Mike tells Sarah what makes older Americans more vulnerable to misinformation — and who is delivering it to them. Digressions include "Supernatural," the Rachel and a fake university in Pennsylvania. We recorded this episode before the election but tried not to make it too obvious.
Here's the article Mike wrote with all the research he did for this episode:
Sarah: There's just something that Americans love about a protagonist who's recently been fired. Welcome to “You're Wrong About”, the show where we hear about Michael Hobbes’s research process.
Mike: I was going to say, “Welcome to ‘You're Wrong About’, where sometimes our episodes match the premise of our show, and sometimes they're just what Mike has been working on.”
Sarah: You know, something that people have pointed out since the beginning, is that quite a few of our episodes could just as easily be called, “You've Never Heard Of”, or “You're Basically Right About It, But Let's Talk About It Anyway”. So like, I don't really think a show needs to literally live out its premise. You know, those kids on “Salute Your Shorts” did other stuff.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbs, I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall and I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
Mike: And if you want to support the show, we're on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout, where you can find cute bonus episodes. And we're in lots of other places.
Sarah: We're in lots of other places, like we're eczema.
Mike: So today we're talking about an article that I had been working on.
Sarah: I'm excited about this. I love talking with you about your articles so much that I interrupted you. What is it about? I'm sorry.
Mike: I mean, the article basically came about because over the last couple of years, I have been watching my fellow millennials losing their parents and their grandparents to Fox News.
One of my best friends over the last year has been slowly losing, first his father, and now his mother, and there are no longer speaking. So I set out to interview people and find out what the patterns were in this, and then also talk to experts about how disinformation works online and why it seems that older people are more susceptible to it than younger people.
Sarah: So you're kind of like a Trumpism epidemiologist.
Mike: That's what I'm trying to do.
Sarah: Like Kate Winslet in Contagion.
Mike: Oh yeah. Except hopefully with a better fate. I don’t wanna die in a jacket.
Sarah: Or in Minneapolis.
Mike: Is this something you're familiar with? Like, is this something you've seen among your friends, too?
Sarah: Yes. I have seen this among my friends. I also feel like I'm aware of this as a phenomenon in the world, and as something that seems to be a significant driver of the divisions between the generations. Right? Because there are definitely plenty of young conservatives, because it seems like a lucrative field. But on the civilian scale, the ability to live your daily life counterfactually does seem like more of a boomer thing.
Mike: The data we have is incomplete, but this does seem like it's something that's affecting older people much more than younger people. Like, I think we should be clear. We're not talking about people becoming more conservative, or people opposing a rise to the minimum wage or whatever. Like this doesn't actually have that much to do with ideology. What I'm talking about is the people who just seem to have completely departed from reality and departed from normal epistemology, where they're believing in satanic cults and the Democrats are going to open the borders and they're going to literally come to your house and take your guns on the first day after the election.
Sarah: And Tom Hanks is making shoes out of the children he tortures, which is my favorite myth because it is Tom Hanks. “Radical” literally means, “to grasp at the root”. So it is grasping at the root of people's paranoid fantasies. Yeah.
Mike: I mean, just as like a little medley to start off with, I interviewed about 10 people for this article. And so one of the people I interviewed is a public health epidemiologist and has been telling his mother for months, obviously, wear a mask, stay away from people. She's 76 years old.
A couple of weekends ago, his sister mentioned sort of casually like, “Oh, mom's out of town this weekend”. And then he goes to her social media and he finds out that she's at a mega church event and she's indoors with all these other people who are chanting and singing and not wearing masks. This to me is like the most tragic thing and the most common thing that you find in a lot of these stories, is the moment when parents or grandparents begin to believe information on the internet above their own kids.
Another person I interviewed works at a left wing Think Tank, like one of these think tanks that’s like not that well known among left-wing people. But among right wing people, it shows up and he's like “scare stories”, kind of like Evergreen College or something. It's like become this Shibboleth on the right. But so he works for this left-wing Think Tank and his father has always been conservative. They've always had kind of a tense relationship and the last time they saw each other; they no longer speak. His dad was like, “Oh, I know about this Think Tank that you work at, and they're kidnapping babies and draining their blood.” And he's like, “Dad, I work there, sorry.”
Sarah: Like wouldn't I know that? Like, who knows more about my job, your scary propaganda news sources or me?
Mike: This is like darkly funny but also very sad. There was another guy that I interviewed whose dad sort of had like a lot of personal problems in his life and ended up kind of broke and living in an RV and didn't have a lot of money to spend, he just had a ton of time on his hands. And so the way that this guy put it was the YouTube algorithm got to work on him.
Sarah: Oh, because we don't have the devil anymore, we just have the YouTube algorithm. But the YouTube algorithm is real, and effective, and it was designed brilliantly.
Mike: And it's an engine of radicalization that this guy is watching his dad's Facebook page and he's seeing the posts that he puts up. First of all, it's like Big Foot and flat earth stuff. Then he starts posting stuff about Hillary Clinton.
Sarah: Hillary Clinton murdered Big Foot.
Mike: Yeah. And then he starts posting all these like deeply anti-Semitic memes about George Soros. That it's like, he's a puppet master and there's these cartoons where he has like a big nose and like this big, high widow's peak, and the banker's controlling the system. And as this guy's telling me the story he pauses and he's like, “Oh, by the way, we're Jewish. My dad is posting like bullying, anti-Semitic memes.” This is the break with reality that his dad has gone through.
But so I think, I mean, just getting to the scope of the problem. There have been many studies on this, especially around the 2016 election, of sort of who is seeing the most misinformation and who is sharing the most misinformation. And all of the studies are quite consistent about the fact that it is old people, and it is conservatives.
Sarah: How old, how old we talking, Mike? Give me some numbers.
There's various ways of studying this. But there's one study that finds during the 2016 election, people over 65 are sharing seven times more fake news than people between 18 and 29. This is like extremely worrying that older people are just more vulnerable to misinformation than younger people. I mean, who knows how this will change over time, but like, it is undeniable that we are becoming a much older society. By 206o, one in four Americans will be over 65.
Sarah: Wow. That's a lot.
Mike: It's a lot, man. It's only one in seven now. Also by 2060, the U S population is projected to grow by about 25%. But the population of people over 85 is going to quadruple.
Sarah: Oh yeah. Well, it's going to be intense. And I love how, you know, it's also a major conservative talking point that it’s terrible that the birth rates are down in America and we need to get them higher. And the implication is that we're going to run out of people. But what's obvious is that we have more than enough people, and we're also going to have a crisis in terms of elder care.
Mike: Oh yeah.
Sarah: And this is an argument for allowing immigrants into the country. And the argument about anti-immigration increases the birth rate is like, it's not about workers, it's not about population, it's about white supremacy.
Mike: Oh absolutely. And also, I mean, one of the most chilling things is that, you know, we hear there's been so many stories about how the population of the U.S. is becoming more diverse. And I think it's like 2034 when we've switch to being more than 50% of the population is non-white.
But what's very interesting to me is as late as 2060, in 40 more years, people over 65 are still 55% white.
Sarah: Hmm. Oh boy. Oh, well that explains everything. What's the percentage now?
Mike: They're now 75% white. Most institutions, most political power, is held by people over 65. And people over 65 vote their asses off.
Sarah: They really do.
Mike: I don't want to be shitty about it, like everyone should be voting. But just, we live in a country that is dominated by the preferences of older people. And old, white people being in charge of the country is not a situation that is going to end anytime soon.
Sarah: And I would add also that once someone attains power, it's pretty hard for them to unbecome powerful.
Mike: Oh, yeah. We also have lengthening lifespans, generally.
Sarah: And the wealthy live longer, I'm sure. Right?
Mike: One of the statistics that drives me absolutely fucking crazy is, you know, the median age of Americans is roughly 38.
Sarah: So you are the median American, you're Even Steven.
Mike: I am, yes. I am the Peoria, Illinois of humans in America.
Sarah: You're so much more than that, though.
Mike: But then the average member of Congress is 58.
Sarah: Yeah. So this is like the difference between you and Ben from Veep.
Mike: Yes! I mean, oftentimes you'll say these statistics and I'm like, “Well, older people have always had more political power.” And yes, they have, but that gap has been growing over time.
Sarah: Boomers have been complaining about millennials for like 20 years.
Mike: Yes. Since they had us.
Sarah: Yes. And they still complain about us as if we're like tweens and they're worried that we're giving each other hand jobs. And it's like, we're all middle-aged.
Mike: The oldest millennials are 38. Half of millennial women are mothers.
Sarah: To me, it's hilarious that Gen X’ers are like, “No one ever talks about us.” And it's like, we have been getting yelled at forever and everything we do is wrong somehow. And it's so confusing. And you want them to talk about you? I would love that. But I also feel like some of that I imagine comes from the fact that Gen X’ers and millennials are like, as generations, the two children of boomers. It's like the boomers had this gorgeous car, this like Rain Man, classic American auto that they told the Gen X'ers, “Someday, when you grow up, I'll give you the keys.” And then they just never gave him the keys. And now the Gen X’ers are all 50 and they're like, “Can I drive the car?” And the boomers are like still driving it around, dinging it, constantly doing like pretty irreparable harm to it over time. And they're like, “I don't think you're ready yet.”
Mike: Yeah. We are all Prince Charles. We're just waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting.
Sarah: And your wife is like, “You'll never be King.”
Mike: I also want to say that ageism is a real thing. There's a lot of sort of generational warfare, lobbing bombs back and forth. But also, the same inequalities that characterize the differences between the generations are also very visible within the generations.
Sarah: Yes. Oh my God. There are so many terrible millennials.
Mike: Yes. And I just interviewed a listener actually, who studies geriatric homelessness. People over 50 are the fastest growing group of homeless people. So I don't want this to be like younger people versus older people. I just think that at a population level, there are implications of being an older society that I really don't think any of us have reckoned with. One thing that we don't think about enough is the fact that this has never happened before.
Sarah: Ever in any country or just here?
Mike: There are no human societies with media and ages as old as we are.
Sarah: Wow. Well, great. Why most everything be so unprecedented? I guess that's why we're rebooting all these shows from the eighties.
Mike: There any implications of this. There's financial implications, there are cultural and political implications, like there's lots of stuff. And so misinformation and losing more relatives to these online rabbit holes, it is one facet of this issue. But I think this is in no way trying to say that like every single old person falls from misinformation or every single person sucks. Like, no.
Sarah: I am sure that on the balance, perhaps even most boomers are just like, lovely calm people who understand that the earth is spherical and this one to like make model train towns. Like most people are decent and wholesome, but like, we're going to talk about some problem areas today.
Mike: Exactly. I mean, I have thought about this a lot because I have written quite a bit about sort of millennial versus Xers versus boomers.
Sarah: The great parenting standoff of our boring Twitter lives.
Mike: I mean, I think that it is incumbent upon younger generations to not be dicks to individual older people. Like if somebody says, “I'm not like that”, fucking believe them. I see no reason to make Boomer jokes to people that hurt their feelings.
Sarah: Unless it's your parents and they're being really snarky to you, then like go for it.
Mike: Definitely push your stepmother down the stairs. But I also think that it's incumbent upon older people, and I include myself in this group, to not experience every discussion of generational differences as a personal attack.
Mike: The Zoomers at this point are making memes, making fun of millennials. Like there was a wave of these a couple of weeks ago where they were putting out like, “Oh, you're obsessed with the nineties”. And like, “You all have the Rachel”. And like, bring it on. I think younger generations make fun of older generations and like, that's the way of the universe.
Sarah: That's their job. They have a catfish in the tank.
Mike: We should also acknowledge the undeniable fact that boomers had it easier than Gen X-ers, who had it easier than millennials, who have it easier than Zoomers. Whether it's the cost of housing, healthcare, and education, whether it's the availability of steady jobs, whether it's the functioning of the government. Things are getting worse.
Sarah: There are fewer resources with every passing year.
Sarah: How much of this do you think is just the very simple phenomenon of people are getting antsy whenever anyone younger than them seems to know something they don't? And the fact that as you got older, it just gets to the point where like, if you're 80, then if the 79-year-old has a good idea, you're just like, “How dare they?”
Mike: It's like twins being like, “I remember when I was your age”, like six minutes ago.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, it's also the phenomenon of like, you know, I think one of the things that makes people so uncomfortable with teenagers is that they don't see the teenager, they project their own teenage self onto that person. Because most people aren't at peace with their teenage selves. And I think that's part of why people are so shitty to teenagers when in reality, like, teenagers are great. They're human beings who are maturing at a fantastic rate and need to be allowed to sleep into at least mid-morning.
Mike: And also, older people are great, and our society treats old people like shit.
Sarah: It really does. We really treat old people like garbage. I mean, that's like one of the truths that's allowed to be hidden here. Because like, how many boomers have any power money? Not that many.
Mike: So, I have a four-part structure for this episode. So we are going to start by talking about why older Americans are more vulnerable to misinformation. So the first thing when you talk about, is like just how misinformation works.
Sarah: Misinformation has a bow on, and information just goes around eating dots.
Mike: That was good, Sarah.
Sarah: That was a good. I just thought of that.
Mike: So I interviewed a bunch of misinformation researchers, and I read a bunch of papers about sort of why people fall for misinformation. One of the biggest effects is something called the “illusory truth effect”, which basically just means if you see something a bunch of times, you're more likely to believe it. If you see headlines of like the Pope endorses Donald Trump, which is one of the most common pieces of fake news that went around in the 2016 election. If you just like, see that three or four times and you see it on Instagram and then you see it on Facebook and you see it on Twitter, subtly your brain is just going to be like, “Well, I've seen it a couple of times so it's probably true.”
Sarah: Right. And I've seen it from different sources, or I feel like I have, or something.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. There's also a really interesting finding in this ‘illusory truth effect’ that you can do studies on people where you can make them worse at spelling just by showing them the same word misspelled over and over again.
Sarah: Yeah. That makes sense.
Mike: If you see incorrect stuff around, you're just literally going to get used to it and you're going to start to repeat it.
Sarah: Because we're social animals. And I think that we also notice what is recognized as the truth in the media and the society around us, and we internalize that and accept it.
Mike: Yeah. The other form of misinformation that I want to talk about. I fucking hate that this is real, I hate that this is real.
Sarah: Lay it on me, Peoria.
Mike: So there's a study in 2012 where they found that if you put the statement, “Windmills were invented in Persia”, if you put that phrase on an image of windmills, people are more likely to believe it than if it's just on a black background.
Mike: Stupid. I hate people. This is ludicrous.
Sarah: And yet you are a people. That's the grand irony.
Mike: It doesn’t even have to be a photo of like Persian-looking windmills. It can just be random ass windmills in like Germany. It just, people see the image somehow as proving the text.
You also see this with like, you know, quotes. Mark Twain quotes on a photo of Mark Twain. If you read the replies to any tweet by any politician, you will find people posting these like extremely janky memes that are basically just like this structure of like, it's words on a slightly related photo. And you're like, why are people doing this? But this is actually convincing to people.
Sarah: And that are like, everyone should calm down and be happy that we've gotten this far. It's probably good enough for Martin Luther King Jr.
Mike: The most obvious explanation for why older people are more vulnerable to misinformation is just like biology, right? Like when you hear this, you're like, well, okay. The brain changes as it ages. There's a huge body of research showing people's like short-term memory starts to degrade, their reaction time starts to degrade. Like you can measure the ways that cognitive function declines over time. And like, these are very reliable findings that it begins to decline around age 40 or 45, different forms of memory degrade at different times. So one of the things that's really interesting about older people is, when they see a piece of information, they're less likely to remember the source. So if you see the same piece of information five or six times, but four of those times are in a fact check saying it's not true, you might actually not remember that you saw it in a not true source.
Sarah: Rats. So someone could hear you on the radio being like, “It is ludicrous that there are 800,000 children who go missing in America every year.” It is not supported by the facts at all. If we had truly a figure like 800,000 children, and then like this person who is half listening while like washing potatoes might end up a couple days later being like, “I think I heard that 800,000 children go missing every year in America.”
Mike: That’s literally how it works. The number sticks in your brain, but the way that it was conveyed to you sticks in your brain less. So there's various studies where they've tested like younger people and older people on this.
There's also, this is interesting, that as you age, you tend to have fewer contacts, but closer contacts. So as you age, a lot of your sort of acquaintances, like orbiting satellites, end up drifting away. But then you tend to rely more on close friends and family contacts. And people also, it appears, become more trusting as they get older. This is one of the reasons why there's so many financial scams targeting old people.
There are studies where they'll show older people, footage of other people lying. And they're worse at detecting a liar.
Sarah: And social media is, because it never occurred to me before, but it's just such a brilliant way to get people to be credulous about stories and ideas that you hand to them. Because they understand that it has been chosen for them by their friends.
Mike: Exactly. Again, like, I don't want to be a dick about this. It's not that every old person is trusting, and every young person is not trusting. Like these are gradations, right? It's like you're 8% more likely to trust somebody, you're 12% more likely. Like this isn't, I want to make sure that we're clear that these are like overlapping circles.
Sarah: It's interesting though. I would imagine that as you get older and are physically more vulnerable, that you would become less trusting. So it's interesting that that's what happens.
Mike: I know because I'm becoming much more of a dick as I get older.
Sarah: Give yourself some time.
Mike: But then, so these cognitive deficits generally begin to appear around 40, 45. Like this is a relatively standard thing. And over the last century, cognitive deficits have actually started to show up later in people because we have better nutrition, we have better healthcare. Humans have been getting better on these cognitive deficits over time until about 2000, when the improvements stopped. So they basically plateaued, and they are now declining.
So a study came out in July showing that boomers are showing cognitive declines much earlier than the greatest generation or the silent generation.
Sarah: Do we know why? Is it lead?
Mike: That's one theory. We don't, I mean, we don't really know why.
Sarah: It does seem like boomers grew up with much more toxic waste just pumped into the air, and the food, and the earth, and the water, than people in previous generations or subsequent generations.
Mike: I mean, this is like why I think it's so important to talk about ageism and talk about differences within generations. Because when this study came out, of course, it went around in the sort of like, “Okay, boomer”, like this explains everything and they're all lead poisoned, et cetera. Like, the rhetoric around this I think was really dehumanizing and shitty. But then if you read the actual study, it appears to be a function of inequality.
So the people with the worst cognitive declines are the poorest. The people with the worst cardiovascular health, like higher rates of diabetes, higher rates of hypertension, and then higher rates of loneliness and depression. It just feels like it's the chickens coming home to roost, in so many ways, of the fact that we have this broken healthcare system, the fact that we don't have a public approach to like mental illness.
Sarah: And then we don't give a shit about elder care or caring for anyone who's not a profitable member of society under capitalism.
Mike: Yeah. And also one thing that actually was really interesting to me is, almost all of the people who I interviewed who had lost older relatives to this, almost all of them had histories of mental illness, histories of opioid addiction, histories of alcohol abuse. So I really think that we need to think about this as a vulnerability, inequality, public health.
Sarah: There's a lot of disenfranchisement to go around.
Mike: Absolutely. Yeah. The other reason why old people are more vulnerable to misinformation is just that they're less savvy at internet stuff than younger people. Researchers call it ‘digital literacy’. There are all kinds of studies on this, that older people are worse than younger people at distinguishing news from sponsored content. They're worse at spotting manipulated images like Photoshop, like very obviously photo-shopped photos.
Sarah: But they know how to use rotary phones. They won't stop bragging about that.
Mike: There's also studies showing that older people are worse at separating factual news articles from opinion articles. There's a survey in 2019 that found that among older Facebook users, only one in five knew that Facebook uses an algorithm to feed you stories. A lot of people thought that there's like a news editor, like the newspaper, deciding this should be in your feed, this doesn't meet our criteria for factual accuracy, so it won't go in your feed.
One of the statistics I came across years ago and like haunts me to this day, is that 60% of internet users don't know what ‘Control F’ is.
Sarah: Oh no, that's so much time lost. Explain what it is, by the way.
Mike: It's how you can find something in a long document.
Sarah: If you're reading congressional testimony, for example, like my friend Michael Hobbes likes to.
Mike: I mean, I really think, especially for people like us who are weirdly digitally literate because our jobs depend on it, it's very easy to forget that for a lot of people, things that seem obvious to us and seem like you don't have to tell people. Then it’s like, “Of course that's an app algorithm. Obviously, grandma.”
Sarah: It's not that easy for me to forget, because I downloaded TikTok because I wanted to be sure that I had it before you stopped being able to download it in this country. But it scares me. Like you open it up and it's just like immediately TikToks flying at your face. And then I get overwhelmed because I'm the kind of person who has to turn the radio off when I parallel park. So I get it. I do get it. I think that like the way that media functions alienate people with a fairly high turnover at this point.
Mike: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And also, I mean, we just forget that older people are coming to Facebook without a lot of the knowledge that we have. And like, they're not stupid. It's just, people are not spelling these things out for them. Like it's not obvious from Facebook's feed that it's a computer.
Sarah: I don't know how TikTok works.
Mike: Yes. So the second reason why it feels like so many millennials are losing their older relatives to Facebook and Fox News, is basically the structure of social media. So all of the vulnerabilities, all of the deficits that appear in older Americans as they age, are deliberately exacerbated by fucking Facebook.
Sarah: Let's talk about Facebook.
Mike: So I talked to a really interesting researcher named Nadia Bashir, who has done research on misinformation and aging. She's one of the only researchers that studies this specifically. And what she said, she's like, the biological explanations, looking at these cognitive deficits or whatever, that leaves a lot out because there's also things that older Americans are better at than younger Americans. Like older Americans know more about politics and history and the economy and stuff. Just as they lose some skills as they age, they also gained skills as they age. And those things kind of balance each other out on some level.
But what she says is, you know, there's all these studies that measure sort of the ability to tell truth from falsehood. They'll do these studies where they show people fake claims about Bigfoot or one of them is about like low fat diets and stuff. And older people are actually better than younger people at telling truth from falsehood.
So this is a skill that you develop with age and you're like, that seems fake to me. That seems real and older people are better at that because they are wise. But what she says is something happens when people go on Facebook. And basically when you prompt people like, “I'm going to show you a headline. You have to tell me whether it's true or false”. People are really fucking good at it. However, when you're on Facebook, you're not expecting to do that. Right? Like you're not activating this higher order skill of every single thing that you scroll past on Facebook. You're like, does this seem true, or does this seem false?
Sarah: Yeah. Because it's social media.
Mike: Yes. News stories, misinformation, all this bullshit on Facebook, it's interspersed with like baby pictures and recipes and stuff. So it's like, hey, my aunt got a new job. And my cousin just moved to Toledo. And George Soros is working with bankers to take over the world. And so you're kind of in this light socializing mode. Or oftentimes, you know, you're at the grocery store. And you're just, you got two minutes to kill and you're scrolling through your phone. You glance at this thing and there's a headline about like Soros invading cities with BLM, or whatever. And you're just like, okay. And then you turn it off and you get your groceries. And that little nugget of information is just like in your brain, right? Because you didn't click through. You didn't really think about it particularly critically because you're sort of like, it's a little break in your day.
There's also the issue, I mean, it's kind of goes back to digital literacy. On Facebook every story looks the same, so it's often times difficult to assess the source.
Sarah: Good point. They all have the exact same aesthetic, and the most janky site will generate like a nice preview.
Mike: Right. And also there's now sites that of course know this and are deliberately taking advantage of the fact that people don't go to the original source of things.
So there's a website called the Denver Guardian, which sounds like, Oh, Denver Guardian, that must be the local newspaper in Denver. No, it's a completely fucking made-up thing that just spreads misinformation and has nothing to do with Denver.
There's also of course, PragerU which you’re like, it must be affiliated to a university. No, it's just like a fucking right-wing explainer video site that just puts out odious content. But if you see the phrase “PragerU” as the source, you're like, “Oh, there's probably a university called Prager.”
Sarah: It's probably in Pennsylvania, near Stroudsburg.
Mike: There's also really interesting studies on emotion and social media. So when people are angry, they're more likely to believe and to share misinformation that confirms their worldview. So if I'm in a shitty-ass mood and Amy Coney Barrett just got confirmed to the Supreme Court, and I go online and I see some story about like, “Donald Trump plans to murder all the troops” or whatever. That confirms my worldview so I'm going to be more likely to share that.
This of course is designed into the structure of social media. Like these little drips of outrage, it keeps you in this heightened, emotional state. And so it keeps you in this state where you're more likely to confirm things that confirm your worldview and less likely to read them. You want the sort of the fast, dopamine response, right? You don't want to actually read through like a 1,200-word article about how Donald Trump is bad. You just want to share it and be like, “See, I told you, you'll never guess what this guy did now”.
But then what's very interesting is when people are anxious, they are more likely to share and believe misinformation that doesn't confirm their worldview. During times of anxiety, people become more open to beliefs that have always seemed kind of kooky to them. So if I'm anxious about what's going on in the world, I might click on an article about like crystal healing. Because I'm anxious, I'm desperate, nothing is happening in the world that seems firm to me, and so I will reach for things.
Sarah: You got to get yourself some crystals and turn this whole like election around.
Mike: Yes. So this actually explains to me, one of the people I interviewed, she's actually lost two relatives to misinformation. One of them is her uncle who's really conservative, who actually tried to kill himself because he thought that like Antifa, like radical left people were coming to his town and taking his guns.
Sarah: Oh God.
Mike: It's bad. That was going to be years ago. But then her father, who has never got along with her uncle, who's like super progressive, he's a doctor, he is becoming an anti-vaxxer just in the last couple of months during COVID. And so her theory is that all of the anxiety produced by COVID and economic collapse and everything else that's going on in the country, somehow made him more open to this stuff. Even though he knows, like he's a fucking doctor, he knows this stuff is not true.
This explains to me also why so many people have been falling for Q Anon lately. It's just like, we're at a time where all of us are anxious all the time and it makes us more desperate for anything that is going to help explain what we're going through and put meaning to it. And the internet is just flooded with bad information right now. And so what we stumble upon is what we believe.
Sarah: This is one of your “isms”, that there aren't news deserts, there are news swamps in America.
Mike: the guy whose Christian mom went to the sort of COVID party. He says her journey down this rabbit hole started when she quit her job to take care of her elderly parents who had Alzheimer's, and she cared for them for a couple of years until their deaths. He said for her, it's just like this time of total anxiety. Like there's so much stress in her life. She's watching her parents get worse, she has nothing to really do when they're taking naps or whatever, other than go on Facebook. And so in this vulnerable state, this is when she started to get radicalized. There's just something similar to that happening for the entire country right now.
Sarah: Yeah. This is why more people should write fan fiction. Like what if she is like really into the Supernatural fandom and wrote like an epic novel about Supernatural.
Mike: I mean, this gets to the next reason why so many people are losing their older relatives to misinformation.
Mike: Oh my God. I fucking wish. So basically conservative media, the information that conservatives are seeing, just has a totally different relationship to truth and falsehood than the liberal media does.
Sarah: How did that happen?
Mike: So we are going to do a table read.
Sarah: Oh boy, you love these now.
Mike: I fucking love these.
Sarah: It's like when a child discovers capers.
Mike: So I'm going to be the gray bubbles and you're going to be the blue bubbles.
Sarah: Okay. What's my motivation here.
Mike: So this is a conversation between my friend and his father. So the blue bubbles, you, are my friend. And the gray bubbles are his father, who has been going down this conservative very scary rabbit hole for a long time.
So this is his father. “We survived Obama, we’ll survive Biden or Harris if they win.”
“It doesn't trouble you that Trump has admitted on TV that he won't give money to the post office because it will help with mail-in ballots, that doesn't ring any corruption bells to you?”
“Harris is the most left-wing Senator. She traded her vagina for promotions. Loser.”
“I'm sorry. What?”
“Post office is a long dead dinosaur. Their union priced them out of the competition.”
“Willie Brown, Google him and her and you'll understand the vagina comment. She slept her way to prominence in California. It's not fixable. The media will portray her as moderate, but she isn't. Today's moderate Democrat is yesterday's flaming socialist. I'm done for the day.”
“There's that word flaming again. You use that word to describe gays you didn't approve of.”
Mike: And that's it. It's bad. What do you think?
Sarah: So this dad is accusing Kamala Harris of “trading her vagina for promotions” and being a loser, which is like, really just like somehow the icing on top. Just being like loser. It's like, you're going to say loser to the nominee for Vice-President. Okay.
Mike: So many people sent me screen grabs of their conversations with their parents. And like, this is how it goes. It's like escalating and then they'll pushback or they'll send like, “Hey, here's like an LA Times article saying that like vaccines don't cause autism.” And it's like, “Oh, I don't have time to read that. Sorry, I'm done. I'm done for the day. I can't, I can't deal with this right now.”
Sarah: Or like, I've seen people who've shared with us on Twitter a lot of their interactions with people that are posting fake child trafficking memes and fake statistics. And the response that you see a lot is people being like, “What's the harm if I stay worried?” Like basically like that and not wanting to be confronted with information that would basically allow them to feel worried about the problems that are more likely to be significant in children's lives.
Mike: Right. The chilling thing about this is that this is not a misinformation conversation, right? So we talk a lot about sort of fake news and misinformation online. But to me, the thing that we should be worried about isn't people going on the internet and believing in Bigfoot. That's misinformation, but that's reasonably harmless.
Sarah: Bigfoot is folklore.
Mike: Exactly. This to me is a really important example of the actual threat online, which is ‘hyper-partisan information’. This is what academics call it. What's interesting about this set of screen grabs is, technically factually there's a nugget of truth in it. That Kamala Harris did date the former mayor of San Francisco in the 1990s and he did appoint her to some positions. Of course it was like eight years before she ever held elected office. There's no evidence that she was unqualified for those positions. Classifying this as like she sold her vagina for politics is obviously like wildly mischaracterizing it.
The other example that I always think of is there's these Facebook groups that are kind of like, immigrant crime is out of control. And every day somebody posts a thing like, “There's a guy from El Salvador in Albuquerque and he murdered his wife.” Right. And it's not misinformation because these stories are true. Like every instance is a real news.
Sarah: It's just like ask how many white guys who are U.S. citizens murdered their wives that day.
Mike: Exactly. It's such an interesting example of part of journalistic ethics is not telling people stuff, right. Because you can not tell a single lie, and you can give people a false narrative in their minds.
Another example of this that is extremely dark is, have you heard about honor killing?
Sarah: Uh, yeah.
Mike: The big thing in European far right, this idea that Muslim fathers are killing their daughters for losing their virginity or dating a non-Muslim guy or whatever. Every single time this happens - and it does happen a couple of times a year - it'll be this massive story. And then of course, people look into it and white German fathers are more likely to kill their daughters than Muslim fathers.
Sarah: I don't know, Mike, I can't think of any dads in Germany or Austria who did anything bad to their dog. It's Fritzl, I’m talking about Fritzl. I don't expect everyone to be able to guess.
Mike: But again, it's like all of those stories of honor killings in the tabloids, those are true stories. Like these are events that actually happened. But over time, you're basically entrenching this completely false narrative and people. And social media is great for that because there's literally groups that you can join to get the like immigrant crime fucking digest.
This is one of the statistics that I think is so important for understanding what's going on. So famously, the median age of Fox News viewers is 65.
Sarah: Ooh, I didn't know that. I love it how you're always like “No, seriously”. And then you quote a statistic and I'm like, “Oh, I've never heard about that or even wondered it.” So great.
Mike: I mean, this is often cited for sort of the corrosive effects that Fox News is having an older people that it's like mostly older people watching Fox News. Do you know the average age of MSNBC viewers?
Mike: 65. What's important to me about that equally old audience is that people who watch MSNBC or not fucking Q Anon people, they're not anti-vaxxers. MSNBC does not radicalize old people the way that Fox News does. Like, there is a difference in the kinds of things that they are willing to put on the air. The difference is not between older people and younger people, the difference is between the conservative ecosystem and the liberal ecosystem.
Sarah: Right. And also what conservative media wants to do to its consumers, which we talked about in our Nancy Grace episodes, and I think that's very relevant for Fox News. It's like hockey. You just want to keep the puck in motion, you want to keep the viewer in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety and like, ready to shoot someone on their lawn-ness.
Mike: Yeah. This is also very well-established. I interviewed researchers who study this. There's a famous study that came out after the 2016 election about the conservative ecosystem versus the liberal ecosystem. Because regardless of your political ideology, you're not just getting news from one source.
Sarah: I get my news from Seth Meyers.
Mike: But this is the thing, like you probably read the New York Times. You probably see clips of CNN online at various times. You do watch Seth Meyers. Like there are various left-wing sources that you're looking at of different levels of credibility.
Sarah: And then also there's just the ecosystem of like, what do your friends mention to you? If you're on social media, like what do people put in your sight line and how much credibility do you give?
Mike: Exactly. So there's nothing special about basically the left-wing information ecosystem and a right-wing information ecosystem. Like this is a totally normal part of the way that we get our information. However, this study after the 2016 election looked at all of the links between them. Like who is linking to who, who is sharing things from one website and then they share things from another website. And they basically found that on the left, the most prominent sources of news are basically center left New York Times and CNN are the most chaired websites among left-wing people. That is basically the poll around which everything else revolves.
So there's fringe, left-wing websites, but like people aren't really looking at them and the New York Times is not linking to them. Like these are kind of separate ecosystems. Like if you watch CNN and you read the New York Times, for days you would not have any idea that there's the voting machines in Ohio didn't count the ballots. Or like these various sort of left-wing fringe theories, you would never know about those.
So what they also find is that the poll around which right-wing media revolves is the far right. So these fringe conspiracy theories, there's a huge number of stories that begin on these like super fringy, like some of them are…
Sarah: Like fucking Wayfair.
Mike: Like fucking Wayfair. Exactly. They start on these super far right websites with like no standards whatsoever about vetting information or ensuring that things are true before they're printed. And then the rest of the right-wing ecosystem will then start linking to them. So Fox News, all of these other websites, will be like, “According to a report in breitbart.com …”.
So if you watch Fox news for an entire day, you will learn about how Kamala Harris is a socialist, she slept her way to the top.
Sarah: She sold her vagina somehow.
Mike: Yes. You will hear about fucking Hunter Biden's laptop. Like they won't necessarily say that it's true, but they will have fringe people on and interview them credulously, and just put these ideas into the bloodstream.
I actually found a really interesting study. There was a meta-analysis of 88 different studies across 44 years. And I forget how many countries, but many countries. And they basically found that conservatives, are generally more subject to conspiracy theories. First of all because conservatives there's like various personality traits that are associated with conservatives, one of which is appeal to authority. Like they're more likely to trust authority figures. They're more likely to be dogmatic.
But also as they mentioned in this study, they're also interested in maintaining the status quo. And the status quo includes keeping marginalized groups marginalized. So when you have a theory that depends on like immigrants committing a bunch of crime, that's just more appealing to somebody who has a worldview that like the current social order is the correct social order.
Sarah: I mean, it's interesting to me, first of all, that like what we have happening in terms of like the ways that Trump and his administration have plotted to just leave the country naked during an epidemic, like are technically conspiracy. This is all conspiracy according to the law, but it's not conspiracy theory type conspiracy, because it's like the damage that has taken place has come about mainly through indifference.
Mike: Yeah. Again, I don't want to smear individuals. I think whatever, I read things in newspapers and I believe that they're true. Everybody does this.
Sarah: Yes, everyone believes false things in their life, and everyone is taken in by something they want to believe.
Mike: We just believe things that we are told, and conservatives are told much more fucking garbage than liberals are. You know, you look at public polling and more than half of Republicans believe the Q Anon conspiracy is mostly or partly true. Three quarters of Republicans think there's a deep state cabal, which is sabotaging Donald Trump.
Sarah: What is a deep… what's the deep state Mike, real quick.
Mike: I mean, this is this idea that there's like civil servants, like within whatever, the CDC, that are deliberately keeping Donald Trump from implementing his agenda. This is something that almost every autocrat around the world says is happening and this is why he's not delivering on all of his promises that he made in his campaign. This is an extremely consistent finding in authoritarian regimes, that they get into office by promising like, “Oh, I’ll fix it all, kick out all the immigrants”. And then they don't do anything because they're lazy and incompetent and then they blame it on a big conspiracy.
Sarah: I mean, this is just like when your dad makes impossible promises about Christmas presents and then it turns out that like the very thing he was going to get for you was like literally impossible for him to get in a way that was someone else's fault.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. There's also the example people always use of left-wing conspiracy theories is anti-vaxxers, because we hear so much about like progressive random wine moms getting into this anti-vax stuff. Republicans are much more likely to believe in anti-vaxxer stuff than liberals are.
Sarah: My experience of the world confirms this.
Mike: Yes. I found a study that showed that 92% of Democrats would get their children vaccinated, and it's only 72% of Republicans. So like even the left-wing conspiracy theories are more bought into by Republicans than Democrats. And I mean, the one that I keep thinking about is that in 2013 a study came out that showed two-thirds of Republicans thought that Barack Obama was lying about his birthplace. In 2005, at the peak of the sort of “Bush did 9/11” stuff, the highest that number ever got was 35% of Democrats believed that Bush had knowledge of the 9/11 attacks before they happened. So it's like comparing left-wing conspiracy theories and right-wing conspiracy theories. Like, sorry, they're just not equivalent.
I mean, I interviewed a guy whose parents live in Denver. And you know they've been conservatives their whole life even though they didn't really like Donald Trump, but they didn't end up voting for Donald Trump in 2016. But over the last four years, this has like totally accelerated. And last time he was down there he's like chatting with his dad about voting something something, and like there's some scandal down there with the Secretary of State and voting rights. And he mentioned it to his dad and his dad was like, “Oh, you know, he's paid by Soros, right?” And it's like, really? Like where do you even get this stuff?
Sarah: One, it's also creating a scenario where George Soros has been a Napoleon of crime. Which is just like it's a conspiracy theory that, like most real conspiracy theories elevate certain people to a degree of control that just doesn't really exist in the world.
Mike: So the final thing to say is, how to fix it.
Sarah: Oh, okay. I did not expect us to be able to do that. Let's do it.
Mike: This is mostly, I mean, this is mostly bad news. Basically once people get these beliefs, it's very difficult to talk them out of it.
Sarah: We have to behead ahead the main ghoul and then all the other ghouls during human again.
Mike: The only tip that I found was that debunkings work much better if you replace the bad information, rather than just debunking it.
Sarah: Oh yeah, like taking a blankie away from a toddler.
Mike: Exactly. Yes. So there's a study where they tested, “Obama was not born in Kenya versus Obama was born in Hawaii.” And of course Obama was born in Hawaii is much more convincing because then you're giving people a new story, right? Because people remember stories and narratives. If you tell somebody, “Oh, that story's not true”, they're not going to really remember that because the story is going to be much more convincing. So if you're ever trying to debunk something with one of your relatives, try to give them the true narrative.
However, one of the things I mentioned in literature is that this is often difficult. Because if your dad is an anti-vaxxer or something, you say, “Well, none of that stuff is true. The original study has been debunked. The guy has been disbarred, et cetera.” They're like, “Well then why are autism rates going up?” And we don't know. It's a mix of more awareness, better understanding of autism, better access to healthcare for marginalized populations, and maybe some other explanations that we don't really know about. But that's not sort of as clear and concise of a story as, boom, it's the vaccines.
Sarah: Right. So we just have to believe the first explanation to be confidently announced by anyone.
Mike: Yeah. So this is what I learned from interviewing all these researchers about this. The only way to solve this stuff is to prevent people from seeing it. It sucks, but like once somebody is convinced of this stuff, it's like a year’s long process to get them out of it. Because once you're into this, like whatever Q Anon, anti-vax, whatever stuff, like you just have a regular information diet of sewage. Like, you're just going to find those websites, you're going to join those Facebook groups.
Sarah: This feels like it's trying to get someone onto a vegan diet. Like say they have to go on a vegan diet, and if you have them at your house and if you're like, “Look at this lovely dinner I've made for you. Isn't it wonderful how many lovely things we can eat that are plant-based? Nom, nom, nom.” And then they have to go to an airport.
Mike: Or as the internet actually works, they have to go to a fucking all you can eat buffet. This is what the internet is, is just a constant fire hose of garbage. And you know, the algorithms are deliberately feeding them things that are going to confirm their beliefs. So it's designed to radicalize them.
Sarah: And also there's like signs that are like, “If you don't eat at this Arby's, you're a bad person.”
Mike: Yes. So I really think that we need to put a lot of the responsibility on the social media companies for flooding the country with this misinformation and not cracking down on it in the first place. Like, there's a lot of online guides, you know, how to avoid seeing misinformation and make sure you check the source, blah, blah, blah. But the fact is, the people who are reading those guides and the people who are falling for misinformation, are not the same groups. Because nobody who believes a ton of misinformation thinks that it's misinformation. This is not a personal responsibility issue.
The way that you deal with all of this informational sewage is not by telling people don't drink sewage. You do it by stopping the flow of sewage in the first place. And this is something that all of the social media companies have refused to do for years.
Sarah: This is such a weird conversation we're having, because it feels like this is how parents talk about their kids. I mean, the divide between, like, we just don't want to expose them to The Simpsons. I mean, something that I've found interesting is like I've had conversations with people who I don't think are particularly taken in by a lot of these conspiracy theories, but who describe their partiality to a certain idea. I have had some success with being like, “Well, but does that connect with your understanding of human behavior?”
Like, because I'm a big fan of the like Colombo approach of like, “One more thing...” And like, that's worked for me sometimes.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that really stood out to me, the guy that works at the left-wing Think Tank, he used to work for a democratic I think Senator, maybe House member during the time when Obama care was being passed during all those debates. And he used to get into debates with his dad, because his dad even then was kind of in the right-wing info sphere. And his dad would say like, “Oh, there's death panels”. And so he would keep a big, yellow copy of Obamacare in his living room for these phone calls and he'd be like, “Well, actually dad, you know, Section 8.7 of the bill says, there's these panels and they're not actually going to do that.” And then he would explain sort of word for word from the bill how this would work. And he said it worked. But at that point, his father was connected enough to reality and willing to receive new information that he'd be like, “Oh, okay. Well, you know what I heard on talk radio or on Facebook or whatever, they must have been mistaken. So I'll believe you because you're reading to me from this bill and you're an expert and I'm going to trust you on this.”
But now, appealing to reality doesn't work anymore, because there's no referees. There's no equivalent of, “Hey, here's this thing that I can point to that we both agree is a credible source.” There's no agreed upon institution that can actually define what reality is.
Sarah: Because it's not connected to reality because where do you go for the lizard people book?
Mike: Exactly. They’re in information environment that you, even as their child, cannot break into. And that's really the worrying thing to me, the difference between reading to your dad about the Obamacare legislation and trying to convince your dad that you're not part of a cabal of satanic pedophiles.
Sarah: We just need Tom Hanks to log all of his behaviors, 24 hours a day. All of his whereabouts. We just need him to wear a camera on him just to make sure. Because that's how you prove a negative. But yeah, and I feel like that really kind of is the most heartbreaking part of it all for me, as I look at this personally. That like, and this connects with my own greatest feelings of frustration with my parents in my life where something is true for me emotionally. Like I need them to believe me about something that they cannot personally see, but if they trusted my perceptions, they would believe it.
And so there's nothing that makes me feel less safe in my relationship with them than that. Because I'm like, “Why can't you trust me? Like, what am I to you if you cannot believe me about something that I am telling you?” And there are cases where I haven't been able to ask to just be believed, but I can prove it logically and get to the point where they're like,” Oh yes, I see it. You've explained it to me.” I don't know. It's funny. I guess like I'm asking for people to be more credulous when they talk to their children. Like asking for greater credulity is probably a weird takeaway from this, but it's like, I don't know. Like, it just, it feels, I'm surprised by how completely people can ignore the people that they love most, when what they're saying contradicts the world view that they feel the need to remain a part of.
Mike: Yeah. It's a huge fucking bummer. That's all I can. It's a bummer. If you can keep your relatives off of Facebook and Fox News, that's all we can recommend. Prevention is better than cure.
Sarah: Yeah. Stay off of Facebook. Get them going on Reddit, and then they'll find out they have some weird fetish that they never knew anyone else had feelings about.
Mike: Yeah! Get them into fetish websites.
Sarah: Yeah. There's the answer. Turn them on too. Just get all your beloved, elder relatives on fat life, and we're going to be okay.