Over-65s Spread the Most Fake News During 2016 Election: Study

Fake News, Facebook, Twitter, Social Media, 2016 Election, Donald Trump
The Facebook logo is displayed at the 2018 CeBIT technology trade fair on June 12, 2018 in Hanover, Germany. Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Age was a key factor in the spread of so-called "fake news" across social media in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, according to a new study about misinformation on Facebook.

Americans over the age of 65, academics reported Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, shared fake news—false information packaged like a legitimate news article—more often than any other age group.

Read more: Fox News host delivers actual fake news about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's plan to tax the super rich

Researchers from Princeton University, New Jersey, and New York University, tallied up article "shares" on the Facebook profiles of more than 1,300 respondents.

They marked out articles published on "fake news" domains—working from a list adapted from a Buzzfeed article by Craig Silverman and other sources—and analyzed who was sharing them.

The authors found that 8.5 percent of the accounts they examined had shared fake news, an "overwhelming" amount of which supported now-President Donald Trump. The researchers called fake news spreading "a relatively rare activity."

Republicans and Independents shared far more fake news articles than Democrats, but the authors argue this might reflect sheer volume of pro-Trump fake news articles available online.

Independent of political ideology, those aged 65 or older shared almost seven times as many fake news articles as younger users. The researchers speculate this might be symptomatic of a lack of digital literacy, for example. "A lot of people seem to think that the age finding is intuitive," study author Andrew Guess of Princeton University told Newsweek. "To me, at least, it's surprising that the age effect holds independent of ideology and partisan identification."

It is a shame the authors didn't further investigate why age was such an important factor, said Kevin Korb, who specializes in computer simulation—not fake news—at Monash University in Australia. " The age finding is worth actually explaining, as the authors say," he told Newsweek. "But they don't do any explaining."

The most valuable data on fake news, perhaps, is left untackled by this research. " What's of genuine potential interest here is the degree to which spreading fake news influences opinion. However, that is left unmeasured," Korb said. Cataloging the number of fake news websites shared isn't the same thing as measuring the effects of misinformation. "It doesn't wash," he added.

Only a very small "infection" of misinformation, Korb said, is needed to "massively degrade communications." But the effects of fake news "are left unmeasured" in this study.

Korb also questioned the motivations of the authors. They call claims that misinformation may have impacted the outcome of the 2016 general election "far-fetched."

"This is dubious, to say the least, in view of the strong documentation of a targeted disinformation campaign and the fact the election was swung by a small number of votes in three states, which were specifically targeted," Korb said.

Korb's Monash colleague Carlos Kopp—with whom he has modeled the spread of fake news— praised the study for its "rigorous" attempt to study Facebook sharing behaviors—a platform studied less than Twitter.

"It carefully dissects [its] results by political party preferences and age demographics—this has not been attempted previously," Kobb, who has been researching information warfare and deception modeling since the 1990s, told Newsweek.

But the study left him wanting, too. Beyond these results, he argued a more "perverse" kind of fake news remains relatively understudied: misinformation reported by "ostensibly hard news media."

Study author Guess agrees. "The media hasn't spent enough time looking at falsehoods spread via mainstream news organizations and political actors," he told Newsweek. "That said, the concern about concerted disinformation campaigns is a legitimate one that raises serious questions about democracy... It's important to get the descriptive facts right so that potential solutions are adequately focused."

Understanding exactly how fake news actually affects its readers, Kopp said, is tough to measure. Lots of fake news doesn't always equal lots of effect. "Critically thinking or skeptical audience members will reject the fake news and conclude the source is either dishonest, clueless or lazy. Gullible audience members will swallow the deception, and either change their beliefs or become uncertain about existing beliefs," he surmised.