Older Americans share more fake news than young people. But they also share more facts.

January 15, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking

A study that found older Americans are more likely to share fake news stories on Facebook made waves last week.

The study, which was published in Science Advances, examined Facebook user behavior in the weeks leading up to the 2016 United States election. Researchers were granted access to data about subjects’ accounts, including which pages they followed and which posts they engaged with. They based their results on a survey of 3,500 people, 1,331 of whom agreed to share their Facebook data.

They found that 8.5 percent of users shared stories from historically untrustworthy sites cataloged by BuzzFeed News’ Craig Silverman. But whereas 11 percent of subjects 65 years old and up shared a hoax, only 3 percent of users 18 to 29 years old did the same thing. That age discrepancy held across party lines, although Republicans were 14 percent more likely to share a fake news story than Democrats.

The research sheds new light on who is more likely to amplify online misinformation. But it isn’t the whole story.

In a study published in October in Communication Monographs, researchers found that older Americans are also more likely to share articles from fact-checkers. That research used a similar method to the Science Advances study, analyzing Facebook and Twitter data from a survey of 783 people in 2017.

It found that only 11 percent of participants shared at least one political article from fact-checking projects identified by the Duke Reporters’ Lab. But researchers also found that “participants who were older in age and were liberal-leaning were more likely to post a fact-check.”

Two things can be true at the same time. Research shows that older Americans disproportionately share misinformation on Facebook while also amplifying the work of fact-checkers. Without making broad judgments about an entire age group’s digital literacy, one potential explanation is that older people are simply using Facebook more.

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As Nieman Lab noted last week, the 65 and older demographic is Facebook’s fastest growing U.S. audience. Laura Hazard Owen cited a Pew Research Center survey from October that found the proportion of older Americans using the platform has doubled since August 2012.

The same report found that about 50 percent of teenagers still use Facebook — a bigger proportion than older Americans. But they reported using platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat at much higher rates. Perhaps more importantly, teens reported using Facebook the least often of all those platforms.

“If the predominant group sharing fake news on Facebook is the elderly, it is a real problem, because the elderly are becoming the primary users of the platform,” Hazard Owen wrote.

Still, assuming that older people are just more likely to share links on social media might be overly simplistic. Michelle Amazeen, co-author of the Communication Monographs study, said more research needs to be done in this area. But based on both her work and the Science Advances study, she doesn’t think those sharing fake news and fact checks are the same people.

“In our study, in addition to increasing age, what predicted sharing a fact-check was a liberal ideology, people who voted for (Hillary) Clinton in the 2016 election and people who were more likely to use social media for political information seeking,” she told Poynter in an email. “We found that when people shared a fact check, it typically reinforced their attitudes.”

That’s different than the Science Advances study, which found that Republicans were more likely to share fake news stories on Facebook. Researchers attributed that fact to what other studies have found; fake news in 2016 served mostly to promote a win for Donald Trump.

After Amazeen tweeted her study in response, co-author Andrew Guess tweeted back saying he ran a quick analysis of his study sample to see how many people had also shared fact checks from Snopes, PolitiFact and Factcheck.org.

The results: Americans 65 and older shared more fact checks than other groups. But they shared far fewer fact checks than fake news stories — and the people who shared them did not overlap much.