In late October the Columbia Journalism Review and ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day opened a news stand next to Bryant Park in Manhattan that was filled completely with fake news, all of which they had made up. Well, they didn't exactly make up the news; "every headline and story you see there appeared somewhere on the Internet, was heavily promoted on social media, was among the most-read stories when it appeared, and is not true."
"We embarked on this initiative to help people spot disinformation," said Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. "For the first time, we're taking false stories from the digital space into the physical space and placing it directly in the hands of real people. It makes these stories tangible in a way that forces you to think about the source of the information."
The only problem is they put the news stand in the wrong place, in liberal New York City, right next to Salesforce's offices and all the other buildings full of young people working at tech companies in the area. Because a new study published in Science Advances has found that the majority of what we think of as "fake news" is circulated by people who're generally older and more conservative than those at the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. The study authors write:
... our most robust and consistent finding is that older Americans were more likely to share articles from fake news domains. This relationship holds even when we condition on other factors, such as education, party affiliation, ideological self-placement, and overall posting activity.
Casey Newton of the Verge spoke to one of the authors.
"When we bring up the age finding, a lot of people say, 'oh yeah, that's obvious,'" co-author Andrew Guess, a political scientist at Princeton University, told The Verge. "For me, what is pretty striking is that the relationship holds even when you control for party affiliation or ideology. The fact that it's independent of these other traits is pretty surprising to me. It's not just being driven by older people being more conservative."
The authors speculate about the reasons older people do this. They think it might be because of lower levels of digital literacy, or perhaps because of the effects of aging on memory. The data also show that while age is the main factor affecting the sharing of fake news, the bulk of the older people are ideologically more conservative. But the authors don't know precisely what's driving that. "It is possible, for instance, that very conservative Facebook users were exposed to more fake news articles in their networks and that the patterns we observe are not due to differential willingness to believe or share false content across the political spectrum."
We have previously discussed why older people are more conservative, noting that they have "time-tested views, assets they want to protect, and a growing fear of the unknown and unfamiliar." So when you put the two together, you get a lot of older, conservative people sharing a lot more generally conservative fake news.
Perhaps it's time for everyone — of every age — to take a page from the Columbia Journalism Review, to understand where their news comes from. And to think about what they read before they forward it.