ITEM: Two researchers at Cambridge University are proposing to make people immune to fake news with a game that shows them how to create it. And they have evidence that it works.
In February 2018, researchers Jon Roozenbeek and Dr Sander van der Linden launched a browser game called “Bad News”, which allows players to manipulate news and social media (in a simulated environment) by deploying bots on Twitter, photo-shopping evidence, and starting conspiracy theories to attract followers.
Players can earn badges that reflect typical fake-news strategies, including impersonation, conspiracy, polarisation, discrediting sources, trolling, and emotionally provocative content. They also get a “credibility score” for persuasiveness.
The objective isn’t to train people to generate their fake-news skills, but to inoculate them against fake news by demonstrating how it’s done, according to Dr van der Linden, director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab:
“We wanted to see if we could pre-emptively debunk, or ‘pre-bunk’, fake news by exposing people to a weak dose of the methods used to create and spread disinformation, so they have a better understanding of how they might be deceived.
“This is a version of what psychologists call ‘inoculation theory’, with our game working like a psychological vaccination.”
According to CNN, van der Linden also compared it to stage magic – the illusion only works if you don’t know how it’s done:
“But once you know how it works you won’t be fooled again.”
The rationale for this approach to fake news is simple: social media platforms are struggling to combat fake news for a variety of reasons, whether it’s because of technological challenges or C-level unwillingness to make judgement calls on content (whether because of free-speech ideologies, accusations of political bias or fear of disruption to their business model). The emergence of deepfakes and other tools of misinformation – as well as the increasing digital savviness of individuals and groups keen to spread disinformation on social media – makes fake news even harder to combat on the platform level.
If we can’t stop the proliferation of fake news, says study co-author Roozenbeek, the alternative is to educate users and make them less susceptible to fake news campaigns.
But does it work?
The researchers also designed the game to gather data to gauge its effectiveness. The resulting study – published at the end of June in the journal Palgrave Communications – found that “perceived reliability of fake news before playing the game had reduced by an average of 21% after completing it”, while the perceived reliability to real news was unchanged. The study also found that players most susceptible to being suckered by fake news before playing the game saw the greatest improvement in spotting it afterwards.
The results are encouraging enough that WhatsApp (which has been funding the research) has commissioned the researchers to create a new Bad News game for their platform. According to CNN, Google’s research division Jigsaw is looking into working with them to develop a game geared towards elderly users – likely because a recent study from earlier this year found that users over 65 were more likely to forward fake news posts on Facebook compared to younger demographic groups.
(The research team has already created a version for children aged 8-10 in ten different languages to date.)
The team pointed out a key limitation of the study: the sample of 15,000 was gathered by people coming across the game and opting to play, which resulted in a sample skewed towards “younger, male, liberal, and more educated demographics”.
That said, the study did find that the game was “almost equally effective across age, education, gender, and political persuasion.” The research team also says Bad News is politically neutral in that players can choose to create fake news from the left and right sides of the political spectrum.
Believe what you want
However, there’s another potential limitation to the study –the apparent assumption that the chief problem with fake news is that people don’t know it when they see it.
Certainly that’s part of the problem – but another key issue is that many people are all too willing to trust the accuracy of anything that plays to their preconceived worldviews and prejudices, which is a major reason why fake news campaigns are effective. So is the fact that many people define “fake news” as “anything that contradicts my sociopolitical opinions” and “real news” as “everything that confirms them” – and have plenty of media sources to turn to that can feed and nurture that mentality.
So, it’s hard not to wonder how such people will react to a game attempting to explain how fake news works. Will they trust the game’s political neutrality? Will they object to the examples presented in Bad News? Will they assume that only “the other side” uses the techniques illustrated?
You see the problem.
To be clear, the Bad News game is a good idea, and a good start. Not everyone subscribes to conspiracy theories and hardcore ideologies, and any effort to educate people (especially kids and the elderly) about how disinformation works can only be a good thing. We used to teach people how to know when an internet article is trustworthy – we should certainly be doing the same with Twitterbots and fake accounts.
But it’s also worth remembering that fake news campaigns are successful for a reason – a willing audience, a broader media environment that enables and often encourages polarization (whether it’s driven by an agenda or good old-fashioned sensationalism), and political leaders all too willing to exploit both.