Live Wisely - November 29, 2021

Navigating the Misinformation Landscape

By Timaeus Reed

There are about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created on the internet every day. That’s 2.5 million trillion bytes of data. Can anyone even conceive of that amount of information? Probably not. Studies show that the average human can only think about 6,200 thoughts a day. And yet, the internet is constantly growing with more and more information and more different types of information every single second. With this massive spread of information comes the spread of misinformation.

The Age of Information for Older Adults

In this age of information, it has never been easier, or more overwhelming, to find and consume information on pretty much any subject. What’s not always easy is confirming the veracity of all the information we consume.

That’s what makes the internet so powerful and dangerous. People of any age can access it from anywhere in mere moments, whether to learn about the best ways to keep fit and healthy, or to learn how to steer clear of cybercriminals on the web.

The internet can also trap people in a landscape of misinformation, especially those older adults who might have less familiarity and less frequent use of the internet.

Tucker Eskew, Goodwin Living Board of Trustees member

“Older adults have got a big role to play in creating a sustainable information climate,” said Tucker Eskew, Governance Committee Chair of the Goodwin Living Board of Trustees and Partner, Vianovo. “People with extended life experiences haven’t had the need to sort so much information at once online. Now, many of them don’t know what to believe or where to start. We have to raise awareness of that need and show older adults how important their informed perspective is for everyone.”

It seems that as more and more information becomes available online, the harder it becomes for many people to spot the truth. Tucker has dedicated his career to combatting this clarity deficit that seems to be increasing. For the last four years, Tucker has not only served with the Goodwin Living Board of Trustees, but also as the News Literacy Project Board of Trustees. The News Literacy Project is a non-profit, non-partisan educational resource that educates people of all ages on how to consume news and information in fair and honest ways.

“Truth matters a lot to older adults who want to be in a community with friends and family,” Tucker said. “Information is like currency in those relationships. They want to know how they can become a better sharer of information to those they love.”

How Does Misinformation Spread

We have all heard the term “fake news”, but is it really that hard find the truth online? The aforementioned data growth of the internet doesn’t consist entirely (or even mostly) of news media. Data can be any kind of information, and that’s partly why misinformation can be so difficult to spot.

It all starts to blend together, especially when tensions are heightened due to polarizing politics or a pandemic that requires us to isolate ourselves at home. When emotions run high, people will seek and consume anything that helps them make sense of the chaos, even if it isn’t true.

Biases are exacerbated by the ease with which people can reaffirm them online, be it through social media, news, media personalities and more. There may be a lot of data on the internet, but most people stick to the small corners of it that work for them—making them targets for spreaders of misinformation. During the 2016 elections, older adults were most likely to spread fake news, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

“It’s so easy to find news and information that confirms a point of view, an outlook, a political perspective, a theory about the world,” Tucker said. “With that comes fragmented trust, uncertainty and an almost desperate need to simplify. Bad actors take advantage of that natural human quest for simplicity and affirmation.”

Older Adults Are Tech Savvy

Older adults are not strangers to technology. The internet has been around for nearly 50 years. It’s a tool that’s been actively present in daily life since the 90s, yet it has changed by leaps and bounds over the last three decades.

Few people in our Life Plan communities understand that better than Claudia Blake, a Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads (GHBC) resident. Claudia is a webmaster for the internal GHBC Resident website (created and run by residents) that provides residents with a repository for everything they need to know about life at GHBC.

“We used to trust library reference books,” said Claudia. “That’s what we learned in school was the authoritative, trusted source. But today, there’s no librarian for us on the internet. So many people are forced to find something, anything, to trust. Otherwise, you’re frozen.”

Claudia first came to GHBC in 2014 during an open house event where she met the late Donita Moorhus. At that time, Donita was developing the internal website for GHBC residents, and she knew someone would need to take over some day. She learned that Claudia had a background working at a word processing and desktop publishing bureau in the 1980s and 90s. That’s when Donita knew she wanted to recruit Claudia as a partner.

“She took one look at me and said ‘once you get unpacked, I want you working on the website’. I hadn’t even decided to move to Goodwin Living yet!” Claudia chuckled.

Donita passed away in 2019, but not before empowering Claudia and others to dive into the technology and use it to better the lives of older adults in our community. Since Claudia officially moved to GHBC in 2015, she has gained new perspective on the challenges older adults face in the age of information.

“Many of us are familiar with the internet, but that doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes,” said Claudia. “It’s hard to be suspicious of everything. People don’t want to have to do a research project whenever they go online. We just want to read the truth, and we hope that what read actually is truthful.”

Claudia has seen how this information fatigue has pushed people toward quick and simple answers, even to complicated issues. Thankfully, more people are finding ways new ways to help us combat misinformation every day.

Teaching Misinformation Combat

The problem of misinformation has long been discussed and studied. We know how it happens and that’s why many organizations across the world are working tirelessly to teach everyone how to make sense of the chaos in healthier, more productive ways. Goodwin Living is happy to have a member of our board working with one of the organizations leading that effort.

News Literacy Project and Senior Planet and OATS from AARP came together this year to help older adults navigate the oversaturation of information online. These groups teamed up to launch a series of cutting edge, online seminars to ‘help older adults spot inaccurate information online and empower them to…verify factual information’.

Senior Planet invited older adults to join a three-part series of hour-long sessions that helped them learn more about the online landscape of misinformation and develop fact checking skills. The last webinar was held on Wednesday, November 17, focusing on how to have discussions with people that are regularly exposed to misinformation.

You can watch the first session at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSDQkehgmvY. (As of the writing of this blog article, only the first session was available.)

Everyone Can Do Their Part

With their inconceivable (and ever growing) numbers, online data and information will always outnumber us. Yet everyone can work together to make the age of information work in our favor. At Goodwin Living, we are grateful to organizations like News Literacy Project, AARP and many others that offer easily consumable, free resources online that help people navigate all forms of media responsibly.

Anyone can take advantage of these resources and help combat misinformation and its implications worldwide. That, too, is the power of the internet. Sometimes, this means opening yourself up to different perspectives; other times, this means helping someone to better understand yours. No matter your age, experience or political preferences, we invite you to join the effort to combat misinformation and share the skills you learn with the people in your community. Be safe on the net and share truth!

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Timaeus Reed is a Marketing and Communications Specialist at GHI. He plans, writes and designs for internal and external campaigns that support all areas of the organization. He relocated from Kansas to D.C. to join the team in the summer of 2021. When he isn’t getting lost in traffic, Timaeus loves listening to live Go-Go music and stand-up comedy.

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