Covid-19: Older adults and the risks of misinformation

As covid-19 continues to spread, so too does misinformation about the virus on social media. This spread of misinformation online has become one of the central issues in the response to the covid-19 emergency. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has christened the problem an “infodemic” and has launched an initiative to counter rumours and false information. The NHS has also launched a plan to combat fake news about covid-19 by establishing a counter disinformation unit. Although these interventions are welcome, misinformation continues to proliferate. While all populations across all age groups are susceptible to believing misinformation online, it is critical for us to recognise that one population group might be especially vulnerable: older adults. This is also the population most at risk of covid-19. 

Evidence from epidemiological investigations suggests that, in China, covid-19 poses a disproportionately high threat to those aged 70 or above. While these numbers call for older adults to protect themselves as much as possible, misinformation can undermine recommended protective behaviours prescribed by health agencies.

The relationship between age and misinformation has been extensively explored by psychologists generating nuanced and, at times, competing insights. However, a 2014 meta-analysis of ageing and the misinformation effect revealed that older adults, especially those over 65, are more vulnerable to misinformation as compared to other groups. Another review suggests that older adults not only possess a diminished ability to correctly recall the source of original information, but seem to demonstrate greater confidence in false memories, rendering them more vulnerable to misinformation. A limitation is that this evidence is based mostly on studies performed in controlled laboratory settings and in the context of eyewitness testimonies. A recent study found that older adults’ are protected by resident knowledge when confronted by known false claims. However, they tended to believe such claims to be true in the absence of prior knowledge about them  – a scenario allegorical to misinformation about covid-19 where little by way of historical knowledge is usually available. The nature of digital misinformation compounds these concerns wherein false affiliations are added to make the messages seem like they have been delivered by a reliable source, and a modicum of truth added to enhance its believability. 

Older adults have enthusiastically taken to social media platforms providing them with greater access to a range of valuable informational sources and social connections online. However, it also exposes them to various strains of misinformation, many of which tend to repeatedly appear within the same platform (like WhatsApp) on different groups, or across platforms spreading false news about symptoms, personal protection measures and therapies.

Research in political misinformation has shown that older adults in the US aged 65 and older were more likely to share fake news on social media as compared to other groups. Efforts to address exposure to and sharing of misinformation during covid-19 thus need urgent attention, with a particular focus on making sure that at risk and vulnerable populations have access to accurate information that is tailored for them. A simple start could be made by creating a resource section dedicated to older adults in the WHO’s newly launched EPI-WiN platform that has been designed to tackle the “infodemic” by diffusing corrective and tailored information through trusted online amplifiers. Because countering misinformation with corrective information has proved to be a strategy with mixed results, it would be useful to leverage this platform to also build health-related data literacy skills. Such a resource can also be adapted and enhanced by member countries for engagement at the community level, like a novel effort by Senior Planet called ‘How to Spot Fake News’.

Further, the nature of outbreaks behoves us to complement informational and data literacy interventions by building trust in health institutions and community agencies, which are or will likely be involved in outbreak response. Health and risk communication researchers will need to actively contribute to such interventions by not only engaging in their design, but also developing robust monitoring and evaluating programmes to measure their efficacy. While social media continues to feed us misinformation, the technologies on which it is based offer us the opportunity to execute and evaluate these seemingly long-term interventions in a nimble, efficacious manner. 

Santosh Vijaykumar is senior lecturer in digital living at the Department of Psychology, Northumbria University, UK. His research focuses on the role of mobile and social media in global health examining how misinformation and conflicting information affect issues related to disease outbreaks and nutrition.  

Competing interests: None declared