Social media doesn’t help people determine what is real and what is fake, but the phrase “fake news” has been used by social scientists to describe fictional articles online and by President Trump himself when he has criticized mainstream media outlets. Facebook FB, -0.02% meanwhile, is struggling to stem the flow of fake news and erroneous memes, and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has said the world’s biggest social-media site is making progress in dealing with the problem.
President Trump’s relationship with the media has been acrimonious from the moment he embarked on his campaign for president. Since then he has labeled news outlets that have reported critically on his administration “fake news.” He has described CNN T, +1.00% NBC CMCSA, -0.67% ABC DIS, +0.12% CBS CBS, +0.10% and the New York Times NYT, +0.08% as “the enemy of the American people.”
The researchers suggest the need for ‘renewed attention’ to educate ‘particular vulnerable individuals,’ such as ageing baby boomers, about fake news.
The good news: Most Facebook users did not share any fake news articles during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, according to a study released Wednesday, but the small number who did were mostly Republican Americans over the age of 65. The findings suggest the need for “renewed attention” to educate “particular vulnerable individuals,” such as aging baby boomers, about fake news or misleading information that appears to resemble a fact-checked news article, researchers said.
So why are Republican baby boomers more likely to share fake news on Facebook? One theory: As they didn’t grow up with technology, they may be more susceptible to being fooled. (Case in point: The grandparent scam gained some success with Americans because of their lack of familiarity with how computers and technology work. One version involves a person pretending to be a computer technology assistant telling them that they must turn on their computer because it has a virus. The computer, invariably, does not.)
Younger Americans who grew up with the internet, whether Republican or Democrat, may be less overwhelmed by stories that cross their newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter TWTR, +2.60% and more adept at spotting tell-tale signs of fake news. “Because of technology, we are inundated by information,” Steven Sloman, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, told NPR last year. “We just don’t have time to separate the facts from the falsities. Even fact-checkers don’t have time. A message can go viral before any serious truth filter has been applied. This leads to a positive feedback cycle.”
Most of the Facebook users who shared fake stories (18%) in 2016 were both self-identified Republicans over the age of 65, a new study claims.
To shed light on the issue in the latest study on who was more likely to share misleading facts on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election, Andrew Guess, an associate professor at Princeton University, and his colleagues disseminated an online survey to 3,500 people in three different waves throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Of the respondents, 1,331 of the initial wave agreed to share their Facebook profile data, which allowed researchers to analyze the age and political affiliations of those people who were more likely to spread fake news.
The results showed that 90% of these users actually did not share the misleading or fake articles and only 8.5% shared one or more fake news articles. Most of the Facebook users who shared the fake stories (18%) were both self-identified Republicans and over the age of 65, the authors concluded, and these individuals shared nearly seven times as many fake news articles than respondents in the youngest age group, those ages 18 to 29.
Boomers are more likely to be conservative and ideological
Another possible explanation: Older Americans may have felt particularly passionate and entrenched in their political views and, therefore, ideological. For instance, the most ideological members of Congress shared news stories on their Facebook pages more than twice as often as moderate legislators between Jan. 2, 2015, and July 20, 2017, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, which examined all official Facebook posts created by members of Congress in this period.
Conservative Republicans made up the largest single partisan and ideological group among boomers, according to the Pew Research Center.
What’s more, baby boomers are more likely to be conservative and ideological, according to data crunched by Pew. “In both 2015 and 2016, about one in 10 baby boomers identified as conservative Republicans — the highest percentages dating back to 2000,” researchers Shiva Maniam and Samantha Smith wrote for Pew. “In both years, conservative Republicans made up the largest single partisan and ideological group among boomers.”
To be fair, older Republicans share more news in general and fake news gets caught up in the mix. Members of Congress with very conservative or very liberal voting records both shared news links in about 14% of all their posts, but members with more moderate ideology scores shared links to news stories in just 6% of their posts, Pew found. Therefore, ideological individuals could share more stories and, simply by their sheer volume, spread more fake stories by accident. (Ideology measures were taken from an analysis of congressional roll call votes compiled by Voteview.com.)
There may also be a political explanation, a trickle-down effect from the president’s own remarks about the liberal media. Older Republicans could feel more emboldened by President Trump’s comments and, as a result, assume stories that support their causes are accurate. The president has doubled down on the mainstream media’s criticism of his administration in recent times. “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and often times false attacks and stories,” Trump said last year.
People are more likely to believe news that jives with their own beliefs
“Confirmation bias” helps outlandish theories and reports gain traction on social media. And that, psychologists say, is where fake news comes in. With so much noise on social media, how can people distinguish between rumor and reality? Psychologists say people develop defense mechanisms to deal with an uncertain world early in life, but this also draws people to information that seems to confirm their own beliefs and worldview and to ignore reports or opinions that contradict their perceptions.
‘The brain is hard-wired to accept, reject, miss-remember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.’
Mark Whitmore, Kent State University
“At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” said Mark Whitmore, assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University’s College of Business Administration. “In fact, one could say the brain is hard-wired to accept, reject, miss-remember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”
Whitmore presented a paper at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Philadelphia with his wife, Eve Whitmore, a developmental psychologist with Western Reserve Psychological Associates in Stow, Ohio. They said parents teach children to role play and when these kids reach adolescence they should have developed critical thinking skills that help them distinguish between what is true and false, especially when they read news on social media.
However, many people effectively rationalize the irrational in order to avoid going against what values and ideas that were taught to them by their parents. “Children’s learning about make-believe and mastery becomes the basis for more complex forms of self-deception and illusion into adulthood,” Eve Whitmore said. When people are faced with absurd and conflicting messages, her husband added, “It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality.”
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