What An Aging Population Means For The Future Of The Internet

FORT WASHINGTON — the item’s late morning as well as roughly 25 senior citizens are learning how to talk to Siri. They pick up their iPads as well as press the home button, as well as pings echo around the room as Siri asks what she can do to help.

“Siri, what’s the closest coffee shop?” one woman asks.

“Sorry I’m having trouble with the connection, please try again?” Siri says.

A handful of employees with AARP, the national nonprofit focused on Americans age 50 as well as older, hover behind the participants as well as jump in to help. They’re in Fort Washington, Maryland, to deliver four free workshops about how to use an iPad. Participants learn how to turn the item on, what an app is usually, how to text, as well as how to flip the camera to take a selfie, among different activities.

Janae Wheeler, an AARP community manager, has been giving these workshops since 2016, as well as has perfected her delivery. She suggests people open an app by pressing its icon “as nicely as you might tap a baby’s nose.” During the section on text messaging, she reminds the group not to “write a textbook in your text message” as well as advises in which LOL “used to mean ‘lots of love,’ yet doesn’t anymore.”


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“We have an important goal of bridging the digital divide,” Wheeler told the group at the start of the day. “Being in tune with technology enables you to genuinely connect with all the things as well as people you care about.”

the item’s a comforting message, yet the reality is usually more urgent. Although many older Americans have, like the rest of us, embraced the tools as well as playthings of the technology industry, a growing body of research shows they have disproportionately fallen prey to the dangers of internet misinformation as well as risk being further polarized by their online habits. While in which matters much to them, the item’s also a massive challenge for society given the outsize role older generations play in civic life, as well as demographic adjustments in which are increasing their power as well as influence.

People 65 as well as older will soon make up the largest single age group from the United States, as well as will remain in which way for decades to come, according to the US Census. This kind of massive demographic shift is usually occurring when This kind of age group is usually moving online as well as onto Facebook in droves, deeply struggling with digital literacy, as well as being targeted by a wide range of online bad actors who try to feed them fake news, infect their devices with malware, as well as steal their money in scams. Yet older people are largely being left out of what has become something of a golden age for digital literacy efforts.

Since the 2016 election, funding for digital literacy programs has skyrocketed. Apple just announced a major donation to the News Literacy Project as well as two related initiatives, as well as Facebook partners with similar organizations. yet they primarily focus on younger demographics, even as the next presidential election grows closer.

This kind of means the very people who struggle the most with digital information as well as technology risk being left to fend for themselves in an environment where they’re being targeted as well as exploited precisely because of their vulnerabilities.

Older people are also more likely to vote as well as to be politically active in different ways, such as generating political contributions. They are wealthier as well as therefore wield tremendous economic power as well as all of the influence in which comes with the item. With more as well as more older people going online, as well as future 65-plus generations already there, the online behavior of older people, as well as their rising power, is usually incredibly important — yet often ignored.

Four recent studies found in which older Americans are more likely to consume as well as share false online news than those in different age groups, even when controlling for factors such as partisanship. different research has found in which older Americans have a poor or inaccurate grasp of how algorithms play a role in selecting what information is usually shown to them on social media, are worse than younger people at differentiating between reported news as well as opinion, as well as are less likely to register the brand of a news site they consume information coming from.

Those digital as well as news consumption habits intersect with key characteristics of older Americans, such as being more likely to live in rural as well as isolated areas, as well as, perhaps in part as a result, to experience a high degree of loneliness. A survey conducted by AARP of Americans found in which 36% of people ages 60–69 were lonely, while 24% of those ages 70 as well as older registered as lonely. (The survey focused on adults over 45.)

As a result, the item’s today essential to better understand the effects of social media, loneliness, as well as a lack of digital literacy on older people, according to Vijeth Iyengar, a psychologist focused on aging at the US Department of Health as well as Human Services, as well as Dipayan Ghosh, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.


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“With recent evidence in which older adults are much more likely to disseminate fake news compared with their younger counterparts, coupled with the projected growth with This kind of population segment from the decades to come, the item is usually crucial to advance our understanding of the factors affecting the ways in which older adults engage with these platforms as well as how in turn these platforms are affecting how they function in society,” they wrote in a recent article for Scientific American.

“They’re alone, relatively wealthy, alienated, as well as stuck in places where they don’t know anybody as well as feel angry.”

Kevin Munger, a political scientist who studies the online habits of older Americans as well as their effect on politics, painted a stark image of the reality for many older Americans as well as their relationship with the internet.

“They’re alone, relatively wealthy, alienated, as well as stuck in places where they don’t know anybody as well as feel angry,” he said. “as well as they have access to the internet.”

The present as well as future of what the internet as well as social media look like having a massive population of extremely online seniors is usually unknown. yet what’s clear is usually older Americans will become even more of an online force to be reckoned with — as well as no one is usually genuinely sure what in which will look like, or how to prepare for the item.

Munger said the culture as well as content of the internet have historically been determined by an equation in which roughly works out to the people who have access multiplied by those who contain the most time to spend on the item.

“from the next decade, the item’s going to become way more old people,” he said.


Greg Kahn for BuzzFeed News

“Older people are the forgotten generation — in which’s why the item’s important for us to learn stuff like This kind of,” says Joshua Rascoe, 70, after the first AARP workshop wraps up.

Rascoe says he’s retired yet spends time working with kids to teach them how to start a modest business mowing lawns in order to save money as well as get ahead. He used Facebook for a previous business yet said he’s wary of social media.

“I know how to Facebook as well as I know how to go to Instagram,” he says. yet he needs to learn more because, his impression is usually, “about 80% of the item is usually fake.” Rascoe just isn’t sure how to navigate around the item.

As the day goes on, there are many aha moments from the room. A first selfie. the very first time texting a photo. By the end, participants are ready to go online as well as try things. as well as in which’s when they become targets, particularly on Facebook, which has seen massive growth from the number of older Americans joining the platform since 2011, according to data coming from Gallup. If there’s a sucker for fake news on Facebook, the item’s easy to find them as well as feed them more.

Jestin Coler, who ran a network of websites in which published completely false material about science, politics, as well as different topics, told BuzzFeed News in which baby boomers were a key demographic for his sites because they “are absolutely more likely to share as well as consume fake news online, particularly on Facebook.”

“We did target older age groups when running ads, as well as I’m sure you will find the same with hyperpartisan publishers,” he said.

“People over 60 or 65 seem to be especially prone to consuming as well as sharing fake news as well as online misinformation more generally.”

Coler’s firsthand experience is usually borne out by study after study, as well as not just when the item comes to Facebook.

Research published in January found in which “On average, users over 65 [on Facebook] shared nearly seven times as many articles coming from fake news domains as the youngest age group.” Similar findings have come coming from studies looking at the spread of false information on Twitter as well as at web browsing in general around the 2016 election.

“People over 60 or 65 seem to be especially prone to consuming as well as sharing fake news as well as online misinformation more generally,” Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at the University of Michigan as well as a coauthor of one of the studies, told BuzzFeed News.

As Coler noted, boomers are also big consumers of content coming from hyperpartisan political Facebook pages, which drive huge engagement on the platform by stoking partisan passion via memes as well as articles. Nicole Hickman James spent years working for a publisher in which ran both liberal as well as conservative hyperpartisan Facebook pages as well as associated websites. She says over time she tailored her articles to older readers because they were the most engaged audience.

“Like a well-known post was always ‘X celebrity slams Trump.’ If in which celeb was Jennifer Lawrence I wouldn’t do the item because for the most part boomers either don’t know of her or care for her,” she told BuzzFeed News via a Twitter direct message. “yet if Barbra Streisand says something in which will always do well. I kind of think of what my own parents/grandparents might be interested in.”

James said a lot of the people who regularly commented on her stories on Facebook or reached out to her were older. When she might occasionally pitch in to help run her employer’s hyperpartisan conservative Facebook pages, she saw the same thing. “The commenters were the same, just on the different side of the aisle. Older, very partisan, etc. as well as the conservative engagement was always much higher,” she said in a Twitter direct message.

As with Coler’s fake news sites, these publishers create ads as well as target them at people older than 50 or 60. yet even if they’re not trying to reach older people, they may still find their ads attracting eager older Facebook users. Turning Point USA, a non-profit conservative group focused on college students, was until very recently receiving the vast majority of engagement for its ads coming from older people on Facebook

Progressive activist Jordan Uhl highlighted This kind of in February when he tweeted a series of screenshots showing the demographic data for Turning Point’s ads.

So conservative “college” Turning Point USA’s FB ads are almost exclusively reaching Boomers

The Facebook ad archive shows in which after Uhl’s viral tweets, Turning Point’s ads changed as well as began reaching young people, as one might expect for a student-focused group. Turning Point did not respond to a request for comment, yet the item seems the organization initially used criteria different than age to target its ads — as well as boomers just happened to be the most receptive demographic.

in which’s also the case for Ami Horowitz, a conservative filmmaker who produces short video segments for Fox News as well as often appears as a guest. He’s been running multiple versions of an ad asking people to “LIKE if you agree” in which the US needs to stop illegal immigration.

The versions viewed by BuzzFeed News from the Facebook ad archive primarily reached people older than 55, with those over 65 being the largest portion of audience. “I do not target any ages,” Horowtiz told BuzzFeed News in a Facebook message.

in which means his ads naturally appealed to older Facebook users. (the item’s unclear what targeting criteria different than age Horowitz used for his ads, as he did not respond to follow up questions. Facebook declined to comment with This kind of story.)

Anyone who clicks in which Like button might automatically become a fan of Horowitz’s page, as well as possibly begin to see his content show up in their News Feed. Someone who is usually targeted by, as well as clicks on, many ads like these can end up having a Facebook profile like Betty Manlove’s. She’s a grandmother as well as great-grandmother featured in a PBS series about “junk news.”

Manlove has liked more than 1,400 Facebook pages, many of which are hyperpartisan conservative or religious. She recognized in which her Facebook usage has become unhealthy in some ways. Manlove managed to quit smoking yet confessed, “My different addiction is usually Facebook. I have lost hours on Facebook in which I should have been doing different things.”

At least three of the pages she liked were run by the Russian trolls at the Internet Research Agency, as well as at least one is usually a fake conservative page run by a self-described liberal troll who targets conservatives with false stories as well as memes.

Cameron Hickey, her grandson, was a producer for the PBS series as well as noticed his grandmother’s liking as well as sharing habits when analyzing hyperpartisan Facebook pages for the show. When discussing her Facebook usage with BuzzFeed News, he mentioned in which she had recently shared a meme coming from the fake conservative page, even though he’s tried to help her better navigate Facebook.

“Despite very specifically discussing these issues with my grandmother, she hasn’t stopped liking as well as sharing things on the platform, as well as perhaps in which is usually our fault — not spending more time with her,” he said, adding “I love my grandma.”

in which sense of frustration mixed with love as well as a tinge of guilt is usually familiar to many people. yet there’s also a rising strain of resentment as well as anger being expressed publicly (often on Twitter by media insiders) toward boomers as well as Facebook, as well as what the two together have wrought.

“My current understanding of Facebook is usually in which the item’s the place everyone goes out of necessity for news coming from the handful of groups they follow, as well as a handful of mostly boomers go to redpill themselves into believing utter nonsense,” tweeted Christopher Mims, a technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

“The evolution of Facebook coming from the hip thing Obamaites used to target young suckers into the scary thing Russians used to target old suckers has been fascinating to live through,” tweeted Sonny Bunch, executive editor of the Washington Free Beacon.

These sentiments are likely a byproduct of the fact in which our current chaotic information environment is usually creating a historic gulf from the media habits between generations. People 25 as well as younger are heavy users of platforms such as Snapchat as well as Instagram as well as barely watch any traditional TV. Older Americans are more likely to use Facebook as well as watch traditional TV. People of all ages from the US are on Facebook, yet younger people use the item far less, as well as often cite the fact in which their parents as well as grandparents are there as a reason to stay away.

yet even having a growing amount of data showing how much older Americans struggle with digital literacy, the item’s unfair to point the finger at one age group as the cause of informational rot on the internet, according to Andy Guess, an assistant professor of politics as well as public affairs at Princeton University, as well as the coauthor of a recent study about fake news consumption.

“the item’s genuinely easy to latch onto an explanation like in which. as well as if the item seems to genuinely resonate with your experiences, in which’s when you should stop as well as think, What am I missing?” he said.

Generational resentment also further isolates boomers, which compounds the problem.

“Seems like I see a lot of loneliness,” James said of the commenters she interacted with on liberal as well as conservative hyperpartisan Facebook pages.

Feelings of isolation as well as loneliness are important factors from the online behavior of older people. In their Scientific American article, Ghosh as well as Iyengar cited research in which found loneliness can affect cognitive functions as well as physical as well as mental health, as well as can result in a decline from the ability to self-regulate.

Feelings of isolation as well as loneliness are important factors from the online behavior of older people.

“This kind of constellation of behaviors, which broadly seeks to avoid conflict as well as minimize disappointment, may make these individuals prone to gravitating towards sources of information in which mirror their own worldview thereby maintaining a sense of self,” they write.

in which translates into online habits in which could cause older people to unwittingly construct filter bubbles as they seek out contact as well as reinforcement for their worldview. the item may also make them more vulnerable to elder scams as well as fraud, which have become an epidemic.

In early March, the Department of Justice announced “the largest coordinated sweep of elder fraud cases in history,” resulting in charges against more than 260 people “coming from around the globe who victimized more than two million Americans, most of them elderly.”

“Crimes against the elderly target some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” Attorney General Bill Barr said.

Steve Baker worked for the Federal Trade Commission for more than 30 years, specializing in investigating fraud as well as scams. He told BuzzFeed News in which the Jamaican lottery fraud, which involves telling someone they won a cash prize as well as then asking them to pay a fee to collect the item, specifically targets older people.

“With the Jamaican fraud, we know they’re not only getting tons of older people yet they’re looking for older people to target,” he said.

Baker, who today runs a website as well as newsletter about frauds targeting older consumers, also said the item’s common for older adults who’ve been scammed to genuinely not realize they’ve been ripped off, which makes the item even easier on the crooks.

The DOJ announcement noted in which the item recently helped organize the first Rural as well as Tribal Elder Justice Summit in Iowa to help combat elder abuse as well as economic exploitation in these communities. Older Americans are more likely to live in rural communities as well as This kind of can bring with the item a sense of isolation in which makes the internet seem like the best, or perhaps only, way to connect with others.

There is usually also another, delicate issue regarding older people as well as their interactions with digital information as well as technology. the item’s something no one wants to talk about directly, least of all with their relatives, yet the item’s a reality of aging: cognitive decline. We are all susceptible to the item, as well as the item can come on suddenly or creep up over years. yet once the item has taken hold, the item can drastically affect how you interact with the entire world.

Munger said there is usually a “phenomenon which is usually still somewhat rare yet will be increasingly common of 0-year-olds on Facebook with limited cognitive capacity.”

“the item’s sad as well as potentially very dangerous,” he said.


Greg Kahn for BuzzFeed News

Even boomers who have experience with computers as well as technology find themselves feeling a bit left behind. At the AARP workshop, Charles Robinson, 75, stood with his cane proudly wearing a Veterans of Foreign Wars hat. He took his iPhone out of his pocket as well as said he does everything on the item, coming from paying bills to email. As he was speaking to a reporter, a text message arrived coming from This kind of grandson asking whether Robinson had managed to get his home computer back up as well as running. He hadn’t, as well as the instructions sent by his grandson didn’t help.

“I don’t feel too confident about doing in which he wants me to do. in which’s why I called him,” Robinson said. “He says This kind of sounds like a very simple problem. the item sounds simple to him, you know, in which’s fine.”

He as well as his wife, Jan (who winkingly gave her age as “70-plus”), are retired as well as have spent recent years traveling. They have college degrees as well as remain engaged from the entire world around them. yet using technology is usually more of a struggle for them than the item used to be.

“We both worked from the government as well as went to college, yet the technology is usually still moving on no matter how many degrees you got, so we got to keep up with the item somehow,” she said, noting in which she was happy to have learned how to crop a photo.

“Years back when the computers became available, we were more savvy.”

Of course, those currently over 65 didn’t grow up using the internet or spend a large portion of their lives with the item. yet the item will be different for people who will turn 65 in another 20 years, right?

Probably not, says Munger.

“The rate of change on the internet is usually going to enhance, as well as the extent to which we have people in their mid-twenties who already feel alienated coming from people in their teens who experience the internet differently is usually only going to become more serious unless the internet itself stops changing so quickly,” he said.

An avid Facebooker in their forties may already be puzzled by TikTok, for example. as well as so the item’s possible in which today’s internet-savvy adults become tomorrow’s struggling seniors.

in which means the question of how to help older people adapt to the internet as well as completely new digital environment isn’t just about supporting today’s seniors. Solutions have to anticipate as well as meet the digital literacy needs of the 65-pluses of the future. in which’s difficult given in which as of today, older people are largely left out of the digital literacy boom, as well as often struggle to get family members to help them.

“We have a child proof internet so the solution might well be a senior-proof internet.”

Munger says one response we might see to an increasingly older internet population might be for “tech companies as well as different established elites to take a paternalistic approach.”

“We have a childproof internet, so the solution might well be a senior-proof internet. yet the point is usually, This kind of won’t work because the seniors vote a lot as well as they do not want to be told what to do at all,” he says.

They also may not be interested in digital literacy classes if they aren’t framed properly. Coler, the former fake news publisher, said a senior center in his California town recently tried to hold a “Tips for Spotting Fake News” workshop. the item was canceled due to a lack of interest.

“I think naming the class ‘Tips for Spotting Fake News’ was poorly planned—everyone thinks THEY can spot fake news, just not others,” he said in a Twitter direct message.

Munger says the starting point is usually to recognize in which older people are justified in feeling they’re not being given proper support as well as understanding, as well as to meet them on their terms. in which could mean more offerings like AARP’s workshops in a wide variety of areas, yet also more research to understand how aging, social media, technology, as well as society intersect.

“I don’t genuinely blame the older people at all. They have some actual legit grievances, as well as we’re going to have to figure out how to better integrate them from the future,” Munger said. ●