Why the Elderly Are More Susceptible to Social Media Misinformation

Though a problem that has existed for a while, misinformation spiralled to new heights during the second wave of COVID-19.

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Dutta (name changed) is 75 years old and lives in a middle-class residential cluster in South Delhi. Throughout, his phone was flooded with WhatsApp messages on how to fight the COVID-19 pandemic: from the use of hydroxychloroquine – the anti-malarial drug – to drinking garlic in hot water to drinking cow urine. A former defence officer, he would sometimes try and counter the misinformation on his many WhatsApp groups but after a while, he gave up. In his words, “I don’t seem to know anymore, what is right and what is wrong.”

2021 will be remembered for a most brutal second wave of COVID-19 that struck India. Even as the pandemic wreaked havoc through the months of April and May, another dangerous wave was also spreading: misinformation. So, what is misinformation? Misinformation and disinformation both refer to fake or inaccurate information. The key difference lies in the intention – disinformation usually refers to intentional cases while misinformation the unintentional.

Does this misinformation schema specifically target a particular age group? Not really, contends Nirjhari Sinha, co-founder and director of Alt News, the Indian non-profit fact-checking website.

“In terms of strategy, it is unlikely that those who create disinformation create an age-specific strategy. Misinformation is typically age agnostic. However, many users in the 55-75 year group could be new users with limited digital literacy and could end up internalising and distributing misinformation more than other age groups. This is also the age group which is least likely to look for a fact-check, based on statistics from Alt News‘s social media accounts,” she said.

Dr Debanjan Banerjee, a consultant geriatric psychiatrist in Kolkata and a member of the International Psychogeriatric Association (IPA), concurs. “A recent Help Age report found that 80-85% of senior citizens do not have adequate digital literacy.” The elderly, he believes, are particularly vulnerable to misinformation on social media platforms. 

“Many senior citizens are segregated and live away from their families. They may have problems with hearing and vision, which means they may not be able to make sense of the information they are receiving. When sensory input is weakened, one way that misinformation does more damage is by relaying partial information or partial truth – you know half the truth and you don’t know the other half,” the doctor said.

Dr Banerjee paints a picture that looks like this: “I am lonely, sad and afraid. I’m a 70-year-old senior citizen who resides in an old age home. I have no family or they live in another country. I am already afraid because I know that with my age, I am more susceptible to COVID-19 and I can see death and suffering around me. If I see a video claiming a particular exercise will help fight the disease, it may make me feel more secure both emotionally and physically.” This is the typical reaction of the elderly because of their economic and social circumstances, he said.

An elderly woman gets vaccinated against COVID-19 in Thane, March 2, 2021. Photo: PTI

A social media malaise

While COVID-19 was a cataclysmic moment in the misinformation wave, fake news and false information have been a social media malaise for a long time now. The pandemic created a dangerous cocktail that fuelled many fields, including anti-vaccination sentiments and online fraud. Shivam Shankar Singh, the author of The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realitiestalks of multiple instances of cyber scammers calling people for OTPs in the name of enrolment for COVID-19 vaccinations and taking money out of digital wallets or bank accounts.

In another case, the authors found that an unknown entity hired PR firms to lobby YouTube influencers and other people with a following to sow doubt specifically about the Pfizer vaccine. It showed that there was at least some vested interest in distributing vaccine-related misinformation, and money being spent for the purpose.

Facebook also banned some of the pages linked to entities involved. 

Nirjhari Sinha points to the simmering undercurrent always at play – religious hatred. “One of the most dangerous forms of misinformation recently is not specifically targeted to any age group. It was the systematic demonisation of Muslims during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein an attempt was made to term the entire community as ‘superspreaders’ through targeted misinformation,” she says. A false video 

In April 2020, a video of a vendor licking his finger while handling fruits on his cart was shared on social media in the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. Across platforms, there was a deliberate attempt to portray it as a willful act to spread the coronavirus.

An investigation by Alt News revealed that the video was from Madhya Pradesh’s Raisen town and dated back to February 2020. While speaking to the media, Raisen’s superintendent of police reiterated that the video was old and assured residents that the issue was being investigated and there is “nothing to fear”.

“This is just such example, but there have been many” Sinha adds.

Misinformation is also unfortunately the proverbial burning stone – it does as much harm to you as it does to others.

WHO notes: “Misinformation costs lives. Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunisation campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive. Furthermore, disinformation is polarising public debate on topics related to COVID-19; amplifying hate speech; heightening the risk of conflict, violence and human rights violations; and threatening long-term prospects for advancing democracy, human rights and social cohesion.”

Sometimes, the consequences are fatal. Dr Debanjan Banerjee recalls that between May-July 2020, was when the first COVID-19 wave hit, there was a huge hue and cry about hydroxychloroquine. A lot of people were stocking and consuming it without medical advice because of the spread of misinformation around its ability to prevent COVID-19. An elderly gentleman who Dr Banerjee had been treating for other reasons had procured the drug and administered it to his wife, who was about 60 years old. One day, Dr Banerjee got an emergency call. The elderly gentleman’s wife had had a cardiac arrest and several other complications had arisen. After five days of intensive care, she passed away because the dosage she’d been taking was very high.

What do we do?

Do solutions exist? Yes, say experts. Shivam explains, “Many things have to come together to counter misinformation for this age group. First is explaining to people what misinformation is, why it’s dangerous and why they must not trust every piece of information they hear or receive over digital platforms. Second, people should be made aware of fact-checkers and how they can be reached to verify information. Alt News now has a WhatsApp number where people can forward content to be fact-checked. Third, the correct information about important topics like COVID-19 and vaccines must reach people first. Friends and family have a major role to play here.”

Nirjhari Sinha of Alt News adds, “Large scale awareness programmes and public service announcements about dangerous misinformation through radio, television and roadside hoardings is one way to work towards alleviating the present issue. Society-wide digital literacy programmes are the only way forward that will facilitate citizens viewing information through a critical lens. In terms of online scams, the police need to be trained to quickly monitor and find individuals who are creating these scams. There are very limited resources available using which one can train themselves to safeguard from harmful information. The onus, in this case, is on the Union Government to start with, and not the citizens, to come up with a well-thought policy that can be implemented nationwide.”

Representative image of a person using WhatsApp. Photo: Reuters

All these solutions must be layered with a degree of empathy and insight into the impact on senior citizens. Dr Debanjan Banerjee says, “As a geriatric specialist, I must speak for the human rights of the elderly. The solution lies in digital literacy and empowering and helping them understand, having open discussions etc. It is equally important though to think deeply about what contributed to a surge of misinformation during COVID-19. It is only when we know what the contributing factors were, that we can work on countering them.”

Many reasons play into the popularity of WhatsApp and its enormous appeal in a country like India. It offers affordable access, it is a tool of trust in the sense that people rely heavily on personal networks for information. It also seems to be a cultural fit for India – the country leads the world in forwarding messages on WhatsApp.

This year, WhatsApp completes 12 years of its existence. Its parent Meta (formerly known as Facebook Inc) has been around since 2006, the same for Twitter. Social media and online chat platforms have been around for long enough. Now it is time to come of age.