The inability of older Americans to navigate the internet has become a meme unto itself. Take the existence of subreddits such as r/OldPeopleFacebook and r/ForwardsFromGrandma, for example. Given that we’re talking about the random postings of reddit users, there’s no way to know whether or not u/SleepyAnima’s friend’s aunt actually asked them to “please xplain” Twitch streaming to them, or if u/LockeDrachier’s grandma really forwarded them a meme accusing John Legend of being a sex trafficker. Even if most of this content is cruel and/or made up, it still serves as compelling evidence that the idea that older people cannot figure out the Facebook interface and love to share cranky, logically flawed conservative memes is intuitively appealing.
Clearly, you or I use the internet in a completely different way than our grandparents do. But, outside of the realm of meme fodder, what does this actually mean? For a deeper understanding of what exactly it feels like to be an older person online, I turned to an in-depth qualitative study of workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
MTurk, as it’s called, is a platform for “requesters” to crowdsource small, easily divided tasks that are simple for humans but still difficult for machines — think CAPTCHAs, especially the kind where you have to label which parts of an image contain a street sign or a human face. Pew has an excellent overview of how this works, but in general, “Turkers” tend to be younger, college-educated people looking to make a little supplemental income; only 1% of Turkers are over 65.
The study, conducted by a team of researchers from across academia, was intended to figure out to study exactly why older people were so under-represented. The primary answer, it turns out, is that they’d never even heard of Mechanical Turk or crowdsourcing. Once they’d been told about it, though, they were pretty open to giving it a shot.
Although supplementing their (often fixed) incomes was a strong motivator, equally important, according to the survey administered to study participants, was the opportunity to “do something that’s interesting or fun” or “do something that’s stimulating or challenging.” Another strong motivator was that they could “Feel like they’re contributing to society.” Ideally, this could be a win-win: researchers can get more people from a wider age range to complete these micro-tasks, while older people could get to something they might find engaging and useful. (A downside is that more labor might drive down the already rock-bottom wages paid to some Turkers who rely on it to get by; I should note that as an academic who sometimes uses Turk labor, I aim to pay participants at least the US minimum wage).
The vast majority of the researchers’ sample reported having used the internet for more than 15 years, reported being comfortable using computers, and placed themselves as “intermediate" on a three-point scale of familiarity with the Internet. However, this self-conception does not necessarily correspond to what you or I might consider an intermediate-level internet user. This dissonance began to show itself when it turned out that many of these folks could not complete the standard tasks the researchers gave them, such as transcription and classifying images. However, it wasn’t that these people weren’t cognitively able to complete these tasks — it was the tabs that tripped them up. The authors write:
Tasks may ask the worker to take a survey and present an unlinked URL that the worker would have to copy and paste to a new tab or window to open. However, many participants were not familiar or comfortable with opening content in new tabs/windows, resulting in questions such as, ‘How do I get back to the instructions?’ (P7) after a new tab was opened. Also, participants often forgot the instructions immediately upon opening the new window, particularly long and detailed instructions. P3 explained: ‘There's too many things to remember all at once. I mean, you don't — you can’t read all these instructions and process it! I wouldn't remember them. I’d have to go back. I would never be able to remember all that… One of my complaints about some things on a computer is that, you know, if there’s a bunch of instructions or stuff to know — and you have to open up a box and then if you go back to what you’re working on the box is gone, and you can’t just look up [sic] and reference it.
It should go without saying that, outside of maybe the executive level, there are very few grandparents working at tech companies. Because of this, there’s rarely anyone in the room who’s truly able to understand what it must have been like to be a 78-year old logging onto Facebook for the first time in 2016, in a world where internet memes go 9000 levels deep and the web is an information battleground where governments and corporations unscrupulously compete for our attention. Amid all of this, your friend of 60 years posts a link to a Denver Guardian article saying that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump; you’re excited, click “share,” and move on.
Even on Mechanical Turk (a platform presumably devoid of partisan propaganda), well-intentioned young people cannot comprehend the experience of older people:
These barriers, which may seem trivial from a requester’s perspective, significantly affected older adults’ abilities and time required to complete the tasks. And, because of these barriers, some tasks expired or ran out of time before the older adult was able to complete them. These challenges also affected older adults’ self-efficacy, with P7 saying, “I just think I’m not smart enough to do it”; “I just didn’t understand anything they were telling me to do… I’m a complete failure”; and “I don’t even understand the instructions. Is everybody else that does this as dumb as I am?” Although researchers expressed that participants were not being “tested,” P5 seemed frustrated, and said, “I can see I’m flunking this” and “I don’t like to be defeated.”
I feel for Participant 5! The internet is terrifying. If our society is going to get past the tumult caused by the internet, we’ll need to get everyone — even the olds — on the same page. And that will require making an internet that’s accessible to both web natives and web naifs.
This might seem like a bitter pill to swallow for millennials who feel that older people are screwing us over; our tech savvy seems like the only advantage we have. But we have to realize that fake news is only the beginning.
Jordan Peele and Jonah Peretti (of Buzzfeed) just released an excellent public service announcement about the dangers of the soon-to-arrive fake video propaganda:
Video is the next frontier in disinformation propaganda, and the way that YouTube currently operates contributes to the problem. The Guardian published a small experiment demonstrating the polarizing capacity of YouTube: begin with a fresh browser history, search for a video about Trump or Clinton, and start watching the top recommended videos. You’ll quickly end up on the partisan fringe (and more often on the conservative fringe).
Now imagine that instead of the dozens of videos purporting to prove that Obama is a Muslim but are actually just videos of old guys with webcams yelling at you, your grandparents found a realistic fake video of Obama saying that he couldn’t believe how easy it was to steal the Declaration of Independence and replace it with Sharia law.
As Peele and Peretti's video shows, it may be a matter a months before this possibility becomes a reality. My personal fear is that we’ll see at least a few of these videos during the 2018 Congressional election; there are plenty of resources for debunking national-level fakes, but if a even small number doctored videos depicting candidates in key races fake-confessing to have orchestrated Pizzagate and/or be a Russian double-agent were spread via anonymous email campaigns 48 hours before Election Day, the balance of power in Washington could be manipulated before anyone knew what happened.
In the long run, machine-learning powered video forensics might be able to detect and delete forged videos before they can spread; for the foreseeable future, though, it’s an arms race between the fakers and the detectors. The short-term solution is to try and educate older people about the risks of fake videos. Many of the resources designed to help older people avoid falling victim to financial fraud use a simple heuristic — “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” An analogous guideline for partisan news might be that if it sounds like the political world is ending, it probably isn’t.
The challenge is that this is precisely the sort of epistemic cover that governments need to assert their will without the risk of oversight. Social media had a brief burst of power to coordinate protests against decrepit regimes (like in the Arab Spring), but political actors have now caught on; political scientists have repeatedly shown how modern regimes use social media to distract and sow confusion and doubt. It seems likely that something similar will happen here.
The release of the “Access Hollywood” tape was a crucial event in the 2016 campaign; in hindsight, it served to illustrate how out of touch all of us who assumed it spelled the end of Trump’s campaign were. The reason we thought it was important, though, was that the audio tape represented prima facie evidence that Donald Trump had actually said the horrible things that he’d been long rumored to have been saying. The public knowledge that faked audio is possible would have allowed supporters, rather than willfully ignore the tape or bring up Hillary Clinton’s emails, to simply write the tape off as fake — something that Trump himself came close to asserting even in fake-video stone age of 2016.
There are a host of cues we instinctively know how to use to evaluate the credibility of online news that our elders never got the chance to develop. Grandma might never be able to make it as a Twitch streamer, but there’s no reason she can’t learn the basics: how to open multiple tabs, compare news from multiple different sources, and understand what makes a story credible, even if it’s from an unfamiliar source. Older people are really pretty savvy (really!), so a little bit of digital literacy can go a long way in inoculating them against the worst of digital propaganda.