Older Americans believe 'fake news' on social media at overwhelming rates -- and there's a scientific reason for it: report
Older man loosens collar in embarrassment (Shutterstock)

An Oxford study published in July found that the baby boomer generation was showing signs of cognitive decline earlier than previous generations -- and it wasn't all related to dementia.

“Older adults consume more misinformation and are more likely to share misinformation,” Briony Swire-Thompson, a senior research scientist at Northeastern University who specializes in social media networks, told The Huffington Post. In fact, social media users over the age of 65 shared more fake news than any other age group and seven times more than users between the ages of 18 and 29. The Huffington Post reported that President Donald J. Trump has so far "dedicated almost half of his reelection campaign budget to Facebook ads — many of which include blatant misinformation — to users over 65 years old."

One-in-five Americans will be over the age of 65 by 2030. Researchers say that by 2060 that same ratio will be one-in-four. Older adults reportedly obtained the majority of their news from social media -- jumping from 8 percent to 40 percent over the past 10 years. "Facebook, one of America’s primary delivery devices for partisan, misleading and outright false information, is growing fastest among people over 50. Meanwhile, the percentage of teens reporting Facebook use fell from 71% in 2014 to 51% in 2018," according to The Huffington Post.

Data derived from a 2012 study found that participants were more likely to believe that “the first windmills were built in Persia” if the statement appeared alongside a photo of windmills than if it appeared on a black background. This statement was not exclusive to the elderly population; the pictorial phenomenon affected young people roughly equally.

Another study showed that older adults appear to have a harder time distinguishing authentic news from sponsored content, spotting manipulated images and separating factual information from opinion. In a 2019 survey, just 18% of Facebook users over 65 understood that the social media network used an algorithm to organize their feeds and deliver recommendations.

“Suddenly my dad who had worked his whole life had nothing to do,” David, who preferred to not publish his last name, said. “So this 52-year-old man who had never used a computer gets on YouTube. That’s when the algorithms got to work on him.”

David’s father began posting conspiracy theory videos ranging in everything from Bigfoot to political news like Hillary Clinton and her so-called pedophile ring, George Soros and his global network of secret banks, and so on.

“A lot of it was blatantly anti-Semitic,” David said. “We’re Jewish, but I don’t think my dad is knowledgeable enough to understand the dog whistles.”

David and his father fought over text messages and Facebook Messenger before they stopped speaking altogether. Two years later, David's father sent him an email with a video of a former self-described liberal who had turned conservative. David said he felt like his father has "been indoctrinated into a cult.”

“In surveys and lab studies, we often find that older adults are more discerning — they’re better at sorting true from false information than younger people,” Nadia Brashier, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, said. “However, something happens when they log on to Twitter or Facebook that disengages them from analytic thinking.”

Social media amplifies what researchers call the “illusory truth effect” — meaning the more times you hear something, the more you believe it to be true. For example, if you see the same statistic on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you’ll probably believe it, whether it is actually true or not.

“In an ideal world, we would prevent people from seeing misinformation in the first place,” Brashier said.