NEW YORK — Fake news has become an all-too-common term in recent years, but according to a study, it’s actually not nearly as pervasive as some may believe. In fact, it seems to really only be problematic among the same segment of the population that’s susceptible to phone and cyber scams: the elderly.
Researchers from New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab and Princeton University found that only nine percent of Americans shared links to “fake news” stories on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Fake news sites were determined by a list of domains known to produce these false stories created by BuzzFeed News expert Craig Silverman, who largely covered the phenomenon that year. They also used other peer-reviewed sources to create a list of stories that were debunked by fact-checking groups.
While the authors discovered that the sharing of fake news was “relatively rare” during the election season, they did find that people over the age of 65 spread the misleading links on social media at a disproportionately higher rate than all other demographics. The correlation between falling for fake news and age proved to be independent of one’s political affiliation or ideologies.
“These findings suggest that teaching digital literacy in schools — no matter how beneficial that might be for other reasons — is unlikely to fully address the sharing of fake news if such sharing is more prevalent among older citizens,” says Jonathan Nagler, a professor of politics at NYU and a co-director of the SMaPP Lab, in a news release.
Among the nearly 1,300 individuals who allowed researchers to monitor their social media activity from April through November 2016, only 8.5 percent shared links to fake stories on Facebook overall. Three percent of those studied between the ages of 18 and 29 shared fake news, while 11 percent of users aged 65 and over linked out to such nefarious news stories.
“If seniors are more likely to share fake news than younger people, then there are important implications for how we might design interventions to reduce the spread of fake news,” says Andrew Guess, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.”
Differences in sharing fake content rates also existed across political affiliations. The authors found 18 percent of Republicans shared fake news, compared to just under 4 percent of Democrats. That said, the authors note that their findings don’t necessarily mean conservatives are more likely to share fake news — it simply may be that most of this content during the study period happened to be pro-Trump or against Hillary Clinton.
“This is consistent with the pro-Trump slant of most fake news articles produced during the 2016 campaign,” they write, “and of the tendency of respondents to share articles they agree with, and thus might not represent a greater tendency of conservatives to share fake news than liberals conditional on being exposed to it.”
The study was published in the journal Science Advances.