People often ask me what we can do about older people and online information literacy. Old people are not necessarily more confused than young people, but for various reasons they are positioned to do much more harm when they get things wrong. They also tend to be embedded in more ideological tribes whereas as young people form tribes around other interests.
My answer is this: teach the young people how to fact-check and then have them teach their parents. Young folks are already embarrassed about their parents’ cluelessness on the web, and my experience with young folks (in a middle class American context at least) is they have no trouble speaking up when your actions as a parent are embarrassing. So give young people the skills, and show them how to teach others.
A short example: I’m not a personal fan of the post-consumer recycling approach we’ve adopted to packaging in the U.S. But in the 1980s and 1990s we decided to teach a nation to recycle their trash. Did we go out and have massive education initiatives for adults on the recycling process and the importance of it? Nope. We educated the kids so that every parent who threw a yogurt cup into the wrong container had to endure the “why do you hate baby seals” stare of their fifth grader. And some folks got resentful, but for most it was easier just to learn how to do it.
There are many other examples. My Dad quit smoking partially because his recently educated grade schoolers guilted him into it. Children of the 1970s were often the ones teaching their parents to not throw trash out the car window. College students of the 1990s were often the ones showing their parents how to work the new computer, or get on the web.
People — of all ages — are already there in terms of desiring to curb misinformation’s spread, but they need to be able to teach the skills to their parents in a systemic way. I talked to a person in D.C. a month ago whose mother always shares those fake “missing kid” memes on Facebook. And she always would comment “Mom, it’s fake” (or old or whatever). But it never occurred to her that she could show her Mom how to check it herself. When we get these checks down to easily demonstrable 10 second checks, that changes.
Teach the children and give them the skills and tools to teach their parents, stopping them from sliding into conspiracy subcultures and alternate realities. Teach the interns to teach their Senators and policy makers how to check this stuff. The college students to navigate health information for their aunt or uncle. Graduate wave after wave of people who know how to navigate the web and are committed to helping other to do better with it too. That’s how you get this done.