Don’t Fall for Fake News

Table of Contents:

  1. What Is Fake News?
  2. How Big Is the Problem?
  3. Spotting Fake News
  4. Fighting Fake News in 2020

Surprising elections, global upheaval, extreme weather, food recalls — the last few years have definitely been newsworthy. Not all news is created equal, however. For all the great journalism out there, the past decade has also seen the production and proliferation of so-called “fake news.”

What Is Fake News?

The term fake news became (very) popular in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. So popular, in fact, that the Oxford English Dictionary selected its close relative “post-truth” as its Word of the Year for 2016. We’ve all heard of it, but what exactly does a piece of fake news look like?

Fake news often takes the form of memes and articles with provocative headlines. Dealing in conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation, fake news provokes an emotional response that might discourage seniors from taking a closer look. More artful fake news will even mimic the style of respected news outlets to appear more legitimate.

How Big Is the Problem?

Not everyone who consumes or shares fake news takes it seriously, but more than enough do. Seniors are especially likely to take an outlandish headline at face value. On average, internet users over 65 share 7 times more fake news than those between the ages of 18 and 25. This is according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Princeton University and New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab.

That doesn’t mean fake news is quite as ubiquitous as the headlines would suggest. The same study found that just 11% of seniors shared fake news during the 2016 election season. With more and more seniors using the internet, however, this could rise fairly quickly over the next half-decade.

The study also cast doubt on the idea that seniors are susceptible to fake news because of partisan or ideological leanings. While Republicans shared far more misleading information than Democrats in 2016, researchers suggest this may have more to do with the abundance of Pro-Trump fake news than any “underlying proclivity to share fake news.”

A few confused internet users can’t sink a candidate or send the world into disarray, but fake news can have very real and serious consequences. The #Pizzagate controversy provides just one extreme example. In October 2016, hackers stole and released emails from Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Manager John Podesta. Fake news stories quickly emerged, pointing to alleged coded messages within the correspondence. In summary, fake news peddlers suggested these messages tied Podesta, Clinton, and other Democratic leaders to a criminal ring operating out of a Washington pizzeria. A North Carolina man took it upon himself to respond by traveling to the restaurant and opening fire. Thankfully, no one was injured.

While this is definitely a worst case scenario for fake news-inspired action, it’s also a reminder that fake news can (and often does) have an offline impact, provoking public distrust and disengagement. When seniors consume fake news, or believe they’ve consumed it, it can make them less likely to seek out additional information in the future or take credible sources seriously.

Spotting Fake News

Seniors cannot let the fear of fake news keep them from accessing information online. Identifying misleading stories is relatively simple and seniors have a growing number of resources at their disposal.

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Harvard offers seniors the following guidelines for identifying fake news stories and social media posts:

1. Assess the publisher’s credibility

Where did this news come from? Review the outlet and author carefully to guarantee that they’re credible. ‘About Us’ sections can help seniors do some extra digging. Typically, these will offer language that might reveal an editorial bias, a nefarious purpose, or even a satirical approach to the news.

2. Look at quality and timeliness

Not every news outlet has sterling editorial standards, but few if any will share content that’s rife with spelling and grammatical errors. Watch out for strange formatting, too. Dependable sources are unlikely to share all-caps headlines or use unusual, eye-catching punctuation above the fold. Some stories, however, are only misleading because they’re out of date. Take care to confirm publication dates to make sure you’re not reading yesterday’s news.

3. Check their sources

Seniors should first check their own sources. Where did the article come from? If it’s from a friend or family member with a history of sharing misleading information, it’s probably a good idea to proceed with caution. While you read, make sure the author has cited credible sources to back up their claims. Even if something isn’t explicitly misleading, a lack of evidence is never a good sign. Seniors should also verify claims with additional sources wherever possible.

4. Consult a professional

It’s never been easier for seniors to do detective work and spot fake news. Sites like FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and Snopes make it quick and easy to spot a scam or sensationalist headline.

Fighting Fake News in 2020

Ahead of November’s election experts around the country are striving to ensure seniors can identify misleading posts and make informed decisions. Americans over 65 make up the biggest chunk of the electorate and, if historical trends hold true, they’ll head to the polls in greater numbers than any other age group.

All the more reason to make sure they can separate fact from fiction. Digital literacy workshops like those hosted by Senior Planet are arming seniors with the digital literacy skills and healthy skepticism they need to avoid becoming unwitting propagandists. This entails both educating seniors on the telltale signs of fake news and ensuring they have the computer know-how to check their sources.

Andrew Guess, an author of Princeton’s study, acknowledges the dual challenge. “People who are not digital natives didn’t grow up online,” as a result, “They are simply more susceptible to the kinds of online content that happened to be weaponized in [the 2016] election.” Hands-on, peer-run classes, like Senior Planet’s, provide the necessary lessons without demonizing seniors who’ve fallen for fake news or condescending to their powers of evaluation.

Elections aren’t the only events that can promote the spread of fake news. The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has seen misinformation pass from person to person like a virus. It’s yet another reminder of how crucial it is to identify credible, dependable sources of information.