First the good news: The vast majority of Facebook users did not share any fake news stories during the 2016 election.
But some people did. And a new study analyzing users’ Facebook posts during that time identified the age group sharing many of those fake stories.
People over 65.
On average, those Facebook users shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group, according to a study published Wednesday in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal.
Conservatives were more likely to share stories from fake news domains, the study said, with a pro-Donald Trump orientation in 2016. Still, it found that even controlling for the effect of ideology, partisanship, education and the number of web links shared, older folks were more likely to share fake news than younger people.
“No other demographic characteristic seems to have a consistent effect on sharing fake news, making our age finding that much more notable,” authors Andrew Guess, Jonathan Nagler and Joshua Tucker wrote.
The study relied on users’ Facebook sharing history instead of asking them to self-report that history. Using online polling firm YouGov, it asked respondents to provide access to parts of their Facebook profiles, including timeline posts and external links.
Those shared links were then compared with a list of fake news domains compiled by BuzzFeed News. The study authors additionally removed partisan and hyperpartisan domains such as Breitbart News to focus solely on sites that produced intentionally or systematically false news stories.
The resulting list of fake news domains includes sites such as abcnews.com.co, The Denver Guardian, and Ending the Fed – sites that wrote false stories that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump or that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, for example.
Why senior citizens?
On the whole, the vast majority of Facebook users did not post fake news stories from these sites. The study found that more than 90% of respondents shared no stories from fake news domains, and just 8.5% shared at least one such article.
But the difference in fake news sharing between those over 65 and the youngest category in the study was “large and notable,” the authors wrote. About 11.3% of people over 65 shared links from a fake news site, while 3% of those between 18 and 29 did, the authors wrote in The Washington Post.
So why people over 65? One possible reason is that they lack the digital media literacy skills to determine trustworthiness online, the authors suggested. They say that more research is needed to understand the interaction between age and online political content. The authors also suggested the issue may be related to aging’s effect on memory.
The results of the study could be helpful for organizations working to combat the spread of fake news online.
Digital media literacy training has largely focused on teaching these skills to young people, such as the Clemente Middle School in Germantown, Maryland, but this study suggests older folks may be more in need of it.