By David Meyer
January 10, 2019

Despite the furore over the role of fake news in the 2016 presidential election, not that many people shared false articles on Facebook during that period. Those who did, however, were more likely to be Trump supporters — and far more likely to be over the age of 65.

These are among the findings in a study by Princeton and New York University, published Wednesday.

What’s “fake news”? Although the term has been co-opted in recent times to mean anything the person using it doesn’t want to hear, the definition used here is “false or misleading content intentionally dressed up to look like news articles, often for the purpose of generating ad revenue.”

The researchers surveyed 3,500 people online — while trying to avoid the survey biases this often entails —and found that “overall, sharing articles from fake news domains was a rare activity.” Surprisingly, only 8.5% of those surveyed had shared such articles.

“We find some evidence that the most conservative users were more likely to share this content — the vast majority of which was pro-Trump in orientation — than were other Facebook users,” the researchers wrote, while hedging that this finding was based on a small number of respondents — 38 Republicans versus 17 Democrats, or 18.1% of the Republicans in the sample versus 3.5% of the Democrats.

The same doesn’t apply to older Facebook users. “Our most robust finding is that the oldest Americans, especially those over 65, were more likely to share fake news to their Facebook friends,” the report continues. “This is true even when holding other characteristics — including education, ideology, and partisanship — constant. No other demographic characteristic seems to have a consistent effect on sharing fake news, making our age finding that much more notable.”

How much more likely were old people to share fake news? Those over 65 were almost seven times more likely to share such articles than those aged between 18 and 29.

And what of the received wisdom that people who will “share anything” are mainly responsible for the spread of fake news? Not so, the researchers found — those who share the most content overall were actually less likely to share fake news.

“These data are consistent with the hypothesis that people who share many links are more familiar with what they are seeing and are able to distinguish fake news from real news,” they wrote.

Much of the reporting around the Mueller investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia has focused on the idea that Russian intelligence managed to sway the election toward Trump through the dissemination of fake news. The researchers’ findings about overall levels of fake-news sharing suggest that, even if this was attempted, it may not have been such a huge factor after all — although Trump supporters were more likely to share false articles.

The researchers admit they find the age aspect “puzzling”, however.

“Holding constant ideology, party identification, or both, respondents in each age category were more likely to share fake news than respondents in the next-youngest group, and the gap in the rate of fake news sharing between those in our oldest category (over 65) and youngest category is large and notable,” they wrote. “These findings pose a challenge and an opportunity for social scientists.”

The researchers suggested that Americans above the age of 60 may lack “the level of digital media literacy necessary to reliably determine the trustworthiness of news encountered online.”

“A second possibility, drawn from cognitive and social psychology, suggests a general effect of aging on memory,” they added.

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