Teaching Senior Citizens to Spot Misinformation

New York Times,

August 28, 2020

[My article above in The New York Times was cut for space. It appeared in the At Home section, which has articles with a ‘service’ angle for people during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, hence the list-like format.

The version below is the longer version I originally wrote as a feature. It has more information and context, especially about why it’s important to teach senior citizens about misinformation. –Amy]

August 23, 2020

Earlier this year, a group of senior citizens in Maryland took a new class on an urgent topic: how to spot online misinformation. The one-hour workshop was offered by Senior Planet, part of non-profit Older Adults Technology Services (O.A.T.S).

Senior Planet’s ongoing free “How to Spot Fake News” session gives a quick overview of different kinds of misinformation, including manipulated “deep fake” videos, false advertising and fabricated news. The workshop also discusses confirmation bias, recognizing satire, and the basic but important idea that differing opinions do not constitute ‘fake news’.

“When they have to break it down, it’s an A-ha moment,” said Bre Clark, O.A.T.S program manager who taught the pilot class in February at a senior center in Silver Springs. “The beauty of teaching older adults is that they have a foundation of knowledge. They learn quickly and want to learn.”

During the pandemic, Senior Planet’s sessions have moved online to Zoom and can reach a wider audience.

Now teaching older adults about misinformation is getting an even big boost from the American Association of Retired People (AARP), the advocacy group with 38 million members, and Poynter Institute, a media non-profit.

They are collaborating on “MediaWise for Seniors”, whose programs started in early August with a 30-minute webinar on misinformation and a virtual town hall with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent.

More than 41,000 people registered for the first webinar, according to AARP, which posts online events on its website.

Covid-19 has made the topic of misinformation timely and urgent. Discerning reliable health information is especially a matter of life or death for older people who are more vulnerable to the virus.

In the U.S., people age 65 and older accounted for eight in 10 reported Covid-19 deaths, says the Centers for Disease Control.

Older people are also vulnerable to misinformation. People age 65 and older were more likely to share misinformation on Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to one study from researchers at Princeton and New York University.

Meanwhile, a large proportion of senior citizens vote and act as volunteer poll workers so defusing misinformation is important for this civic-minded demographic group.

In the 2016 presidential election, 27 percent of voters were ages 65 and older, according to Power Research. In the 2018 U.S. election, nearly 60 percent of poll workers were age 61 and older.

The MediaWise for Seniors program will include more online classes, webinars, and public service announcements that dispense practical tips.

For example, Dr. Gupta advised people to consider whether content is well-sourced. He also suggested clicking past headlines, reading information from more than one source, and considering “whether those sources provide good citations and reasoning.”

Small tips can go a long way. Some participants of Senior Planet’s inaugural class were not aware that misinformation is so pervasive. They realized they have a bigger role to play in stopping its spread, said Ms. Clark of O.A.T.S.

For example, one woman had received a text that falsely claimed that Covid-19 could be detected by holding one’s breath; she forwarded the message. “She saw first hand that she could not redact what she shared once she had passed it along,” said Ms. Clark.

 Since March, Senior Planet instructors have taught 10 online classes on misinformation. Classes are posted about a week ahead of time on Senior Planet’s website.  

Tips to spot misinformation and avoid sharing it include evaluating whether news is from a known media outlet; noting the publication date, who wrote the content, and whether the author is reputable; checking if a website has a .gov, .edu, .org or .com suffix; and if a website is selling a product.

Participants learn about fact-checking websites such as Snopes.com, FactCheck.org and Politifact.com.

Through its broader, initial MediaWise program, Poynter has taught media literacy to nearly nine million people since 2018, many through its youth program.

The foundation for detecting misinformation is the same for seniors and young people. Poynter emphasizes “lateral reading”, essentially checking other websites, as demonstrated by the Stanford History Education Group, which has posted lessons online.

It refers to lessons from prior work from Stanford History Education Group, which suggests asking three basic questions: “Who is behind the information? What is the evidence? What do other sources say?”

Poynter’s guide on Covid-19 recommends spotting sensational headlines that are a sign of unreliable clickbait stories; Googling unfamiliar authors to check their background; following hyperlinks to verify official sources; and understanding context.

AARP highlights how social media uses emotional triggers such as anger or fear to influence or take advantage of people.

She recommended pausing and restraining from sharing or commenting. “Before you act, pause and do a little fact-checking.”

“Misinformation is always heightened when there’s greater confusion. Particularly around Covid, there can be devastating impact if you get the wrong information,” added Ms. Setzfand.

The Poynter and AARP webinar also tells people how to report harmful content on social media platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube.

The program also teaches foundational concepts such as how social media algorithms and search engines work. “This generation didn’t grow up with a tablet in hand,” said Alex Mahadevan who leads MediaWise for Seniors at Poynter.

Misinformation is not new. During last week’s webinar, Mr. Mahadevan pointed out that scammers sold fake Haley’s Comet ‘survival kits’ back in 1910.

In the digital age, misinformation can be designed to generate more ad revenue, influence opinion, or scam people out of money, he said.

A 30-minute webinar only scratches the service, but MediaWise will offer a short online class in the fall.

Online misinformation overlaps with online fraud. Older adults are a target of scams, which are booming during the pandemic as fraudsters try to trick people into disclosing financial and personal information related to stimulus payments, contact tracing and buying false Covid-19 cures.

AARP’s website has extensive information on a bevy of long-time schemes, such as email “phishing” and romance scams, along with new Covid-19 fraud.

People can sign up for AARP’s newsletter and emails that alert people about fraud. Basic but important tips include checking for suspicious email addresses that mimic real companies, and not clicking on links embedded in emails. When in doubt, go directly to the website of banks or other official institutions to verify requests for information.

Seniors might be more vulnerable to fraud due to cognitive decline, but scammers target people across all age groups. However, when older people are victims of fraud, “they have more to lose”, such as retirement savings, pensions and social security checks, said Kathy Stokes, AARP’s director of fraud prevention program.

Younger people also report fraud more often. Ms. Stokes recommended that older people call AARP’s hotline to report incidents that the Federal Trade Commission also adds to its database.

Doing so won’t get a victim’s money back, but it will alert law enforcement who can prevent further scams. “It helps authorities track down bad guys,” said Ms. Stokes.

All these broad efforts to bring attention to misinformation are “part of the solution,” said Ms. Setzfand of AARP.

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