Mediawise for seniors: Fact vs. Fake
BY THE JOURNALISTS NETWORK ON GENERATIONS
In the 2019 film, The Tomorrow Man, John Lithgow plays Ed, a widowed retiree preoccupied with online “prepper” conspiracy groups focused on preparing for the coming apocalypse. The film, with touching and thoughtful performances by Lithgow and Blythe Danner, is set a few years prior to today’s fake-news glut.
The movie’s depiction of late-life love shyly and slyly exposes the challenges of years’ long loneliness as it defaults to unhealthy routines and desultory habits. while Lithgow’s Ed loops through his nihilistic fears and fantasies, while Danner’s Ronnie has fallen into a pattern of hoarding. Both initially hit a wall of resistance thwarting their hopes of changing the other’s entrenched quirks.
This indie film’s title evolves with sweet irony as Ed find himself having to choose between incessant planning for a catastrophic tomorrow, his garage packed with years’ worth of canned goods, batteries, and the like, versus one so unexpected glimmering with happiness — but only if he can puncture his survivalist trepidations like a can of pork ‘n’ beans.
The Tomorrow Man’s romantic antidote to later life loneliness and fake news may not inoculate every isolated senior addicted to the freshest online or Fox News outrage, but short of offering another elder version of Tinder, serious efforts to address old-age isolation may offer many a more hopeful – and accurate — perspective.
Unsurprisingly, surveys have shown that more than ever, social media rapidly escalates elders’ embrace of the wildest claims. A study of online sharing of unfounded conspiracy claims in the wake of the 2016 election revealed that although the practice was rare, “On average, users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group” in the survey.
And just this past week, Axios’ Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild reported Sept. 14, the day of California’s recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom, “Even without access to the major social media platforms to amplify them,” Donald Trump’s unrelenting claims of voting fraud gives “conservative pundits and politicians license to use the ‘Big Lie’ falsehood to preemptively undermine any election, which could impact voter turnout.”
They reported, “Data from Zignal Labs, a social media intelligence firm, finds that between June 1 and September 1, mentions of things like ‘fraud,’ election ‘rigging’ or ‘stealing ballots’ received hundreds of thousands of mentions, with occurrences spiking in the past two weeks.”
Even though the recall effort failed in the end, those numbers are sobering. So are the truly life-threatening figures for the spread of the Delta variant by the often-misled unvaccinated. Aside from the relatively small number of older adults caught up in nefarious speculation, many seniors are simply baffled by what news is true, what’s false—and how to tell allegations apart.
Lurking in the shadows of accuracy is not the threat of Tomorrow Man’s apocalypse, but “pink slime,” says Katy Byron, director of the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise program. “I’m not talking about the stuff that makes hot dogs. I’m talking about fake local news websites that push misinformation, nicknamed ‘pink slime’ because they try to mimic the look of credible sources like your local news.”
Byron told GBONews.org in an email, “These sites are full of hyper-partisan or misleading stories trying to influence you, and they’re common. Columbia University researchers tracking pink slime sites say hundreds have popped up this year.” The Columbia Journalism Review reported on the study results last year.
Generations-beat writers worried about the inundation of misinformation on voting, climate change, and health – some of it literally killing thousands per day from the Delta variant — may want to tell your audiences about MediaWise for Seniors.
The nonprofit Poynter Institute, a leading journalism educator, initiated MediaWise for young news consumers in 2018. Then, as evidence mounted showing older-adult susceptibility to bad information with the presidential campaign and onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Poynter started MediaWise for Seniors in June 2020 to counter the “infodemic” of misinformation.
To reach large numbers of older Americans, Poynter partnered with AARP and Facebook and, says Byron, has so far reached more than 680,000 Americans, 50 years and older. Older Americans are increasingly engaged online, she emphasized, with more than 40% of people over 65 actively using social media platforms like Facebook, as well as many promoting conspiracies, scams, hoaxes, and false news stories.
Byron went on, “Some of our most successful and high impact projects include our social media-based PSA graphics, online self-guided and live courses, Facebook live events and AARP Virtual Community Center and tele-town hall events.”
In addition, she said, they’ve managed to teach many hard-to-reach seniors, including those with no internet access: “We reached 25,000 landlines with our AARP tele-town hall in May 2021, teaching digital media literacy skills and how to spot misinformation related to COVID-19 and vaccines — that event featured MediaWise Ambassador and former ABC News Good Morning America anchor, Joan Lunden. We also partnered with AARP for a training piece in the Bulletin print magazine, which reaches an audience of 30.4 million.”
Lunden, along with CNN and PBS’s Christiane Amanpour, heads an all-star cast of 20 MediaWise public awareness “Ambassadors” for its youth and adult programs. Some others are NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz, and TikTok Creator/Washington Post writer Dave Jorgenson.
The program also collaborated with the Stanford Social Media Lab, which conducted independent research on the effectiveness of the online MediaWise for Seniors fact-checking course. “Researchers found that 85% of students were able to accurately identify disinformation after the course,” Byron said.
Making News Harder to Abuse
Working with AARP, Byron said, “We developed a training template for their local offices, which they can use to reach folks at a local level virtually or hopefully soon in person.” Also,
Facebook supported multiple live events and advertising campaigns on the platform to reach social-media-savvy older Americans.”
MediaWise now offers a free online fact-checking course developed for seniors along with their other online educational resources:
- How to Spot Misinformation Online: a 90-minute course teaching simple digital literacy skills to outsmart algorithms, detect falsehoods and make decisions based on factual information.
- Our MediaWise Ambassadors teach various fact-checking techniques via YouTube
- Seniors can learn how to fact-check from our Teen Fact-Checking Network content
- The full hub of MediaWise educational resources here.
- The AARP Fact Tracker, a MediaWise-partnered product, has interactive digital media lessons
Byron noted, “We are currently developing resources for Spanish-speakers based in the US and working on a pilot program to bring our seniors’ educational resources to a number of countries abroad.”
Meanwhile, she said, the most effective way for journalists on aging to confront the firestorm of baseless information is “to be transparent and thorough in reporting on misinformation.” Bryon advised, “Walk your aging readers through exactly how you debunked a piece of misinformation,” such as through a series of Google queries.
Also, she said, “Put your reporting on misinformation in context: Discuss why they might be inclined to believe misleading headlines, such as that they confirm readers’ worldview or create an emotional response that leads to kneejerk social sharing. And explain why they see misinformation in the first place (algorithms).”
Byron stressed, “Always come back to why it all matters — we cite the events of Jan. 6, as a real-life consequence of misinformation, but the pandemic itself shows how misinformation can kill.”
This information was made available by The Journalists Network on Generations (JNG) and can be found here. JNG has published Generations Beat Online News (GBONews.org) since 1993. JNG provides information and networking opportunities for journalists covering generational issues, but not those representing services, products, or lobbying agendas.