The last time they spoke, John’s father accused him of being part of the deep state.
They have never exactly gelled politically — John, 38, is an executive at a left-wing think tank and his father is a lifelong reader of the New York Post — but there was a time when they could at least work through their disagreements. When he was an aide to a Democratic legislator during the debate over health care reform, John kept a big yellow copy of the Affordable Care Act in his living room.
“When my dad started talking about all the terrible things that would happen if it passed, I would read him the actual sections of the bill,” John said. (Some of the sources in this article asked HuffPost to use pseudonyms to preserve a semblance of family comity.) “That shut a lot of it down.”
But appealing to reality doesn’t work anymore. Since Donald Trump’s election, John watched his 67-year-old father’s Facebook feed fill with links to Fox News and Breitbart, then more radical websites like Gateway Pundit and Russia Today. By 2017, his father had graduated to Pizzagate and QAnon.
When they spoke two years ago, John’s father insisted that his progressive think tank was part of a cabal of human traffickers. John tried to explain that he had worked in Democratic politics for more than a decade and had never seen anything remotely resembling his father’s QAnon-fueled fantasies.
“It was heartbreaking,” John said. “That was the moment when I knew my father trusted these right-wing Facebook groups more than he trusts his own son.”
It has become a familiar story: The older relative, the intensifying Fox News habit, the alarming Facebook posts, the inevitable detachment from reality. Losing a parent to the conservative cyber-swamp is such a common experience among millennials that it has produced an entire sub-genre of documentaries, books and online support groups.
What it has not produced, however, is a satisfying answer to a simple question: What is the internet doing to our parents’ brains?
So far, research indicates that older Americans are a major vector of misinformation.
“Older adults consume more misinformation and are more likely to share misinformation,” said Briony Swire-Thompson, a senior research scientist at Northeastern University who specializes in social media networks. During the 2016 election, users over 65 shared more fake news than any other age group and seven times more than users between 18 and 29. In 2020, Trump has dedicated almost half of his reelection campaign budget to Facebook ads — many of which include blatant misinformation — to users over 65 years old.
In the coming decades, this issue will only take on greater importance. America is about to embark on an unprecedented experiment in the political effects of an aging society. By 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65. By 2060, the ratio will be one in four. Over the next four decades, as the overall population grows by 25%, the number of people over 85 will nearly quadruple.
At the same time, seniors are becoming increasingly reliant on the internet for information. Over the last decade, older adults reporting that they get their news from social media rocketed from 8% to 40%. Facebook, one of America’s primary delivery devices for partisan, misleading and outright false information, is growing fastest among people over 50. Meanwhile, the percentage of teens reporting Facebook use fell from 71% in 2014 to 51% in 2018.
This doesn’t have to be an existential crisis. While it’s true that older generations are more vulnerable to fake news in some ways, they are more resilient in others. Millions of millennials’ parents did not suddenly decide to slide into conspiracy-land. They are simply living in a country with more and better ways of pulling them there.
What Makes Older Americans More Vulnerable To Misinformation?
The first and most obvious explanation for older internet users’ increased vulnerability to misinformation is the effect of aging on the brain. A huge body of research has demonstrated that the same factors that make older Americans susceptible to financial scams — lower impulse control, slower cognitive function, higher rates of social isolation — also make them vulnerable to misinformation.
These deficits generally begin to appear around age 45, but recent research indicates that they could be appearing even sooner. A study published in July found that the baby boomer generation was showing signs of cognitive decline earlier than previous generations.
“There’s a sharpness that’s gone,” John said of his father. “He gets very animated in conversations and when you tell him you disagree with something, he’ll say, ‘I never said that.’ I can’t tell if it’s him really not remembering or if he just wants to win the argument.”
John attributes his father’s slowing mental faculties to his decades of alcohol and opioid use. In the July study, researchers found that baby boomers with lower wealth, worse cardiovascular health and higher levels of loneliness and depression had the most severe rates of cognitive decline. These findings add to a growing body of research indicating that baby boomers are in worse health than their parents’ generation at the same age, an effect generally attributed to higher stress, worse diets and the rising cost of health care. Older Americans falling prey to internet conspiracy theories, in other words, could be just another side effect of American inequality.
But not so fast. Nadia Brashier, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, points out that a strictly biological explanation for older Americans’ vulnerability to misinformation leaves a lot out.
“It’s tempting to blame cognitive decline because that’s what comes to people’s minds first,” Brashier said. “We associate getting older with impairment, but different cognitive abilities decline at different rates, and some don’t decline at all.”
Older Americans, Brashier noted, are actually better at some cognitive tasks than younger people. For example, they tend to know more about history and politics, giving them a better gut-check against obvious misinformation (“The president can remain in office for five terms,” for example). This may explain why, according to a study published in September, older adults are less likely to believe COVID-19 misinformation than younger Americans.
And some of the most pernicious forms of misinformation don’t appear to have an age dimension. “Truthiness,” to pick just one, is a term used to describe the phenomenon in which claims seem truer if they’re paired with an image. In a 2012 study, researchers found that participants were more likely to believe the statement “the first windmills were built in Persia” if it appeared beside a photo of windmills than if it appeared on a black background. This appears to affect young people and old people roughly equally.
Where older adults do struggle, however, is with memory and digital literacy. If younger Americans are digital natives, older Americans are digital refugees, drifting onto social media platforms slowly and haphazardly.
Older Americans are worse at distinguishing news from sponsored content, spotting manipulated images and separating factual information from opinion. They also lack basic information about the structures and incentives of social media — in a 2019 survey, just 18% of Facebook users over 65 knew that the site used an algorithm to organize their feeds and deliver recommendations. Around one-third thought Facebook staffers were hand-picking stories according to their relevance and credibility.
David, a graduate student in California, watched his father drift down the internet rabbit hole shortly after retiring, cashing out his pension, and buying an RV.
“Suddenly my dad who had worked his whole life had nothing to do,” David said. “So this 52-year-old man who had never used a computer gets on YouTube. That’s when the algorithms got to work on him.”
Within months, David’s dad was posting conspiracy videos about Bigfoot and the moon landing. Soon political conspiracies started to show up: Hillary Clinton and her pedophile ring, George Soros and his global network of secret banks.
“A lot of it was blatantly anti-Semitic,” David said. “We’re Jewish, but I don’t think my dad is knowledgeable enough to understand the dog whistles.”
After a series of fights via text message and Facebook Messenger, David and his father stopped speaking. Almost two years later, his father finally reached out — with an e-mail that had no text, just a link to a video in which a former liberal described why he was now a conservative.
“I told him that if he wanted to have a real conversation we could have one, but he never got back to me,” David said. “I don’t think there’s anything I can say to snap him out of it. It feels like he’s been indoctrinated into a cult.”
Social Media Makes Everything Worse
Social media is almost perfectly designed to exploit the vulnerabilities of cognitive decline and digital illiteracy.
Every story on Facebook looks the same, whether it’s from The New York Times, InfoWars or your racist neighbor. While older and younger Americans are roughly equal in their ability to tell the difference between legitimate sources and sketchy conspiracy websites, the ability to remember the source of information is one of the first skills to decline with age.
In one study, researchers showed participants health claims (“corn chips contain twice as much fat as potato chips”) three times in a row alongside labels describing them as true or false. Three days later, participants between 18 and 25 were more likely to remember the claim itself and whether it was true. Adults between 71 and 86, on the other hand, remembered the health claims but not whether they had been debunked.
Social media also amplifies what researchers call the “illusory truth effect” — the more times you hear something, the truer it seems. If you see the same statistic on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you’ll probably believe it, even if every post you see is just the same misinformation bouncing around an ideological bubble.
Brashier said that these characteristics encourage social media users to engage in confirmation bias, or seeking out information that confirms their worldview, while simultaneously believing they’re performing independent research.
“In surveys and lab studies, we often find that older adults are more discerning — they’re better at sorting true from false information than younger people,” Brashier said. “However, something happens when they log on to Twitter or Facebook that disengages them from analytic thinking.”
Much of this disengagement is built into the structure of social media. Seniors generally report having more trust in the people around them, a characteristic that may make them more credulous of information that comes from friends and family. There is also the issue of context: Misinformation appears in a stream that also includes baby pictures, recipes and career updates. Users may not expect to toggle between light socializing and heavy truth-assessing when they’re looking at their phone for a few minutes in line at the grocery store.
“Fact-checking isn’t at the front of your mind when you’re scrolling through your aunt’s updates on Facebook,” Swire-Thompson said.
“In an ideal world, we would prevent people from seeing misinformation in the first place.”
Social media may also prey on stress and anxiety. Ben, an epidemiologist in Chicago, has watched his mother transform over the last three years. She has always been conservative, but spent most of her life indifferent to politics and most of 2016 revolted by Trump. Her life was defined by her Christian faith and Ben spent years helping her come to grips with his homosexuality.
But then her parents moved in.
“They were elderly, hyper-religious and very ill,” Ben said. His mother quit her corporate job to take care of them. “She was stressed out and had nothing to do except use Facebook all day.”
After they died, Ben saw his mother, who lives in Seattle, join church-based groups, then right-wing groups. She started sharing memes about how God was working through Trump. Soon, she was trolling left-wing politicians.
“She couldn’t name a single policy of Jay Inslee’s, but she’s commenting on his Facebook page that he should return the state to people who aren’t ruining it,” Ben said.
COVID-19 completed her transformation. Ben works in public health disaster management and has spent the last six months reminding his mother to wear a mask and socialize rarely and outdoors. Earlier this month, his sister mentioned that their mother was out of town. From searching her social media history, Ben found that she was at an indoor megachurch event.
“It’s thousands of people screaming in a room without masks,” he said. And from watching clips online, he gathered that the event included talks from anti-gay speakers.
“For her to go and support a community that’s actively trying to dismantle my civil liberties, it was so hurtful,” he said. “She’s getting all her information from these church groups and most of it is completely fabricated. There’s no way I can compete with that.”
Conservatives See More Misinformation
Age is not the only characteristic that matters when it comes to misinformation. Fox New viewers have a median age of 65, but so do MSNBC viewers. Why are older Americans falling for right-wing conspiracy theories and not falling down left-wing rabbit holes?
The answer has to do with the strikingly different characteristics of the liberal and conservative news ecosystems.
Both liberals and conservatives get their news from sources that range from mainstream, credible outlets (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal) to fringe partisan and conspiratorial websites (Breitbart, Palmer Report).
On the left, conspiracy theories rarely reach established institutions. You could read The New York Times or watch CNN for days and have no idea that fringe partisans were debating the roster of Republicans on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s payroll or the existence of a Donald Trump sex tape.
On the right, however, the connections between the partisan fringe and the establishment mainstream are much stronger. Watch Fox News and you’ll be introduced to QAnon, briefed on Hunter Biden’s hard drive, and warned about Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris’s anti-white, pro-looter agenda. Republican politicians give platforms to QAnon supporters and spread COVID-19 misinformation. Fringe left-wing figures such as Michael Moore are marginalized, whereas fringe right-wing figures like Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza and Rush Limbaugh are given op-ed space and speaking slots at conservative conventions.
“It’s an amplification pipeline,” said Andy Guess, a politics professor at Princeton University. “There’s an inherent difference between left-wing and right-wing media ecosystems that fundamentally affects the information Americans are receiving.”
These imbalanced news habitats produce strikingly different constituencies. Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to believe that COVID-19 was a deliberate attack on the United States. More than half of Republicans believe that the QAnon conspiracy theory is mostly or partly true. Nearly three-quarters think a “deep state” cabal is attempting to overthrow President Trump. In 2013, nearly two out of three Republicans thought Barack Obama was hiding information about his birthplace.
By contrast, only 35% of Democrats ever believed that Bush had knowledge of the 9/11 attacks before they happened. Even though it is the go-to example of a left-wing conspiracy theory, the anti-vaccine movement is actually more popular among Republicans.
The aging population and the popularity of social media has put this trend on steroids. Facebook’s most popular posts are nearly all from fringe right-wing figures. In the run-up to the 2016 election, 60% of visits to fake news sites were made by the most conservative 10% of the population. Hyper-conservative elderly voters were five times more likely to encounter fake news than hyper-liberal elderly voters.
The internet is not just awash in fake news, it is also drenched in what researchers call “hyperpartisan” information. As opposed to straightforward fiction (Bigfoot is real, hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19), hyperpartisan websites take grains of truth and exaggerate them into their most sensationalized version.
Throughout 2020, for example, the right-wing fringe has been obsessed with the (racist, sexist) myth that Kamala Harris used sex to launch her political career. The rumor contains a miniscule grain of truth — Harris did date former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown in the 1990s — but has been exaggerated into a narrative totally divorced from reality.
Or consider the Facebook groups dedicated to discussing crimes committed by immigrants. They’re not peddling misinformation — every post describes a real news event — but they reinforce the idea that foreigners are more likely than native-born Americans to commit violence (they’re not) and that crime is at an all time high (nope).
Brashier said hyperpartisan information is almost certainly more widespread than straightforwardly false claims and much harder to monitor, much less get rid of.
“Fake news,” she said, “is only the tip of the iceberg.”
We Can’t Fix This Ourselves
Emma’s father, a liberal physician, has fallen down an anti-vaccine, coronavirus-truther rabbit hole.
“It started with his hatred of pharmaceutical companies,” Emma said. “He starts going on Facebook and finding these fringe groups and the next thing you know he’s saying that the government has a cure for COVID but they’re not giving it to us because they can’t make money on it.”
In a string of text messages Emma provided HuffPost, she confronted him.
“Immunizations are loaded with toxic substances and are routinely delivered to very young babies, like two months old,” he said.
She tried to fight back, sending him a Los Angeles Times article noting that we breathe, eat or drink more than 20 times the maximum allowed dose of aluminum in a vaccine every day.
“Thanks for link an info,” he responded. “Unfortunately I can’t make an informed response. Texting on a complicated subject isn’t easy for me either.”
This is how it goes, Emma said. Her father says something wildly untrue, she finds better information, sends it, and he checks out. She has seen this pattern before. Three years ago, Emma’s conservative uncle tried to kill himself, believing his life was under threat by radical leftists who wanted to take away his guns and destroy rural America.
America’s misinformation problem is only going to get worse. In a 2015 study, researchers found that anger made participants more likely to believe misinformation that reinforced their political views. Anxiety, on the other hand, made them more open to misinformation that went against their existing beliefs. Living through times of societal upheaval — like, say, a pandemic — could be making Americans more vulnerable to false beliefs and making our political system more fragile.
“Our information ecosystem is eroding trust in the media, democracy and other mainstream institutions,” Guess said. “It’s almost impossible to predict what the long-term consequences could be.”
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the problem of misinformation has a relatively simple solution: Suppress it.
“In an ideal world, we would prevent people from seeing misinformation in the first place,” Brashier said. Once people have formed beliefs based on false narratives, correcting them is a monumental task. Keeping them from stumbling across conspiracy theories, however, only takes a government willing to regulate and social media companies willing to curate.
David, the graduate student, and his fiancé live in a mother-in-law unit behind her parents’ house. Over the last six months, the couple has watched his fiancé’s family fall down the same rabbit hole as David’s father. Recently they decided that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu. David and his fiancé are the only ones who wear masks at family gatherings anymore.
“They were indoors for six months with nothing to do but watch Fox News and go on Facebook,” he said. “And now they’re telling me, ‘Oh well, the weak just need to die and then we’ll be over this thing.’”
But as hurt and angry as he is, he still can’t bring himself to blame them.
“It’s not their fault,” he said. “They just grew up in a time when it was easier to believe things you read.”