In our modern age dominated by digital information and social media , seniors and just older adults in general find themselves facing an ever-changing online environment filled with misinformation. The proliferation of online scams, robocalls, and misleading Facebook posts pose a unique problem for this population that may be less sophisticated and more vulnerable to digital manipulation,(especially during a heated political election season). Understanding their experiences is key to developing effective strategies to combat misinformation and protect this population and their online interactions.

“During the 2016 US election, older adults’ Twitter feeds contained the most fake news; over 2% of their exposures to political URLs came from fake news sites (e.g., InfoWars), compared to less than 1% of young adults’ exposures…users over 50 were also overrepresented among “supersharers,” a group responsible for 80% of fake news shares”(Aging in an Era of Fake News).

This statistic, now several years old, is glaringly alarming. It was a snapshot from the presidential election year in 2016, when Trump won his presidential contest. Misinformation was running rampant and older adults were falling for it by leaps and bounds ahead of all other age groups.

Facebook, hailed by founder Mark Zuckerberg as a platform for meaningful social connection, has become a fertile breeding ground for misinformation and disinformation. Misleading posts masquerading as news articles flood users’ news feeds, often occluding the line between fact and fiction. Older adults, often relying on Facebook for timely news and updates from friends and family, may unwittingly share false information they see on a post, thus virally perpetuating its spread. The lack of quality fact-checking mechanisms and algorithmic bias can further amplify the problem, creating what I call echo chambers of doom and gloom, where misinformation thrives. I use the moniker “echo chambers of doom and gloom” because fear is the root tactic used to target seniors especially. If you can scare them into voting a certain way, then your job was accomplished.

I found this to be very interesting. In a study from Science Advances titled “…Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook”, “Conservatives were more likely to share articles from fake news domains, which in 2016 were largely pro-Trump in orientation, than liberals or moderates…we also find a strong age effect, which persists after controlling for partisanship and ideology: On average, users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group” ( I think this goes back to the fear factor and a feedback look mechanism. A bad actor acting in bad faith scares or alarms seniors about something that isn’t happening or something that’s rarely happening. They stir the pot and whip up a frenzy so the user will read the piece or watch the video, get riled up, and hit the share button or repost it– and then the vicious cycle repeats.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company has done a lot since the 2016 election and has been quicker at taking down misinformation posts and removing it from the platform, but that can’t be said for Twitter, now known as X. In a piece last year on CNN entitled, “X has ditched a political misinformation reporting feature, researchers say” The move was first spotted by an Australia-based digital policy think tank, Reset Australia. “There now appears to be no channel to report electoral misinformation when discovered on your platform,” the letter from Reset Australia states. “It is extremely concerning that Australians would lose the ability to report serious misinformation weeks away from a major referendum.”

We have to remember that this is a global issue, it’s not limited to seniors in the United States, as all social media platofrms are global as well. X seems to be uninterested in helping to curb misinformation being spread on its site, since Elon Musk took over the platform. A topic for another post.

So how do we combat misinformation for the more vulnerable senior population?

It essentially requires an all-hands-on-deck approach encompassing education, some regulation, and better technological innovation. Families need to be involved as well to help educate their older loved ones about the dangers and pitfalls of online predators.

Online digital literacy programs tailored specifically to seniors and older adults can empower them with the critical skills needed to better evaluate online content and identify potential red flags that could lead one to share a story that was not true.

Something that lawmakers could do lies in the realm of regulatory measures that target the dissemination of false or misleading information, and holding social media platforms accountable for their role in amplifying lies would be extremely helpful in curbing its spread. Furthermore, advancements in artificial intelligence and blockchain technology do hold promise for detecting and mitigating deep fakes and other forms of digital deception.

I was going to discuss the role of deep fakes and their potential to cause even further chaos online during election years, but that could be a blog entry on its own.

As we navigate this hectic election cycle in the digital age, safeguarding older adults and seniors from misinformation on social media needs to be viewed as paramount. They are one of the largest voting segments and why they seem to be targeted and manipulated by so many.

By understanding their unique online experiences and addressing the specific deficits and challenges they face while online, we can promote a digital environment built on trust and accuracy. Through concentrated efforts across society, collectively we can empower older adults to navigate the digital maze with confidence and strength, ensuring that misinformation does not undermine their well-being or erode the fabric of our society.

This is something we can all take part in, as we all have older adults in our lives. We need to communicate with them. We need to talk to them. Communication will always be the key to successful outcomes.

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