Spending too long online can take its toll, no matter your age. The majority of under 35s grew up squinting at backlit screens with bags below their eyes, poring over forums and AOL Messenger, pornography and Netflix. Yet somehow it’s baby boomers who are the worst victims of the internet: technologically dumb, easily scammed, and often more susceptible to fake news. And it looks as if Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man arrested in connection to the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and left-wing celebrities, is the latest spectacular example of a silver (or in his case, it seems. hairplugged) surfer going off the deep end.
It’s unfair to say an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but a glance at the climate of oversharing rants on Facebook, devoutly believing any story or statistic that’s shared and obeying instructions from chain mail, leads towards the conclusion that it’s time to take Old Yeller out to the barn. The over 50s are just too inept online.
Sayoc was only arrested this morning. We should therefore trot out the usual caveat, ‘if he did it, we don’t know what might have motivated him to act this way.’ That’s true, but I have a niggling suspicion that, if he did it, it might have something to do with the online conspiracy wormhole he’s been dwelling in for the last few years:
The young journalists who covered the story were horrified by his social media posts. But the memes he shared are fairly familiar to anyone who has spent too long online looking at Facebook groups such as GOD EMPEROR TRUMP (OFFICIAL) or SWAMP DRAINER DISCIPLES: THE COUNTER-RESISTANCE. These groups specialise in sharing wild conspiracies, often with a sense of ironic detachment: it’s just a childish joke to annoy liberals. Millennials, who are not much older than children, tend not to take such stuff too seriously; older web users are not so well-versed in snark. Moreover, older generations are becoming increasingly active on social media: as young people move away from established platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, boomers are taking their places.
Sayoc’s reported social media accounts are perhaps the worst example of what being online can do to the older mind, especially a paranoid mind on the right. Social media studies suggest that conservatives are more likely than liberals to fall for fake news and disinformation.
People can blame right-wingers for sharing garbage, and even President Trump for spreading it at times. But Sayoc’s accounts, if they are his, are also the unintended consequence of the Silicon Valley mindset, the Zuckerbergian desire to ‘hack’ society and engineer it for the better. In that realm, it’s easy to find vulnerable minds to take advantage of. It’s not just Trump supporters who are at risk — look at how #Resistance quote-unquote heroes like Peter Strzok and Michael Cohen take advantage of the elderly with their #GoFundMe grifts. Boomers are cash-rich and altruistic — and sure, they can do what they want with their money — but there’s something wrong with exploiting a site intended to fundraise for charity to line the pockets of bit-part politicos. According to studies, older people distrust news on the internet as much as or even more than the young; but they also show that older people are more likely to trust a source that looks like news. They grew up with traditional news, television, radio, and ‘proper journalism’, and therefore are more likely to have faith in media sources. A recent study showed that boomers are 19 per cent more likely than any other age group to share news. That inevitably involves a lot of fake news.
Almost everybody has a cringe-inducing uncle or two, of the sort that share conspiracy nonsense on Facebook and pick fights with bots on Twitter. And of course most of those uncles are harmless. But you can’t help but wonder if there is an irony gap between the generations, and if people like Cesar Sayoc fall into it.