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Is fake-news sharing driven by age, not politics?

Researchers say people over 65 are seven times more likely to share fake news than 18 to 29-year-olds.

Who shares fake news?

Following the 2016 US presidential campaign, studies have found that conservatives were more likely to share articles from fake-news domains than were moderates or liberals.

But in a new study of misinformation-sharing on social media during the 2016 campaign, published in Science Advances on Wednesday, researchers say that political leaning doesn’t correlate nearly so strongly with fake-news sharing as does age.

Specifically, it’s old people who are sharing the most fake news.

Researchers at New York and Princeton Universities found that users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as did those in the youngest age group (18-29). The tendency to share fake news steadily increases with age: Facebook users over 65 shared about 2.3 times as many such articles as those in the second-oldest age group (45-65).

Age, in fact, is the best predictor of how Facebook users interact with fake news, above and beyond sex, race, income, education, or how many links they share, the researchers found.

Sharing fake news is actually quite rare

One silver lining: sharing fake news was “quite rare” during the 2016 campaign, the researchers found:

The vast majority of Facebook users in our data did not share any articles from fake news domains in 2016 at all.

This isn’t because survey respondents didn’t share links in general; it’s just that they overwhelmingly chose not to specifically share fake news. Of their respondents, 3.4% of those who opened up their Facebook profile data to the researchers shared 10 or fewer links of any kind during the period of data collection. Far more – 26.1% – shared 10 to 100 links, and even more  – 61.3% – shared 100 to 1000 links.

From the report:

Sharing of stories from fake news domains is a much rarer event than sharing links overall.

Across all ages, only 8.5% of study participants shared at least one link from a fake news site.

Their findings did echo those of earlier studies (such as this one) in that conservative respondents were more likely to share articles from fake news-spreading domains.

The researchers noted that this finding goes along with what other studies have surmised: that fake news helped Trump’s candidacy during the 2016 election.

But again, regardless of political leanings, such sharing increases with age, the researchers found.

Why older people?

The researchers suggested that there are a few factors that could help to explain why older people are more likely to share fake news. For one thing, it could be that those who are over the age of 60 don’t have the level of digital media literacy that younger people do. It’s known as the divide between “digital natives” who grew up with technology and the older “digital immigrants” who’ve had to adopt it. Could it be that digital natives have a better ability to recognize and sidestep dubious content than do older users?

Another theory puts it down to cognitive deterioration with age. As memory goes, so too goes the ability to resist “illusions of truth,” according to such theories. Memory decline is just one of the factors cited by the FBI in a page devoted to fraud against seniors. From that page:

When an elderly victim does report the crime, they often make poor witnesses. Con artists know the effects of age on memory, and they are counting on elderly victims not being able to supply enough detailed information to investigators.


The researchers noted that they didn’t rely on users’ self-reporting of their Facebook actions. That’s because self-reported measures of exposure to political media have been shown to be biased, or, in the words of one study, “plagued with error and questions about validity.”

Rather, the New York and Princeton Universities researchers used what they said was a novel new dataset combining survey responses and “digital trace data” that “overcomes well-known biases in sample selection and self-reports of online behavior.”

In plain English, that means that starting in November 2016, they asked respondents to share information from their Facebook profiles via a Facebook web application that enabled respondents to select what type of information they were willing to share: fields from their public profile, including religious and political views; their own timeline posts, including external links; and what pages they followed.

Out of a panel of 3,500 people, about 49% of the study participants who used Facebook agreed to share their profile data.

Researchers could then check links posted to participants’ timelines against a list of web domains known to have historically shared fake news, compiled by BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman. The researchers also cross-referenced those links against other lists of fake news stories and domains to see whether the results would be consistent.


When I saw the title, I thought it was going to be the opposite, where younger users were more likely to believe fake stories, but I guess growing up with the net trains you not to believe everything on it!


I swayed the other way simply because, in my experience with helping elderly friends and relatives with computer woes over the years, I lost count of the times I was asked “should I click on this” as they pointed to “every” banner ad on “every” webpage – so I can believe it :)


I am 88 years old and have never shared fake news. And as far as I am concerned almost all news is fake. It is just the writer’s perception of what is real.


From what I have read it seems like older voters are more often Republican/conservative. I wonder if that helps account for the difference in the amount of fake news shared by conservatives vs liberals.


It depends on how you define “fake news”. If you include pseudoscience, woo, I’d say it’s all ages and it’s prevalent.


I have a question. How was “fake news” decided and who decided it. I think it is offensive to term people over 65 as “old people” when younger people are using it rather derogatorily. I see rather a lot of news article that are posted as factual by main stream media, that have had to be retracted because they are based on opinions not facts.


I’m not convinced that “young people” have a greater resistance to internet drivel at all :-)


“How was “fake news” decided and who decided it.”
A list of 21 conservative websites curated by Buzzfeed.

No, really, that’s the source.


From the study:

“…we used a list of fake news domains assembled by Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed News, the primary journalist covering the phenomenon as it developed (7). As a robustness check, we constructed alternate measures using a list curated by Allcott and Gentzkow (2), who combined multiple sources across the political spectrum (including some used by Silverman) to generate a list of fake news stories specifically debunked by fact-checking organizations.

“The Silverman list is based on the most-shared web domains during the election campaign as determined by the analytics service BuzzSumo. Silverman and his team followed up their initial results with in-depth reporting to confirm whether a domain appeared to have the hallmark features of a fake news site: lacking a contact page, featuring a high proportion of syndicated content, being relatively new, etc. We took this list and removed all domains classified as “hard news” via the supervised learning technique used by Bakshy et al. (23) to focus specifically on fake news domains rather than the more contested category of “hyperpartisan” sites (such as Breitbart). (The authors used section identifiers in article URLs shared on Facebook that are associated with hard news—“world,” “usnews,” etc.—to train a machine learning classifier on text features. They ultimately produced a list of 495 domains with both mainstream and partisan websites that produce and engage with current affairs.) The resulting list contains 21 mostly pro-Trump domains, including well-known purveyors such as, the Denver Guardian, and Ending the Fed. In analyses using this list, we counted any article from one of these domains as a fake news share. (See below for details on these coding procedures and a list of domains in what we refer to as our main BuzzFeed-based list.)

“The Allcott and Gentzkow list begins with 948 fact checks of false stories from the campaign. We retrieved the domains of the publishers originating the claims and again removed all hard news domains as described above. Then, we coded any article from this set of domains as a fake news article. For robustness, in table S9, we used only exact URL matches to any of the 948 entries in the Allcott and Gentzkow list as a more restrictive definition of fake news, but one that does not require assuming that every article from a “fake news domain” should be coded as fake news. Since the list contains the researchers’ manual coding of the slant of each article, we also presented models analyzing pro-Trump and pro-Clinton fake news sharing activity only.

“Additional lists

“In addition to these primary measures, we report (below) analyses using three supplementary collections of fake news articles produced after the election. Two lists were also produced by Silverman and his team at BuzzFeed (26), and the third is a crowdsourced effort headed by Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College. Our key results are essentially invariant to whatever measure of fake news we use.”


To expand on Lisa’s “Why older people?” paragraph…

Despite the long-lived axiom “don’t believe everything you read,” there was a time not terribly long ago (though eons in Internet years) where one could count on most written material being largely reliable information. Even entities such as The Enquirer (queen-mother and granddaddy of all fake news) and professional wrestling never worked terribly hard to assert their veracity. Everyone knew at some level that it’s a facade.

Fast forward to 2019, where we’re bombarded daily with half-truths, three-quarter-truths, and nothing-but-the-(non)-truths. Further blurring the lines between satire, sarcasm, and reality, the Internet has little distinction correlating to the clearly-delineated editorial sections in newspapers and magazines.

Old habits die hard, and what may seem obvious…unfortunately isn’t.
Hillary Clinton and Joel Osteen profited heavily after orchestrating 9/11.
Donald Trump never really landed on the moon.
Space aliens assassinated JFK.

Will one of these be promoted next week on FB? It’s in print–so it MUST be true.


Most all of the main news outlets in the USA are owned by five or six mega media corporations. So, if their news is not “fake news”, it is at least very likely to be biased news with a corporate or political agenda that aligns with the corporate owners. I really don’t put much faith in anything that I encounter from the mainstream media anymore. But then again, maybe that is their goal?


Note that all the statistics are generated from Facebook data, a self-selected subgroup. I would suggest that the Facebook-avoiding population discriminates sufficiently to be able to distinguish and not promote fake news.

Stated another way, if you’re smart enough to eschew Facebook, you’re smart enough to recognize fake news.

I have never had a Facebook account and never will.

Larry (age 73)


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