A senior center in Maryland offers a workshop on identifying “fake news,” NPR reported. Seniors learn to prevent dubious sites from taking advantage of them by becoming acquainted with reputable fact-checking sites and other online tools. Misinformation is a major ongoing threat today.
The NPR article said that schools added digital literacy to their curriculum following Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but similar programs at senior centers could also be a vital counterpart to the meddling. According to a Princeton study linked to in the NPR article, Facebook users over the age of 65 shared seven times as much “fake news” as users ages 18 to 29. One cause may be because seniors didn’t grow up being online, learning how to recognize the cues of misinformation as younger generations have.
“[Stanford University researcher Susan] Nash says confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms prior beliefs, can also get stronger with age,” the article said. “Isolation can be a factor too, meaning seniors are more likely to be alone, perusing the internet and hitting the share button.”
The damage that misinformation does to personal relationships, elections, and international relations extends beyond what we’d likely believe.
Why We React to Shocking News
The misinformation machine depends partly on the strong, visceral reaction we have when we read disturbing or otherwise shocking news. So why does this happen?
“Under tense circumstances, when we perceive that we or our loved ones are in danger, the body’s stress responses kick in, readying us to function in a life-threatening situation,” said Tara Susman-Peña, Senior Technical Expert at IREX’s Center for Applied Learning and Impact. “The part of the brain that activates this response—the amygdala—can’t tell the difference between a lion that might attack us and a scary text. The physiological response to both is the same: We narrow our focus to concentrate on survival.”
Unfortunately, Susman-Peña said, this narrowing of focus limits our rational and logical brain functions as well.
“This makes it easier for us to miss critical details that would help us identify the inaccuracy or even falseness of information.”
There’s a clear difference between immediate danger and, for example, reading that a presidential candidate secretly wants to implement this policy or that. However, our reaction to the latter can still narrow our focus and make us forget to fact-check the source of information.
In February 2017, Claire Wardle wrote an article on misinformation for Medium.com, which identified seven types of misinformation. Susman-Peña cited this article as providing a “helpful taxonomy” to understand the subject. Wardle’s list reads as follows.
“Satire” or “parody” has no intention to cause harm but has potential to fool. “Misleading content” is a misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual. “Impostor content” happens when genuine sources are impersonated. “Fabricated content” is when new content is 100 percent false, designed to deceive and do harm.
A “false connection” is when headlines, visuals, or captions don’t support the content. “False context” is when genuine content is shared with false contextual information. Finally, “manipulated content” occurs when genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive.
“More often than not, perhaps, true elements mix with false elements to create a confusing and powerful piece of misinformation,” Susman-Peña said. She also identified two further points related to misinformation: hate speech and propaganda.
“Hate speech can fall into any of these types of content,” she said. “Hate speech is bigoted content that attacks a person or identity group based on that identity, whether race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other attributes.”
According to Susman-Peña, propaganda aims to manipulate people’s beliefs towards a specific idea or perspective. “For example, that a particular identity group is not to be trusted,” she said. “It’s a form of disinformation which involves deliberate falsehoods intended to cause harm. Today, disinformation is used to sow distrust, polarization, and animosity.”
Any time any of us read news online or sees it on television, we would benefit from putting it up to a good, old-fashioned sniff test before passing it on. Fact-checking, avoiding confirmation bias, and taking a moment before reacting can save us from being unwilling patsies of passing along misinformation.
Tara Susman-Peña contributed to this article. Susman-Peña is Senior Technical Expert in IREX’s Center for Applied Learning and Impact and in the Information & Media practice. She has an M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology from Columbia University and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Yale University.