LWL | Misinformation: Is it more detrimental to the elderly or younger generation?

By Aarushi Chakravorty

As the world progresses many old ideas and innovations slowly disappear. However, with the coming  of new technology, the spreading of misinformation has become more and more common. As more  and more people use the internet as a news source, it has become easier to spread lies and  misinformation. Internet misinformation affects people of all ages. While children, teens or younger  adults have always been seen as more naïve as they lack life experience compared to older adults.  Adults and the elderly have been considered less gullible as they have been exposed to this  information for much longer and are not at such an impressionable age in comparison to teenagers  or young adults. However, on the other side of the coin, many people claim that in the new digital  world the elderly, who are not familiar with the new interface are the ones who believe anything the  internet tells them without fact-checking. 

One of the most popular beliefs is that misinformation is spread by the elderly or the older  generation due to the fact that their cognitive ability has declined as they age. People also blame the  elderly’s lack of understanding of technology on them believing most of the news that pops up on  their screens. Aged people may struggle to spot sponsored posts and manipulative text as they are  new to the world of social media. “While it is obvious 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.” [Brooke Adams, University of Florida,2022]. Researchers have three  likely explanations for this occurrence: cognitive declines and digital illiteracy ( Brashier & Marsh,  2020 ). 

Cognitive decline is considered one of the most likely causes of this phenomenon. As the human  body reaches the age of seventy the mind begins to slow down and it can be harder to detect things  like fake news. However, many studies have shown that age is not a factor in being able to detect  wrong from right.). Many teenagers and young adults have the same tendency to not fact-check whether headlines are accurate or not. People of all ages rely on mental shortcuts to judge whether  incoming information is true or false (Brashier & Marsh, 2020 ). As a group, older adults also tend to  consume more news than younger adults. These factors may help the older section of adults filter  the news sources they evaluate. The University of Florida conducted a study on whether the ability  to understand fake news from real news had anything to do with age. The study was conducted  during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers conducted this study with older  adults ranging from sixty-one to eighty-seven while the younger adults were college students. Each  participant evaluated a dozen articles with topics concerning COVID and other issues. Six real articles  and six fake articles were evaluated by the participants. “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-19 news compared to everyday fake news, which may reflect low familiarity with information related to  COVID at the beginning of the pandemic.” (Adams). While determining that age was not a huge  factor in being able to detect false headlines researchers found that those in the seventy and above  age group were less likely to thoroughly read and pay attention to the details of articles they were  evaluating. Being so vulnerable to misinformation is concerning as it can affect an individual as well  as the population as a whole.  

Many researchers also found that digital illiteracy is one of the setbacks the elderly face when  accessing news online. With less experience in dealing with clickbait and lies on the internet they 

struggle to detect internet hoaxes, a task even adults who are well accommodated with technology  struggle with. Re-analyzing the work by (Pennycook and Rand (2019a) suggests that discernment  between mainstream (e.g., NPR) and fake (e.g., World News Daily Report) outlets may not change  with age. Research also showed that only 9% of readers were able to notice when news stories have been sponsored (Amazeen & Wojdynski, 2018). These sponsored posts are designed to appear as  normal news articles and are even used by reputable new sources, which is why it is important to  research a topic instead of believing anything and everything that we read. Manipulated or  maliciously edited photos have also become a topic of concern with the emergence of social media as a news source. Studies have also shown that it gets harder to distinguish real photos from those  that were edited as the reader ages. (Nightingale, Wade, & Watson, 2017 Digital illiteracy could  explain why older adults seem gullible online, but resilient to scams offline. Contrary to popular  belief, susceptibility to consumer fraud decreases with age (Ross, Grossmann, & Schryer, 2014).).  One of the most concerning events of this phenomenon was the 2016 presidential elections. 

Public concern about the spread of misinformation spiked during the 2016 US presidential election.  Since then, fake news, post-truth, and misinformation appeared as the “word of the year” in Collins  Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary, and Dictionary.com. Americans consider “made-up news” to be a bigger problem than climate change, racism, or terrorism (Pew Research Center, 2019a). During the  elections pictures of a man unloading ballot boxes from a truck. News outlets simply edited out the  text on the boxes and used the photos as evidence that candidate Hilary Clinton “stole” votes.  Despite obvious inconsistency in the photos majority of readers did not question the validity of the  photos. Studies have also shown that readers are more likely to believe in news sources that come  with pictures, whether they are genuine or not.  

Despite having full control of their cognitive abilities and having a strong understanding of the  internet young adults and teenagers are not exempt from falling for internet scams. Compared to  seasoned adults those in the age bracket of fifteen to twenty-one are at a much more  impressionable age and are at the risk of being more affected by the spread of fake news. A non profit organization called the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that 60% of 13-17-year-old  Americans surveyed agreed with four or more harmful conspiracy statements – compared with just  49% of adults. For teens who spend four or more hours a day on any single social media platform,  the figure was as high as 69%. (Paul Kari, The Guardian) Despite being seen as the generation that  will make a change and right the wrongs of the previous generation Imran Ahmed the CEO of CCDH claims that when it comes to misinformation spread on the internet the damage is already done.  

Misinformation is not limited to scientific or political ideas. If harmful misinformation on ethics and  morals is read by adolescents who are still developing themselves and their ideals it could have life 

altering effects on the new generation.” The study polled more than 1,000 adults and 1,000  teenagers aged 13-17 about their ideas on social media and its impact. It also asked respondents to  state whether they agreed with damaging statements from several categories of misinformation,  including anti-vaccine statements, antisemitism, and COVID-19 misinformation.” (Paul Kari, The Guardian) It is already well known that social media has a detrimental effect on a person's mental  health but CCDH’s study shows that the effects of misinformation on social media goes above and beyond a singular individual and start threatening society at large. Younger generations are  completely dependent on social media as their only source of news. A study in 2022 on Generation Z showed that only 5% of the respondents read actual newspapers while 50% preferred getting news  from sites and applications such as TikTok or Instagram in comparison to traditional search engines  (Paul Kari, The Guardian). The rise of the usage of AI is also another prominent issue in the spread of false news. As it becomes easier to generate realistic-looking fake images and manipulative data it  will become more difficult to differentiate between what resources are reliable from those that are  not credible.  

Whether misinformation is spread by someone older or younger it has a similar damaging effect on  whoever reads or views the misleading source. It is also concerning as both these age groups have  the power to change society. Whether it is through who they cast their vote for or through an  anonymous post on an online forum they have the ability to influence someone’s opinion or decision so it is so important that these opinions are formed after understanding and reading accurate  reliable sources. As the internet and social media becomes a primary source of news and  information, we need to think about what measures can be taken to make sure that this power is  not misused. It is integral that we keep finding solutions to make sure that information is spread by  reliable sources. We are already a step closer to achieving this goal as the Nobel Foundation and the  National Academy of Sciences hosted the Nobel Prize Summit Truth, Trust and Hope, bringing  together Nobel Prize laureates, researchers, policymakers, and citizens for an in-depth exploration of  how to combat misinformation and build trust in science, scientists, and the institutions they serve. (“Nobel Prize Summit Fuels Initiatives to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation and Build Trust  in Science”). The scholars present came up with two main operative measures to combat the spread  of misinformation. One of them was to improve the general public’s critical thinking skills. The  initiative introduced at the summit will focus on strengthening young people’s ability to recognize  reliable information and understand how science works to develop it. Scientific Thinking for All: A  Toolkit is a new curriculum that offers K-12 students a set of cognitive strategies to navigate real world issues and to support the development of skills in reasoning and collaboration. (“Nobel Prize  Summit Fuels Initiatives to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation and Build Trust in Science”). The researchers present believe that critical reasoning can be taught at any age and will allow them  to question the information they are reading no matter which area it covers. The other operative  measure was to make sure that policies concerning the spread of misinformation should be “guided  by the public's views”. By making sure that the public is well aware of what policies are in place and  by helping them understand what resources they are referring to we can combat the spread of  misinformation.

All Citations 

  • Aging and fake news: It's not the story you think it is
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7505057/\
  • https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/aug/16/teens-online-conspiracies-study https://www.apa.org/topics/journalism-facts/misinformation-belief-action
  • Bovet, A., & Makse, H. A. (2019). Influence of fake news in Twitter during the 2016 US presidential election. Nature Communications, 10(1), 1-14.


  • Brashier, N. M., & Schacter, D. L. (2020). Aging in an Era of Fake News. Current  Directions in Psychological Science, 29(3), 316.  


  • https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2023/06/nobel-prize-summit-fuels-initiatives-to combat-misinformation-and-disinformation-and-build-trust-in