Getting Too Much Fake News on Facebook? Blame Your Conservative Grandparents

Researchers at Princeton and NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab examined the individual-level characteristics associated with sharing false articles on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Here were some of the results:

  • first and foremost, sharing content was a relatively rare activity. Roughly 1 in 12 users shared fake news stories.
  • Those who shared the most content, in general, were less likely to share articles from fake news, suggesting that more experienced users are better able to discern fake news stories
  • the majority of the fake news domains were pro-Trump/anti-Clinton
  • Those over 65 shared an average of 0.75 fake news articles, more than twice as many as those in the second-oldest age group (45-65) and nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group (18-29)
  • 18.1% of Republicans versus 3.5% of Democrats in the sample shared at least one fake news story
  • Conservatives were more likely to share articles from fake news domains, than liberals or moderates. Conservatives shared an average of .75 articles, while those who identified as very conservative shared on average one article.
  • none of the other demographic variables in the model—sex, race, education, and income, showed any significant effect on the likelihood of sharing fake news

The researchers note that given the overwhelming pro-Trump orientation in both the supply and consumption of fake news during that period, including via social pathways on Facebook, the finding that more conservative respondents were more likely to share articles from fake news–spreading domains is perhaps expected. They found the impact of age more puzzling: Holding constant ideology (conservative/liberal), party identification (Republican/Democrat/Independent), or both, respondents in each age category were more likely to share fake news than respondents in the next-youngest group, and the gap in the rate of fake news sharing between those in our oldest category (over 65) and youngest category (18-29) is large and notable.

The researchers believe that two potential explanations warrant further investigation.

First, following research in sociology and media studies, it is possible that an entire cohort of Americans, now in their 60s and beyond, lacks the level of digital media literacy necessary to reliably determine the trustworthiness of news encountered online. Thus, there is a need to enhance the digital literacy of the elderly.

A second possibility, drawn from cognitive and social psychology, suggests a general effect of aging on memory. Under this account, memory deteriorates with age in a way that particularly undermines resistance to “illusions of truth”.

While I have vague recollections of what my news feed was like in the days and weeks leading up to the 2016 election (I’m trying to block that whole time period out of my memory), I seem to recall seeing a greater number of shared posts that were pro-Trump/anti-Clinton. In fact, it was such a post that led me to block someone on Facebook for the first, and only, time.

So if you are concerned with the spread of fake news on Facebook, the solution seems simple. Just block all your conservative friends over the age of 65.

Fortunately, I’m safe on both counts – I’m 61 and a liberal Democrat, as I revealed last week.

So if you wnat to block me on Facebook, you’re going to have to find another reason – like getting these daily updates every single day…

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