• Robb G. Best

Vaccinating Against Misinformation

Although “yellow journalism” is probably as old as journalism itself (the term itself dates back to the Pulitzer vs Hearst circulation wars of the mid-1890’s), the rise of the internet has taken inaccurate, sensationalist news stories to epidemic levels. If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen at least one relative posting and spreading doubtful news stories from equally dubious sources.

Unfortunately, lies are catchy. Lies that have been carefully formulated to fuel partisan hatred and attract clicks are even catchier, and every day, the number of phony articles grows, at a seemingly exponential rate, faster than any one person can fact check. And that’s before we even get into the fact that each individual debunking is bound to generate pushback and argument, a true time suck.

So how do we combat the fake news epidemic? How about with a video game? It may sound far-fetched, but that’s precisely the strategy employed by a team of University of Cambridge researchers.

The game in question is a free browser game called Bad News. The premise is simple. You play as an unscrupulous person fabricating manipulative headlines, news stories, and tweets, all in an attempt to increase your in-game follower count by as much as possible. In order to maximize your impact, the game walks you through a variety of popular propagandist tactics, including impersonating experts from accounts with similar names, appealing to emotion over logic, and cooking up conspiracy theories with just enough plausibility to catch.

The goal, of course, is increased media literacy, delivered with more verve than a more traditional lecture. The team at University of Cambridge hopes that by taking the public behind the virtual scenes of an unethical news outlet, they can educate people on how to spot those wiles in action.

“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,” explained Dr Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.

“This is a version of what psychologists call ‘inoculation theory’, with our game working like a psychological vaccination.”

Does this vaccine work? After studying the results of over 15,000 online participants, the results are encouraging, although not miraculous. Players were asked to assess a mixture of neutral and “fake” headlines for reliability both before and after playing the game. After one playthrough (which takes maybe 15 minutes), a player’s ability to detect fake news had increased by an average of about 21%. This held true no matter the participants’ gender, age, or political orientation.

It’s certainly a start. And for really educating the reading public before it’s too late, the Cambridge researchers even developed a special version of the game aimed specifically at 8 to 10 year olds. A single playthrough of a browser game may not reform your annoying Uncle Walter or Aunt Cynthia, but as the infection of misleading news spreads, we need every tool we can get. And hey, when all else fails, there’s always the block button.

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