hen I was pregnant with my second child, my 70-year-old mother-in-law called to ask if I was still swimming at the public pool.
She had read in a print newsletter that swimming in a public pool could cause birth defects. It didn’t matter that no scientific evidence backed up this article; she wanted me out of that pool.
Now, millions of older Americans are reading their news online, mostly on Facebook, and then forwarding it to their friends and family. A new study out of Princeton and NYU found that, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, adults over 65 were seven times more likely than those under 29 to post articles from fake news domains. These results echo a study published in early 2018 concluding that, in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, Americans over 60 were the most likely of any age group to visit fake news sites.
As a member of the over-60 crowd myself, I believe we must teach older people to be smarter online, and soon. The studies can’t tell us whether someone read a particular piece of fake news and then voted based on that story. But in a recent YouGov poll, 44 percent of Americans over 65 admitted to falling for fake news. And the one thing we know for sure is that this growing demographic consistently has the highest voter turnout of any age group.
In other words, they read fake news, they vote and, as baby boomers age, there are more of them every day. If Jefferson was right that only a well-informed citizenry can be trusted with democratic government, then our democracy is in trouble.
Online disinformation also perpetuates the same kind of health scares that reached my mother-in-law. Think back to the recent story that apricot kernels cure cancer. Or the announcement that Mexican scientists had found a vaccine for diabetes. Or the widely spread rumor that polio vaccines given back in the 1950s and 1960s increased cancer risk.
False health information and snake oil cures can have disastrous consequences for our aging population.
Of course, learning to distinguish fact from fiction is a problem for every age group, as Stanford professor Sam Wineburg found when he surveyed digital “natives” – students who have operated in the online world since they learned to walk. Professor Wineburg’s research showed that students at every level were easily duped by false online content. But so far, media literacy efforts mainly focus on training the teachers of our middle school, high school and college students. This is important work but won’t help people who graduated decades ago.
Educating older people also requires a different approach. Stanford longevity expert Laura Carstensen points out that “our beliefs deepen as we age, and so does our confidence that we are right.” Research on aging suggests that older adults may have more trouble discarding mental clutter and shedding first impressions than younger generations
So how do we teach older Americans to be smarter online?
First, libraries, community centers and other places where older adults gather can offer programs on media literacy specifically targeted to this population. As Professor Wineburg observes, the goal “is not to turn every older American into a cyber power user”; what’s needed is “a clutch of practices to take a bite out of the problem.” Simple toolkits and workshops – showing techniques like opening new tabs to check a website’s source, using factchecking and trusted news sites, and leaving sites with misspellings and odd-sounding domain names – could go a long way in improving older Americans’ digital know-how.
Second, we need public awareness campaigns warning older people to think twice before forwarding fake news and disinformation. Professor Carstensen points out that when it comes to offline fraud, older Americans draw on a vast source of real-world knowledge and experience. In a survey reported by Forbes, Millennials were six times more likely than Baby Boomers to give out credit card information over the telephone. Once older Americans understand that fake news is just another kind of fraud – on their attention, their health and their country – they can bring that same common sense to their online experience.
Third, private foundations supporting democracy should promote and fund these initiatives, as well as more research on ways to help older adults use the Internet more wisely.
The health and wellness of our older populations, and the future of our democracy, may depend on it.
Susan Nash is a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity, where she is researching how to help older people be better consumers of online information. She was a Fellow at Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute from 2017-2018 and is a former partner in the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.
This is the first in a series of articles addressing the problem of older adults and online disinformation.