The COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm for age discrimination on social media.
According to a new study, nearly one out of five Twitter posts related to older adults and COVID-19, involving jokes or memes contained negative sentiment.
The University of Michigan study analysed nearly 83,000 pieces of Twitter data that covered 119 days of the coronavirus outbreak from 23 January to 20 May.
About 16 per cent of the tweets contained ageist content, with most of them hinting at elements of senicide or killing the elderly.
The ageist content peaked on 11 March, which was when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Associate Professor Xiaoling Xiang, lead author of the study, said that the proportion of tweets that implied the life of older adults was less valuable than other people rose considerably as the pandemic progressed around the globe.
“These findings provide evidence that more directly implicate social media as an online platform that reproduces and reinforces existing ageism in society,” Assoc. Prof. Xiang said.
A YourLifeChoices poll of more than 1000 members on ageism found that 67 per cent said that they had experienced some form of ageism.
When asked what form it took, 29 per cent said ‘being ignored’, 21 per cent said ‘treated rudely’ and 13 per cent said ‘being insulted’.
Around three-quarters of the tweets that contained jokes or ridicule targeted older adults, and around half of these were ‘death jokes’.
Researchers said an examination of top words in tweets revealed subtle forms of ageism, which are not as extreme as senicide but harmful, nonetheless.
‘Elderly’ was the most commonly used term related to older adults in the data, which is often used negatively and associated with frailty, vulnerability and senility, according to the study.
Words such as ‘vulnerable,’ ‘immunocompromised’ and ‘sick’ often appear next to terms referring to older adults, whereas ‘young’ and ‘healthy’ appeared together.
“The words associated with vulnerability appeared both in tweets that showed apathy toward older adults and in tweets that advocated for the protection of older adults,” Assoc. Prof. Xiang said. “Language choices are critical to social identities.”
There were some glimpses of solidarity with older people in some tweets.
Some tweets, for instance, asked whether people would be just as anxious to end the lockdown if COVID-19 was killing children instead of older adults and called for everyone’s patience, citing that every life is precious. Some tweets also used the #ageism to raise awareness.
Do you use Twitter? Have you seen jokes making fun of older people dying during the pandemic? Do you think this is typical ‘gallows humour’ or something more sinister?
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