Does “hate speech” sound strong? One Facebook group description stated that anyone “over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad.” It wasn’t the only group to reach for a gun. Others recommended banning older people from activities like driving or shopping.These were among the 84 public English-language Facebook groups oriented towards old age and identified by a search engine using 75 terms, including “old,” “aged,” “elderly,” “retired,” “experienced,” “senile,” and “decrepit.” Combined, the groups have roughly 25,000 members.
Published in The Gerontologist online, this was the first study of age stereotypes on social-networking sites. The results are pretty appalling. Descriptions of every group (except one devoted to Gandalf) focused on negative stereotypes. According to the study, “74% excoriated older individuals, 27% infantilized them, and 37% advocated banning them from public activities.” Most of the creators were between the ages of 20 and 29; none was over 60. In other words, youngers created these groups for the express purpose of denigrating their future selves.
Here’s the kicker: Facebook’s Community Standards forbids hate speech that mentions race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability and disease—but not age.
In response to the study, spokesperson Andrew Noyes said that “direct statements of hate against particular communities” violate Facebook policy “and are removed when reported to us. However, groups that express an opinion on a state, institution or set of beliefs, even if that opinion is outrageous or offensive to some, do not by themselves violate our policies.” Huh? Unless age is not a “state”—different from being, say, queer or fat or Canadian—the statement contradicts itself. Lead researcher Becca Levy of Yale University, said her team reported 10 Facebook groups as being offensive. Eight of the groups remained in operation nearly a year later.
Facebook discriminates. Like the culture at large, the massive social network has yet to acknowledge that ageist comments are no more acceptable than racist or sexist ones.