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article imageOp-Ed: Older people at serious risk from fake news, elder fraud

By Paul Wallis     Apr 6, 2019 in Internet
Fort Washington - Well, there’s a headline nobody wanted to see. The online and digital illiteracy of older people is news, again. The big picture of senior online behaviour reinforces a lot of urban myths all too well.
The work of AARP and other experts has been conscientiously reported by Buzzfeed. It can be tough reading, but well worth a look. The net takeaways are that older people are more likely to fall for fake news, and share it, usually with other older people. They are also serious targets of fraudulent advertising and online scams. Seems nobody’s been doing too much work on digital literacy for older people, either, and that’s not helping. (AARP is doing its bit to improve literacy, but it’s a big task.)
The word they use for this rather hideous overall situation is pretty tactful –“Exploitation”. I suppose it is nicer than “Hit the old fools with any old crap and get paid for doing it”.
Of course, there are a few extenuating circumstances:
• If you’re truly lost in the tech, you’re vulnerable at any age. You may not know how to cross-check information, or even understand the information enough to be critical of it.
• You may not know dud news sources when you see them. If you’re old enough to be in the habit of thinking news is still made by the old rules of journalism, you’re even more vulnerable. Imagine reading Breitbart and believing every word, for example.
• Pushing the right buttons and appealing to older people’s memories of their youth is of course also a basic element in this situation.
• Sharing with friends is a compulsive behaviour. Most people do share with friends. The problem is that older people share the outrage that fake news is designed to generate.
• Older people are more likely to be glued to Facebook, according to AARP. Given Facebook’s range of troubles, content issues, and difficult scenarios across the board as a news feed, the Facebook environment is pretty much a breeding ground for fake news.
• Rumours are part of human life. Spreading rumours is as common as breathing. Younger people have a similar approach to spreading information.
But…? A few caveats and questions
The AARP has done a lot of good work in this field, and I don’t want to sound unnecessarily or unfairly critical or negative. Also please note that the various experts quoted in the Buzzfeed article have included quite a few qualifiers to the age-based general picture. See also Pew Research Center’s very helpful information for some key explanatory demographics.
That said:
1. Older people’s digital literacy shouldn’t be an issue these days. Most of the people in the age bracket were in their late 30s or 40s when the computers arrived. Most people of this age were trained at work. They should have basic knowledge, and they obviously still don’t? Why the hell not? It would be worth finding out.
2. AARP and others may not have had the scope or resources to check the basic literacy of their subjects. That would be an interesting refinement of the overall research, although it would produce a patchwork of results and widely variable literacy levels. This level of accuracy, however, is pretty much essential for identifying the needs of older people.
3. The anger of older people was identified regularly as an issue. The anger isn’t necessarily based on being old and lonely or getting worked up by fake news. It includes very genuine anger about a world which was a much nicer place when they were young, now mismanaged by disgusting little greedy criminal morons. The facts are quite enough to induce extreme, sincere anger, with or without BS from paid trolls. It’s forgivable for AARP not to have quite grasped that fact, and how deep the anger is. You need to be older, to really understand it.
4. Political activity by people who were never before politically active may be based on things other than age. The motivations of older people in political action can be so old that others don’t even know these motivations exist. If some old so and so is trying to save the world, it’s not a crime. The problem is that they may not know how.
5. Need for money. Older people are typically also financially vulnerable, often in unexpected ways, like family needs or personal needs. The AARP says that older people are “relatively wealthy”, but that’s not everybody. Their spreading of fake news may not be as innocent as it looks. I’ve seen a lot of people on Facebook who are old enough to know better, but spread the garbage far and wide.
6. Appeals to prejudice will always connect with someone. If older people are more likely to have built-in prejudices, they’re not alone.
7. Boomers come in all shapes and sizes. Many are former hippies, with another 40-50 years or so of distrust of the suit society added since. These people haven’t changed much, and tend to be outside the mainstream information torrents.
8. Advertising is unavoidable. Engagement can mean anything from mild interest to total disgust to buying some bit of fake dribble and wearing the merchandise. It’s endemic, and it’s not confined to any particular age bracket. Clickthroughs and sales would be a better information base for actual engagement.
9. Depending on Facebook for “shared news” is like depending on Washington for your own personal sanity. It’s not an option. The more likely scenario is staying in contact with friends. Typically, people cut each other some slack with outrageous or downright stupid viewpoints and pseudo-information at any age, in any environment.
10. Reinforcing world views with fake news is also a marginal and very flimsy option in many cases. Older people don’t like being considered idiots, and can be hyper-critical if they discover they’ve been fed total crap.
11. “Cognitive capacity”, aka what you’re capable of understanding, is a natural issue. What most people fail to understand about older people is that there is a point at which they really do want to be thinking about something else, not the daily diet of horror stories, real and fake.
12. Regarding elder fraud – Being told at some advanced age that you’ve won a non-existent lottery doesn’t make you a fool. It makes you a suddenly very out of character optimist. Who wouldn't want to believe it? Of course you want to believe it, and I’ve seen it many times myself. Just don’t believe a damn word, and don’t pay for anything. If the money comes in, great. If it doesn’t, and you pay for it, you’ll be spending a lot of time kicking yourself, and with good reason.
Let’s hope older people are sufficiently motivated to develop their skills. The monotonous drip of idiot conspiracy theories and absurd fake news can only go so far. The tacky internet of today may be the Renaissance media of tomorrow, and older people can help with insights and perspectives, as well as their usually under-utilized skills. An old pencil can be just as sharp as a new one, but you do have to make the effort to sharpen it.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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