Senior Wisdom

October 30, 2020

“Misinformation, disinformation, propaganda: all of those are different,” Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, said the other day, his face confined to a tiny rectangle at the corner of a Zoom display. Tompkins, who is sixty-three, with wispy gray hair, wore a blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a tie fastened at the collar. He was speaking to a virtual class of forty-three senior citizens who’d signed up for MediaWise, a fact-checking seminar designed to help them avoid getting hoodwinked online. 

Poynter’s interest in seniors stemmed from an urgent problem: older Americans are the fastest-growing group on Facebook, and research has found that people over sixty-five are especially likely to share fake news. Katy Byron, the program manager for MediaWise—started by Poynter in 2018, with funding from Google, as a digital-literacy program for young adults—soon recognized a need to expand. After securing more funding—from Facebook, naturally—the MediaWise team began developing a new course for the fifty-plus crowd. “We generally like to use misinformation that we find in the wild,” Byron said. Planning the course for seniors presented some obvious challenges—the elderly are not widely viewed as tech devotees—but it was pretty easy to set the parameters. “We’re not talking about TikTok in the seniors project,” Byron explained. 

Over four sessions, Tompkins laid out the basics—how social media algorithms work, how to navigate search engines, how to verify facts and images. To begin, he pulled up a video of Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, in which she could be seen delivering remarks from a podium, her speech slower than normal, as if she’d been drinking. “What would a reasonable person assume is going on in this video?” Tompkins asked.

“Obviously physical impairment, slurred,” a student named Mike replied.

Tompkins nodded. This is how rumors get started, he told the class; the clip in question had gone viral. Time to explore the fundamental techniques of “lateral reading”—that is, comparing information across trusted sources. The students watched from their screens as he demonstrated how easy it is to manipulate a video in Adobe Premiere, slowing Pelosi’s cadence while maintaining the pitch of her voice. “That was twenty-five seconds of work,” he said.

“It ain’t your old film anymore,” Mike chimed in. “Don’t get on a digital platform with an analog mindset.”

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Older people hit essentially all the same misinformation-related snags as anybody, though the outbreak of the pandemic added life-or-death stakes to the MediaWise curriculum. “Senior citizens are the most at risk for coronavirus; they’re the most at risk for sharing misinformation,” Byron said. Plus: “They’re the most likely to vote.” That fact provided the incentive to debut the program in time for this year’s presidential election, which gave Poynter only a few months to prepare.

In another lecture, Tompkins showed how easily bad actors can doctor tweets. He used an example from 2018, when Alex Harris, a Miami Herald reporter, was trying to cover the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida. Using her account name, someone had created images of two fake tweets that appeared as though they had come from Harris’s feed; the bogus posts asked a student from Parkland for pictures of dead bodies from the scene. At the MediaWise class, a student named Barbara, not realizing the messages were fictitious, expressed outrage. “I think it’s wrong,” she said. “Are we all calling for her to be fired?” Her peers murmured, repeating the question through their unmuted mics.

Then someone spoke up: “No, not fired.” Tompkins asked why not, and the answer came back: because it might not really be Harris tweeting that—it could be a bot, mimicking her. A-plus. Tompkins introduced the class to Tweet Fake, a phony-tweet generator that allows you to create an image of a tweet that appears to come from an existing account. You can set the message, its time stamp, the number of retweets and likes, and who shared it. A chorus of wows arose from Zoom.

At the last session, Tompkins warned students about the kinds of disinformation they might expect in the future. “Look, the days ahead for us are gonna get weird,” he said. Determining the outcome of the election will most likely take days, if not weeks, he explained; in that time conspiracy theories are bound to crop up. Tompkins urged his students to raise questions and ask their friends to check their sources throughout the period of uncertainty. Because, he told the class, seniors are influencers. “Even if you don’t think of yourselves as influencers,” Tompkins said, “the fact is, you are.” 

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.