Fake News! A Cognitive Perspective on the Spread of Misinformation Among Older Adults

Written by Alexis Duke and Mary Whatley

Living in the “Age of Information” has gifted us with access to a world of knowledge at our fingertips. However, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

A popular buzzword that has been used more and more frequently amidst today’s heated political climate and the COVID-19 pandemic has been “fake news,” which is more formally known as misinformation.

Misinformation, or incorrect or misleading information (Merriam-Webster, n.d.), is also defined as “entirely fabricated and often partisan content presented as factual” (Pennycook, 2018). Researchers have found that misinformation has not only become more frequent, especially during presidential election years (Vosoughi et al., 2018), but has negatively influenced people’s health behaviors during the pandemic, like adherence to mask-wearing protocol (Rothwell & Desai, 2020). Worst of all, misinformation has been found to spread faster than true information on social media (Vosoughi et al., 2018).

Analyzing the rise of misinformation and its effects requires a closer look at the demographics of people who spread and consume it. Older adults are disproportionately affected by “fake news.” According to a YouGov poll conducted in 2018, 44% of adults over 65 reported falling for fake news (Marzilli, 2018). This issue extends further than mere belief, however, and older adults are also more prone to exacerbating the problem by sharing misinformation. One study found that even after controlling for political affiliation, social media users over age 65 shared almost seven times as many fake news sources as 18-29 year-olds (Guess, 2019).

What makes older adults more susceptible to misinformation? And how can understanding this psychology help us develop better ways to prevent the spread of and belief in misinformation?

In a recent review paper, researchers proposed several ways that older adults’ cognition differs from younger adults and how this can affect their perception and belief in fake news (Brashier & Schacter, 2020). 

One explanation is source memory deficits. Source memory is memory for the details about how, when, or where information was learned. When we see information online or in the news, it is always paired with a news source, name of someone who shared it, or other source information. However, when we forget that information, we may also be worse at deciding whether it is reliable. Additionally, people of all age groups perceive information as truer the more often they hear it, regardless of its actual validity; however, as age increases, source memory tends to get worse (Brashier & Schacter, 2020). Over time, older adults may remember the information, but forget whether it was true or false. This means that older adults are more likely to believe headlines and information they see often, even if it’s in the context of failing a fact check or being disproved.

This was corroborated in a study done by Skurnik and colleagues, where younger adults and older adults were presented with information flagged as true or false either one time or multiple times. Younger adults’ accuracy in identifying false information increased with repetition, but older adults experienced the opposite effect, where information flagged as false was more likely to be believed as true if it was repeated multiple times (Skurnik et al., 2005).

However, older adults do have a cognitive advantage over younger adults. Another study found that the ability to accurately categorize headlines as real or fake without repetition increased with age, suggesting that older adults are able to reflect on their larger pool of knowledge and experience to judge the veracity of new information (Allcot, 2017). Issues in judgment tend to arise when the details fade, and older adults begin to rely more on fluency, or how familiar something is, because their source memory is compromised.

Brashier and Schacter (2020) stress that susceptibility to misinformation cannot only be attributed to cognitive deficits. Another reason that has been proposed to explain older adults’ attitudes towards misinformation is the increase in interpersonal trust that comes with aging (Poulin & Haase, 2015), even when the other person has lied in the past (Slessor, 2014). Older adults have been found to place a higher value on relationships than accuracy or accrual of information. This can lead people to unintentionally suspend their critical judgment to connect with others online, creating the perfect environment for the spread of misinformation (Brashier & Schacter, 2020).

Additionally, this tendency of trusting others makes older adults worse at detecting when people lie to them. Several studies have determined that older adults detect fewer liars than younger adults (Stanley & Blanchard-Fields, 2018), and their performance gets worse when judging the truthfulness of same-age peers (Slessor, 2014). In terms of social media, misinformation can bypass older adults’ aforementioned intuition if they view its source as truthful.

So how can we use this information to improve older adults’ assessment of news they see online?

Guess and colleagues designed a digital media literacy intervention with these things in mind to help educate people on how to detect fake news. Researchers distributed a set of “tips” to a representative sample of US citizens that ranged from approaching news with a skeptical mindset to taking the time to investigate the trustworthiness of the source. These suggestions aimed to bypass the cognitive tendencies outlined above, namely overreliance on fluency or automatically trusting where the information came from. The results of this campaign were impressive—participants improved in determining fake from real news by 26.5% immediately after the intervention, and this effect persisted after a several week delay (Guess, 2020).

Although this study wasn’t specifically targeted to improve discernment of misinformation in older adults, it shows that it is possible to develop an intervention that targets the heuristics that make fake news so prolific.

Considering that older adults make up the highest portion of the US voting electorate—52% of registered voters are age 50 and older (Gramlich, 2020)—and are most at risk for contracting COVID-19 (CDC, 2021), it is important to consider the role of news (and fake news) in influencing their behaviors. Furthermore, understanding the reasons as to why this population is so susceptible to misinformation is critical to developing effective solutions to this problem.

Works Cited: 

Allcot, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211–236. doi:10.1257/jep.31.2.211

Brashier, N. M., & Schacter, D. L. (2020). Aging in an era of fake news. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(3), 316-323. doi:10.1177/0963721420915872

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 17). Covid-19 guidance for older adults. Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/aging/covid19-guidance.html

Gramlich, J. (2020, December 30). What the 2020 electorate looks like by Party, race and ethnicity, age, education and religion. Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/26/what-the-2020-electorate-looks-like-by-party-race-and-ethnicity-age-education-and-religion/

Guess, A. M., Lerner, M., Lyons, B., Montgomery, J. M., Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., & Sircar, N. (2020). A digital media literacy intervention increases discernment between mainstream and false news in the United States and India. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(27), 15536-15545. doi:10.1073/pnas.1920498117

Guess, A., Nagler, J., & Tucker, J. (2019). Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on facebook. Science Advances, 5(1). doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau4586

Marzilli, T. (2018, June 13). Old and young US adults most susceptible to fake news. Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://today.yougov.com/topics/media/articles-reports/2018/06/13/old-and-young-us-adults-most-susceptible-fake-news

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Misinformation. Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/misinformation

Pennycook, G., Cannon, T. D., & Rand, D. G. (2018). Prior exposure increases perceived accuracy of fake news. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 147(12), 1865–1880. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000465

Poulin, M. J., & Haase, C. M. (2015). Growing to trust: Evidence that trust increases and sustains well-being across the life span. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6), 614–621. doi:10.1177/1948550615574301

Rothwell, J., & Desai, S. (2020, December 30). How misinformation is Distorting COVID policies and behaviors. Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/how-misinformation-is-distorting-covid-policies-and-behaviors/

Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., Park, D. C., & Schwarz, N. (2005). How warnings about false claims become recommendations. Journal of Consumer Research, 31(4), 713–724. doi:10 .1086/426605

Slessor, G., Phillips, L. H., Ruffman, T., Bailey, P. E., & Insch, P. E. (2014). Exploring own-age biases in deception detection. Cognition & Emotion, 28(3), 493–506. doi:10.1080/ 02699931.2013.839438 

Stanley, J. T., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (2008). Challenges older adults face in detecting deceit: The role of emotion recognition. Psychology and Aging, 23(1), 24–32. doi:10 .1037/0882-7974.23.1.24

Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146-1151. doi:10.1126/science.aap9559