Age, not politics, is biggest predictor of who shares fake news on Facebook, study finds

Researchers wrote that "it is possible an entire cohort of Americans ... lacks the level of digital media literacy necessary" to separate fact from fiction online.
A new study from Princeton University found that people 65 years of age and over are seven times more likely to share fake news than those aged 18-29.PeopleImages / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Ben Popken

The biggest predictor of whether someone will share fake news isn’t their political affiliation — it’s their age.

A new study from researchers at Princeton University and New York University released on Wednesday found that people 65 years of age and over are seven times more likely to share fake news than those aged 18-29.

“Political scientists tend to favor explanations based on stable, deeply held partisan or ideological predispositions,” the study’s authors wrote. “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.”

The study examined the data of 1,331 respondents who agreed to share fields from their public Facebook profile along with their timeline posts, external links and likes. The researchers looked for links to a list of narrowly defined fake news sites and a list of fake news sites debunked by fact checking organizations. The researchers didn’t measure links to contested “hyperpartisan” websites, such as conservative media outlet Breitbart.

While age proved to be the best predictor of who shared what was determined to be fake news, researchers also found conservative users were more likely to share fake news. Accelerated by algorithms that sort news based on user preferences, social media users tend to share news that reflects their existing beliefs, a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias,” and they make posts that affirm and signal their identity, [the report found/past reports have found].

“We find some evidence that the most conservative users were more likely to share this content—the vast majority of which was pro-Trump in orientation—than were other Facebook users,” the researchers wrote. “Our most robust finding is that the oldest Americans, especially those over 65, were more likely to share fake news to their Facebook friends. This is true even when holding other characteristics—including education, ideology, and partisanship—constant.”

“No other demographic characteristic seems to have a consistent effect on sharing fake news,” the researchers wrote.

The study adds to findings from other surveys about the generational differences between Americans and their abilities to parse fact from fiction online. A recent Pew Research Center analysis found that younger Americans are better than older Americans at telling factual news statements from opinions. When presented with five factual statements and five opinion statements, only 20 percent of those over 50 years of age correctly categorized all statements, versus 32 percent of those 18-49.

“Those who are more digitally savvy, have more trust in news, and keep up more with current events did far better in being able to identify factual statements in news,” said Amy Mitchell, Pew’s director of journalism research.

Older people are also often disproportionately targeted and affected by scams of all kinds, according to the Federal Trade Commission, the government regulatory body. Researchers suggest part of the reason may be that older people experience changes in parts of their brain associated with memory and govern decision-making and fear, which could leave them more susceptible to fraud.

The study didn’t measure whether individuals were more likely to share fake news because they were elderly, or if the rise of the internet has left the current generation of older Americans lacking the same digital savvy of younger people who grew up online.

“Within this cohort, lower levels of digital literacy could be compounded by the tendency to use social endorsements as credibility,” the authors wrote. “If true, this would imply a growing impact as more Americans from older age groups join online social communities. “

The authors of the study pointed to the power of tech platforms as a possible solution, noting that with the help of academic researchers they “could reduce the spread of misinformation by those most vulnerable to deceptive content.”

Heidi Julien, chair of the information sciences department at the University at Buffalo, said the U.S. is facing a profound digital media literacy skills gap that only gets worse among older populations.

Julien said this has major implications for political and social futures as news and information consumption increasingly moves online.

“It’s a national crisis and must be addressed at the federal level,” Julien told NBC News. But, “I don’t think it will be under this administration, which in some ways benefits from these very trends.”

Ben Popken

Ben Popken is an NBC News Senior Business reporter.