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How Some Are Trying To Teach Senior Citizens To Spot Fake News


U.S. officials have warned that Russia is interfering in the presidential election again. In 2016, Russia launched a massive disinformation campaign designed to influence voters. Since then, many schools have added digital literacy courses, but some experts say the voters who struggle the most with fake news are senior citizens. For All Tech Considered, NPR's Sam Gringlas visited a class that's tackling the challenge.

BRE CLARK: You'll see the sign-in sheet's coming around.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: We're in the daisy room at the Schweinhaut Senior Center in suburban Maryland. The walls are washed in bright yellow and decorated with - you guessed it - pink and purple daisies. Around a bank of tables, a dozen seniors are on iPads and laptops, and they're in the middle of an investigation.

PAUL MINK: What you got here is a possibly fake article.

GRINGLAS: That's Paul Mink (ph). Like the other students in this workshop, he's staring at a meme. It's an image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a caption. Instructor Bre Clark reads it aloud.

CLARK: California received three extra seats in Congress by including 2 1/2 million illegal aliens in their population total.

GRINGLAS: Does that sound right?

MINK: Let's put the source up there; K-R-Y-P.

GRINGLAS: Searching on Google leads to some dead ends and some detours.

CLARK: Oh, you found Fortnite memes (laughter). So did you perform a search for memes? OK.

GRINGLAS: Eventually, everyone pulls up a reputable fact-checking site like Snopes or PolitiFact, just like they've been taught. And Marlene Cianci (ph) finds the Pelosi meme.

MARLENE CIANCI: A meme on Facebook falsely claims - so...

CLARK: Awesome.

CIANCI: It's right there. It's just a two-step thing.

CLARK: Awesome.

CIANCI: And there it was.

GRINGLAS: This session, how to spot fake news, is organized by the nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services. These kind of classes aren't common yet nationwide, but a recent study suggests they're increasingly important. Researchers at Princeton and NYU found that Facebook users 65 and over posted seven times as many articles from fake news websites compared to adults under 29. In the daisy room, Clark tells these seniors that a key to spotting fake news is knowing its source.

CLARK: So where does the information come from? Many of you - or a few of you - cited that you kind of go directly to a source you already trust. But if you do stumble upon something, where did the information come from?

GRINGLAS: Ninety-two year old Patricia Kramer (ph) says she appreciated the lesson, even though she thinks older adults know how to spot something fishy and shouldn't shoulder all the blame for this problem.

PATRICIA KRAMER: If you tell me that you've got an ice cream cone, I'm going to say, where is it? You know? I want to see the proof. I'm going to question every single thing, and I think that would be something that older people would do 'cause we've been fooled a lot of times when we were younger.

GRINGLAS: Beside memes, the class learns about deepfakes - online audio and video that seem real but aren't - also, Russian trolls and propaganda. After the class, Joyce Wu (ph) says she feels empowered to wade through it all.

JOYCE WU: In this new technology where things go so fast, we just get left out sometimes or we get confused. So having this program really enlightens us and help us to advance and become more braver.

GRINGLAS: Over at Stanford University, Susan Nash is one of the few researchers who's been looking at why seniors may be more likely to struggle with fake news.

SUSAN NASH: If we were standing in line in the supermarket and we saw a tabloid, I mean, people in my generation know what that means. But when we see something online, the traditional cues that we're used to are not present.

GRINGLAS: Nash, who is 63, also says confirmation bias can get stronger with age. Isolation can be a factor, too. And since the AARP finds tech use is climbing among older adults, Nash says it's important to tailor workshops to their specific needs.

NASH: Just because you're online doesn't mean you're ready to evaluate everything you're seeing there.

GRINGLAS: Nash says classes for seniors taught by peers can be especially effective; so are checklists and hands-on practice.

NASH: We all know that an informed democracy is the only way a democracy works. And if we don't teach them how to evaluate what they're seeing, then we are poisoning our electorate.

GRINGLAS: So Nash and other groups are racing to whip up more programming. And with an election on the horizon, the stakes are incredibly high.

Sam Gringlas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.