The devious brilliance of fake news is that its consumers also eagerly serve as its distributors. A propagandist, whether based at home or abroad, merely has to feed a social network such as Twitter or Facebook. Credulous recipients take it from there, passing the misinformation along to their friends.
Getting a handle on this democracy-endangering dynamic will require learning more about who, exactly, spreads false information. New research points to one group of Americans that was disproportionately responsible for it during the 2016 campaign: senior citizens.
"The oldest Americans, especially those over 65, were more likely to share fake news with their Facebook friends," writes a research team led by Princeton University political scientist Andrew Guess. "On average, users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake-news domains as the youngest age group."
The researchers, writing in the journal Science Advances, conducted a panel survey at three points during the 2016 campaign (in April, September, and just before Election Day). Participants were asked to share information from their Facebook profiles, and 1,191 (about 44 percent of the total sample) agreed to do so.
Their history of sharing stories was then compared to two separate lists of "fake news" websites, including one created by Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed News. Researchers noted whether and how often each person shared an item from any of the 21 sites.
"Overall, sharing articles from fake news domains was a rare activity," they report. "We find some evidence that the most conservative users were more likely to share this content"—an unsurprising result, given that the majority of these items had a pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton orientation.
More surprising was the one demographic characteristic associated with problematic sharing of fraudulent articles: old age.
"Those over 65 shared ... more than twice as many [fake stories] as those in the second-oldest age group," the researchers report. What's more, the older group's disproportionate tendency to engage in such activity remained true even after education, ideology, and political partisanship were taken into account.
Guess and his colleagues offer two possible explanations. "First," they write, "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."
Second, the findings could reflect the "general effect of aging on memory." They note there is some evidence that "memory deteriorates with age in a way that particularly undermines resistance to 'illusions of truth.'"
Determining the precise causes behind the spread of fake news, or combination of causes, and designing interventions to counteract them, should be a top priority as we head into a new presidential election cycle. It's understandable when grandparents spoil their grandchildren, but spoiling our elections is another matter entirely.