Think Before You Share: The Role of Age and Attention/Working Memory in Proliferation of COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media



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In the setting of a global pandemic, COVID-19 misinformation proliferating online has led to profound health-related and societal consequences. Older adults comprise a particularly vulnerable population due to increased risk for both COVID-19 related complications and susceptibility to, as well as sharing of, misinformation on social networking sites. The present study aims were to: 1) investigate whether older adults benefit from a theory-based attentional manipulation to dampen online sharing of COVID-19 misinformation compared to younger adults; and 2) examine whether differences in clinical attention/working memory (WM) help to explain age-related differences in sharing misinformation about COVID-19. One hundred and two adults completed a telephone-based assessment including standardized measures of attention/WM. Participants also completed the Social Media headline-sharing experiment that was modeled after the “News-sharing task” by Pennycook et al. (2020) and involves a simple manipulation at the start of the task (i.e., judging the accuracy of a non-COVID-19-related headline). Results show that older adults are less likely to share both accurate and false information and show greater headline accuracy discernment as compared to younger adults. A repeated measures multivariate analysis of variance test showed no effect of the accuracy judgement manipulation for either younger or older adults. Moreover, individual differences in attention/WM, as measured by Digit Span Total PCA composite, were not associated with age or sharing intentions for accurate and false COVID-19 related information. Effect sizes were small across these null findings. Findings suggest that older age is associated with better accuracy in determining the veracity of COVID-19 news headlines and a reduced likelihood of sharing information online. Attention-based accuracy judgments did not dampen the sharing of false information, which may be due to differences in study design, sample demographics, reproducibility of the original experiment, or timing of data collection. Further research should explore the association between aspects of attention particularly vulnerable to aging, including sustained attention and the central executive component of WM, and sharing likelihood for COVID-19 misinformation.



COVID-19 misinformation, Attention, Cognition, Aging