Why misinformation is bigger than social media

One of the main concerns I see from people who are trying to address misinformation comes down to social media. You can just imagine, a normal middle class mom, lets say her name is Susan, comes home from a long day at work. Susan’s kids are running around and she gets on Facebook. Her friend Karen shares a post about vaccines with the title, “Vaccinating your kids is going to give them AUTISM!” Susan might see this, click on the link, and see that the information looks legitimate. Not really recognizable between this and something from The Washington Post. She trust Karen, and finds the arguments and statistics pretty convincing. Susan shares this article, maybe not even fully agreeing with the premise but thinks the ideas presented are worth other peoples consideration. Then, Susan’s father, a man in his 70’s, shares it.

What we just proposed, this hypothetical, demonstrates some of the unseen dangers and influences of misinformation that goes beyond social media. If I asked you why this article was shared around, you might answer, “Because the source posted it and Facebook allowed the article to spread!” You might be right, but for this blog post I want to challenge that thinking and go more in-depth into the reasons misinformation spreads.

First, back to Susan and Karen. To understand why their story is so important, we need to discuss some statistics (I know, it’s boring but stick with me)

  • The Pew Research center found that 50% of mothers (both married and unmarried) have a high school degree or less. This means the lower level of education may create a higher susceptibility to misinformation

  • The internet wasn’t commercially available until the early 90’s, which means anyone past the age of 40 or so would have spend their high school education during the internet's inception. People aged 50 and up wouldn’t know anything about the internet until the next generation invented and explained it to them.

So why do young/middle aged mothers fall to anti-vaccine rhetoric? This could be due to

a) children who are the targets of antivaxx lies and propaganda convincing loving parents not to vaccinate for the sake of their children

b) a lack of college education which may lead to an even higher susceptibility to misinformation.

c) their age (if 40 or above) because of a lack of exposure to the internet and a less concerned use of it’s content.

So Karen and Susan are very likely sharing information because of their children, because of a lack of college education, or because of the lack of exposure to the internet/reliable sources. This might seem obvious, but anti-vaccine lies and misinformation is just one part of a larger problem. Fake news all over social media has drawn national attention, and to understand vaccine misinformation, we need to understand misinformation on a larger scale. The fake news reaching these mothers isn’t very different from the fake news reaching grandparents. So who else is susceptible to these lies online?

  • According to a study in advances.sciencemag.org, “90% of respondents shared no stories from fake news domains. According to our main measure of fake news content, 8.5% of respondents for whom we have linked Facebook data shared at least one such article to their friends.”

Look back to that last point. What was the demographic of that 8.5 percent? “Those over 65 shared an average of 0.75 fake news articles (95% CI, 0.515 to 0.977), more than twice as many as those in the second-oldest age group (0.26 articles; 95% CI, 0.206 to 0.314).”

“Ok, slow down” you might be thinking. What does this even mean?” In normal people language, these statistics show that older people are at a higher risk of fake news. The study found individuals over 65 (Baby boomers) are more likely to share misinformation on Facebook. This demonstrates an issue that goes beyond social media, and extends into a much broader concern; a lack of education on proper internet use and caution.

When I say “middle aged and older individuals are not educated on proper internet caution” the first thing that comes to mind when I say “internet caution” is scams. We all know and hate it, scams come in every form and constantly bombard us with attempts to break into our bank accounts. It could be from a phone call, from an ad, it could be a link that a friend shares. All of these scams usually are ignored if you have a trained eye for these sorts of thievery that persist online, but the statistics of those that fall to the clutches of scams are staggering. Scamwatch.gov shows that out 35,413 reports of scam, 25,527 of those came from individuals 35 or older. 7,502 of which are from people 65+ alone. This means 72% of those who fell victim to a scam were middle aged and elderly individuals, and only 28% if individuals 34 and younger comprise these victims. Although a direct causation cannot be explicitly determined, the data does support at least some level of correlation.

When I browsed through Reddit yesterday, an article from Business Insider was shared titled, “Baby boomers share nearly 7 times as many 'fake news' articles on Facebook as adults under 30, new study finds.” As I went into the comments, I found one user who said,

As a boomer, not surprised. My generation was taught to sit in front of the teevee and absorb information. It was one way communication. Too many remain set in that mode; when they receive information that reinforces their preconceived notions they feel the need to share it rather than analyze it objectively.”

Another user commented, “What they don’t understand is that we grew up with the internet, we know which alleys to avoid. They used to tell us “Don’t take candy from strangers” because they know how to navigate the life they grew up in and so do we.”

And finally, a user commented their thoughts which expressed the issue here perfectly. “I feel like growing up with Internet we have learned from our mistakes that what you say to someone online on AOL instant messenger is going to carry on to the real world. We learned how to correctly source information, where and how to find this info, cross referencing to determine a trend among facts, etc.

With that final comment specifically, what difference is there in the upbringing of teenagers and young adults versus middle aged and specifically older individuals? Where did these young people learn correct sourcing?

The answer is a bit complicated, but I’ll do my best to explain it here.

The education system constantly shifts and changes as information and society develops. For instance, remember D.A.R.E? It stands for Drug abuse resistance education, and most teenagers and adults can remember D.A.R.E officers speaking to them at school about the dangers of drugs. When I was in 5th grade, a police officer came to our school and told us the dangers of marijuana and heroin, and explained why people do drugs in the first place. They also explained what situations lead to peer pressure that leads to drug use, like a party where a friend offers cocaine. These programs eventually taught the dangers of bullying, and with that, cyber-bullying.

Cyber-bullying and online harassment caught the attention of legislators and parents, afraid their kids would be subjected to all sorts of horrors online without their knowledge. Instead of aiming to educate the parents on responsible monitoring, educators and schools used things such as the D.A.R.E program and English classes (which use computers for their papers and research) to educate the young people who would encounter the online world about proper navigation.

I can recall going to classes as early as third grade that taught typing skills. We would have timed trials and had to properly use the keyboard without staring into the buttons as we slowly scanned for each press of the letter. Later in middle/high school, classes which required research of nearly any kind had to contain a proper works cited page. You would get docked points if the sources weren't legitimate, and teachers warned about seemingly trustworthy sources constantly.

Schools didn’t just tell us what websites to visit and not visit, the way information was provided was also challenged. Logical fallacies, skewing information, and unseen biases were all parts of a modern critique of online information.

Remember this was a development in the mid-late 90s for schools to gain use of computers, and even then, misinformation primarily circles around on social media which wasn’t even a thing until the early 2000s. School children now grow up with these tools, and according to the Pew Research center “Nearly every online teen (94% of 12 to 17 year olds who report using the Internet) has used the Internet for school research; 71% used the Internet as the major source for their most recent school project; 58% have used a Web site set up by school or a class; 34% have downloaded a study aid; and 17% have created a Web page for a school project.”

So part of addressing issues such as vaccine misinformation needs to center on the generational gap between young people who have traversed the internet and those of older age groups who have not received a proper education of the numerous factual-pot-holes.

So as a way to finish off this blog post, I want to end with a short discussion about what teenagers and adults can do to help end misinformation online.

1: Keep your family accountable

I know a lot of young people don’t enjoy Facebook, more and more people are turning away from the platform. But to end misinformation, these susceptible groups of mothers and older individuals need to be protected from the fake news that can show up on their timeline. There are a few ways you can help protect your family and friends, some of which you may not have thought about.

First, point out potentially dangerous information your family could be sharing. If you have a grandparent, cousin, uncle, or anyone who shares news stories from social media there are a few ways you can approach that situation. Share with them reliable sources, and express that being politically active or sharing their thoughts is great! But sharing fake information doesn’t help anybody. At that point, send them a link to this CDC article about finding reliable information.

2: Teach a man to fish, don’t do it for him

I can remember countless times were my family would be confused about how to use the internet, how to manage their specific app, or why the internet wasn’t working. I know that firsthand, teenagers can become the Tech guy of their family and constantly are trying to explain simple traits or pitfalls of the internet. Instead of just solving the issue, teens that are more tech savvy and young people can go further into depth about how to manage the internet. Explaining the sources the sources their parents are sharing and why the information is unreliable.

When you are looking at scientific information, be aware of the bias at play, tell them how information can be skewed and the red lights which should be raised at specific key words or statements. False parallels, improper citations, and websites that don’t refer back to a scientific study all are aspects of fake news that may not be expressed to people.

So instead of saying “Mom/Dad, this isn’t true, you should be more careful what you post and share on Facebook!” Try a different approach were you explain the intricacies of how misinformation is presented. If you yourself aren’t well versed in proper research methods, check out this link to the Library of Georgetown.

3: Don’t wait, one link leads to 100 more

One of the most important takeaways here for proper internet use comes from the source. Even if the link looks legitimate, the website seems scholarly, the internet is a deceiving place. There is absolutely no accountability on Twitter, Facebook, etc. And when you click on one link, one video, 100 more follow in their wake.

For those that are unaware, Facebook, YouTube, and nearly every website at this point use Artificial intelligence and algorithms to determine what content is best designed for you. In an article by Wired magazine, media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff. said "Ask yourself who is paying for Facebook. Usually the people who are paying are the customers. Advertisers are the ones who are paying. If you don't know who the customer of the product you are using is, you don't know what the product is for. We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers." Have you ever gone on google and typed in “Cheap pools” for that summer addition you’ve finally saved enough money for? Something like that, and what follows? A million ads that all have something to do with pools. Ladders, noodles, floats, everything is immediately flooding your profile.

This has lead to famously dangerous situations, many of which not only occurred on Facebook but YouTube as well. The “adpocalypse” of YouTube has been a sweeping movement of advertisers pulling their ads from the website after controversies surrounding the recommendation algorithm occur time and time again. Most recently, a controversy surrounding a pedophile ring that uses the YouTube algorithm to recommend videos of young girls caused advertisers to panic. Strange sexual videos involving children's characters being recommended to children on YouTube occurred before that in an event called “Elsagate.”

These algorithms are dangerous if you follow the rabbit hole of weird and misinformed videos or articles. This can occur with anything you can imagine, flat earth conspiracies, 9-11 deniers, antivaxxers, anything. And being aware of that is important to avoid misinformation reaching you or the people you care about.

In the end, don’t trust the internet. It’s a wonderful tool that has benefited humanity in a way only comparable to the printing press or the automobile, but it can cause some serious damage. If you have young children, be mindful of what they engage with. For your family, don’t wait for them to blindly enter the sea of lies hoping they can traverse those waves alone. Educating people is something countless groups, organizations, and people are attempting to do, but it also requires people to care.

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