3,500 Facebook and non-Facebook members, prior to the 2016 presidential elections. There were no set criteria for participants, including age, race, sex, religion or party affiliation.
On 16 November 2016, after Donald Trump had beaten Hilary Clinton in the presidential race, participants were asked to download an app that would enable researchers to access their Facebook data, including public profile fields, religious and political views, posts on their timelines and pages they followed. Participants had the ability to set specific privacy restrictions and were not forced to share anything they did not want to.
Of the 3,500 original participants, 49 per cent agreed to share their Facebook data. The students proceeded to check links shared to or by participants against other web domains that were known for posting fake news stories. Researchers measured the consistency of fake news sharing by continuously comparing links to pre-determined lists of fake stories or sketchy domains.
The study, which was published on Science Advances, found that only 8.5 per cent of users shared at least one link from a fake news site. Conservative participants were also more likely to share fake news than those who identified as liberal, with 18 per cent of Republicans vs. less than 4 per cent of Democrats sharing faulty stories. Researchers believe this is because predominately fake news articles promoting Trump were extremely popular during the election. Additionally, 11 per cent of users older than 65 shared a fake news link, compared to the 3 per cent of users ages 18 to 29.
“When we bring up the age finding, a lot of people say, ‘oh yeah, that’s obvious,’” co-author Andrew Guess, 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.”
According to the study, “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).”
"No other demographic characteristic we examined - gender, income, education - had any consistent relationship with the likelihood of sharing fake news," wrote the paper's authors.
Although the researchers did not publish a reason behind why older Americans are more inclined to share fake news, they did insinuate a few possible theories. First off, older people may lack the digital literacy to better judge real vs. fake news links. Secondly, older people experience a steady decline in cognitive skills due to aging, which may make them more susceptible to hoaxes.