Older Americans, particularly those over the age of 65, were far more likely to share links to fake news articles on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election than any other age group, according to a new study conducted jointly by researchers at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab.
The study, which examined the individual demographics associated with fake news stories shared during the 2016 election, found that Facebook users over 65 were more than twice as likely as those in the second-oldest age group (45 to 65 years old) to share links to phony news domains, sharing an average of 0.75 fake articles compared to 0.26 fake articles shared by those ages 45-65.
Compared to the youngest age group surveyed (Facebook users ages 18-29), those over 65 were, on average, nearly seven times more likely to share fake news content.
According to the study, older Facebook users were consistently more likely to share phony news stories, even when controlling for factors such as education, ideology and partisanship. “No other demographic characteristic seems to have a consistent effect on sharing fake news, making our age finding that much more notable,” the study said in its report.
Average number of fake news shares, broken down by age group.
“These findings pose a challenge and an opportunity for social scientists,” the report concluded. “When an empirical relationship such as the one documented here emerges, we are challenged to view demographic traits not as controls to be ignored but as central explanatory factors above and beyond the constructs standard in the literature. This is especially the case with age, as the largest generation in America enters retirement at a time of sweeping demographic and technological change.”
The report goes on to posit that “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 also discovered that those identifying as conservatives — particularly those identifying as “very conservative” — were far more likely to share fake content than liberals or moderates. On average, 18 percent of Republicans during the 2016 campaign shared links to fake sites, the overwhelming majority of which held a pro-Trump slant, compared to only 3.5 percent of those identifying as Democrats. Self-described independents shared about as much fake news as Republicans.
Finally, the practice of sharing fake news content appears to remain a relatively rare phenomenon. The study discovered that only 8.5 percent of respondents shared at least one fake link on their Facebook feeds. Moreover, respondents who generally shared the most links overall were less likely to share fake news content, dispelling the notion that fake news sharing is a phenomenon that occurs as a result of some respondents’ habit to “share anything.”
The Princeton/NYU report, which was published this week in open-access scientific journal Science Advances, polled 3,500 respondents in 2016 through a survey fielded by online market research firm YouGov. More than a third of those surveyed (1,331) agreed to allow access to their private Facebook profile data for the purpose of discovering what kind of content they shared. The links users posted to external websites were then cross-referenced against several lists of fake news domains, including a list of the most-shared fake sites used during the 2016 election campaign, assembled by BuzzFeed News.