5 Ways For Seniors To Protect Themselves From Online Misinformation


Online misinformation is a serious threat, from fake cures for COVID-19 to false information on voting eligibility.

Seniors are especially at risk. People over 65 were more likely to share false or misleading content on Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to one study from researchers at Princeton and New York University. Older adults were also exposed to more misinformation on Twitter during that election.

Seniors should learn about avoiding misinformation — to protect themselves, and because they are civically active. Over half of poll workers were ages 61 and older in the 2018 U.S. general election, according to Pew Research Center. And older voters in the U.S. are also consistently more likely to vote than younger groups.

An older person sitting at a computer

Fake news is rampant, and seniors are especially vulnerable. CREDIT: Jan Hakan Dahlstrom/Getty Images

A scientific study published in the journal Nature in March 2021 found that many people shared misinformation on social media because they did not pay close attention to the content. They were less likely to share misinformation after being asked to assess the accuracy of news headlines. Simply taking more time to evaluate sources can go a long way.

Here are more tips to defuse misinformation and disinformation:

Check the source and context

Are websites reliable or trusted sources? That’s a key message during live online classes with Senior Planet, part of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP.

“Misinformation can come from multiple places — it’s not enough to avoid where you think it will be. It’s best to have a filter that all information passes through,” said Breana Clark, associate director of program operations at OATS.

Check website suffixes, for example, to see whether they end with .gov or .edu and are thus official government websites or educational institutions, respectively. Senior Planet also emphasizes understanding context, such as recognizing satire. It’s easy to mistake a funny image or a joke article as real.

Be observant about images, too

Look for disjointed angles and/or odd lighting to detect if images have been doctored. Again, note the source and context.

In an online class hosted through Senior Planet, John Silva, an education director at the nonprofit News Literacy Project, discussed a photo of a snake with a rifle-shaped bulge in its body. When he asked participants for their thoughts on the image, one participant asked why a snake would want to eat a gun.

Turns out, the fake snake was a work of art. But taken out of context, someone might think it had swallowed a gun.

Opinions versus facts

Understand the distinction between opinion and facts, especially because anyone can post content online.

‘Lateral reading’ – or checking other reliable sources to verify information as you read is a term first used by the Stanford History Education Group. Key questions to ask yourself as you do so: “Who is behind the information? What is the evidence? What do other sources say?” News Literacy Project also recommends fact-checking websites such as Snopes.com, Factcheck.org and Politifact.com.

Nicole Cooke, professor at the University of South Carolina School of Information Science, says libraries can also provide helpful resources. (Cooke helped to develop a series of online videos on media literacy for the American Library Association.)

Libraries might offer events to learn about media literacy — and librarians are trained to “parse out information and all the noise every day,” said Cooke.

Pause before sharing or reacting online

“Pause, consider, and have more click restraint,” advises Jean Setzfand, senior vice president of AARP Programs. (AARP offers a free webinar on misinformation.) Getting someone to engage more with click-bait content through likes or comments may be a way for websites to generate revenue, Setzfand says.

If friends or family share misinformation online, offer fact-checking resources.

Beware bots and trolls

Bots are fake automated accounts. Identify them by spotting new accounts with few followers, no photo, odd usernames with lots of numbers, and non-sensical or inflammatory comments. Bots and trolls are often online troublemakers.

Whether bots or not, think twice about engaging online with someone you don’t know. Is it necessary or constructive to do so?

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at [email protected]. For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.