Older Adults Aren't More Susceptible to Fall for Fake News

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A study finds the ability to detect fake news was comparable between young and older adults.

Older adults are no more likely to believe fake news than younger adults, with age-related susceptibility to deceptive news evident only among those categorized as the “oldest old.”

Not being able to distinguish fake news from real news can have serious consequences for a person’s physical, emotional, and financial well-being—especially for older adults, who in general have more financial assets and must make more high-stakes health decisions.

The research, conducted during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the first to delineate the role of analytical reasoning, affect, and news consumption frequency on detection of fake news in older adults across a broad age range as well as in direct comparison to young adults.

“We wanted to see if there was an age difference in determining whether news is true versus false,” says lead author Didem Pehlivanoglu, a postdoctoral researcher in the psychology department at the University of Florida.

“We specifically wanted to look at this because we know that with aging most people show some decline in their cognitive abilities. But we also know some information processing abilities are preserved or even improved.”

OLDER ADULTS CAN SPOT FAKE NEWS

The research is scant regarding older adults’ susceptibility to fake news and what factors might aid or impair a person’s ability to judge the veracity of information. Raising concern, some previous work suggested that older adults shared false information over social media more often than did young adults during the 2016 presidential election.

And the dramatic increase in misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened concern, given that the virus has been particularly.

“People have this perception that older adults are going to perform worse than young adults across the board but that is not the case,” says Brian Cahill, a psychology professor and coauthor of the study.

While many people show cognitive decline as they age, it is also true that with age comes a broader knowledge base, more life experience and, often, more positive affect. As a group, older adults also tend to consume more news than younger adults. These factors may filter and contextualize information processing in older adults.

The researchers conducted the study between May and October of 2020. The older adults ranged in age from 61 to 87 years and the younger adults were college students.

In the study, participants read and evaluated 12 full-length news articles about COVID and non-COVID topics, with six real and six fake stories in each category. After reading an article, researchers asked participants such questions as whether the article was real or fake and how confident they were in their decision.

The researchers then measured the participants’ analytical reasoning skills, affect, and news consumption frequency.

They found that the ability to detect fake news was comparable between young and older adults. Determining an article was fake was related to individual differences in analytical reasoning skills for both age groups. Also, both young and older adults showed a lower ability to detect fake COVID news compared to everyday fake news, which may reflect low familiarity with information related to COVID at the beginning of the pandemic.

‘OLDEST OF THE OLD’ MAY HAVE TROUBLE

Importantly, however, the more elderly older adults—that is those individuals age 70 years or older—showed a reduced ability to detect fake news, whether about COVID or another topic, and that decreased ability was associated with levels of analytical reasoning, affect, and news consumption frequency.

Adults in the 70+ age group who had greater positive affect and who frequently consumed news were most likely to engage in “shallow” information processing, including not looking as closely at information or paying attention to details.

It may only be in very late old age, at a time in life when declines in cognitive abilities cannot be compensated for any more by gains in life experience and world knowledge that individuals become particularly vulnerable to deception via misinformation and fake news, the researchers say in the study.

“It is a particularly high-risk population with high stakes for wrong decision making, not just for themselves but also for society at large,” says coauthor Natalie Ebner, a psychology professor.

The findings have the potential to influence design of decision-supportive interventions to enhance news communication and reduce misinformation across the lifespan and in aging, the researchers say.

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