Fake news 'vaccine': Online game may 'inoculate' by simulating propaganda tactics

February 19, 2018, University of Cambridge
Screenshot of the English version of the Fake News Game, available to play at fakenewsgame.org. Credit: DROG

A new online game puts players in the shoes of an aspiring propagandist to give the public a taste of the techniques and motivations behind the spread of disinformation—potentially "inoculating" them against the influence of so-called fake news in the process.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have already shown that briefly exposing people to tactics used by fake news producers can act as a "psychological vaccine" against bogus anti-science campaigns.

While the previous study focused on disinformation about climate science, the new online is an experiment in providing "general immunity" against the wide range of fake news that has infected public debate.

The game encourages players to stoke anger, mistrust and fear in the public by manipulating digital news and social media within the simulation.

Players build audiences for their fake news sites by publishing polarizing falsehoods, deploying twitter bots, photo-shopping evidence, and inciting conspiracy theories in the wake of public tragedy—all while maintaining a "credibility score" to remain as persuasive as possible.

A pilot study conducted with teenagers in a Dutch high school used an early paper-and-pen trial of the game, and showed the perceived "reliability" of fake news to be diminished in those that played compared to a control group.

The research and education project, a collaboration between Cambridge researchers and Dutch media collective DROG, is launching an English version of the game online today at http://www.fakenewsgame.org.

The Fake News Game simulates propaganda tactics such as impersonation, and awards badges once a round is completed. Credit: DROG/fakenewsgame.org

The psychological theory behind the research is called "inoculation":

"A biological vaccine administers a small dose of the disease to build immunity. Similarly, inoculation theory suggests that exposure to a weak or demystified version of an argument makes it easier to refute when confronted with more persuasive claims," says Dr. Sander van der Linden, Director of Cambridge University's Social Decision-Making Lab.

"If you know what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone who is actively trying to deceive you, it should increase your ability to spot and resist the techniques of deceit. We want to help grow 'mental antibodies' that can provide some immunity against the rapid spread of misinformation."

Based in part on existing studies of online disinformation, and taking cues from actual about organisations such as the United Nations, the game is set to be translated for countries such as Ukraine, where disinformation casts a heavy shadow.

There are also plans to adapt the framework of the game for anti-radicalisation purposes, as many of the same manipulation techniques—using false information to provoke intense emotions, for example—are commonly deployed by recruiters for religious extremist groups.

"You don't have to be a master spin doctor to create effective disinformation. Anyone can start a site and artificially amplify it through twitter bots, for example. But recognising and resisting fake news doesn't require a Ph.D. in media studies either," says Jon Roozenbeek, a researcher from Cambridge's Department of Slavonic Studies and one of the game's designers.

"We aren't trying to drastically change behavior, but instead trigger a simple thought process to help foster critical and informed news consumption."

The Fake News Game as it appears on the screen of a smart phone. The game only take a few minutes to complete. Credit: DROG/fakenewsgame.org

Roozenbeek points out that some efforts to combat fake news are seen as ideologically charged. "The framework of our game allows players to lean towards the left or right of the political spectrum. It's the experience of misleading through news that counts," he says.

The in the Netherlands using a paper version of the game involved 95 students with an average age of 16, randomly divided into treatment and control.

This version of the game focused on the refugee crisis, and all participants were randomly presented with fabricated news articles on the topic at the end of the experiment.

The treatment group were assigned roles—alarmist, denier, conspiracy theorist or clickbait monger—and tasked with distorting a government fact sheet on asylum seekers using a set of cards outlining common propaganda tactics consistent with their role.

They found fake news to be significantly less reliable than the control group, who had not produced their own fake article. Researchers describe the results of this small study as limited but promising. The study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Risk Research.

The team are aiming to take their "fake vaccine" trials to the next level with today's launch of the online game.

With content written mostly by the Cambridge researchers along with Ruurd Oosterwoud, founder of DROG, the game only takes a few minutes to complete. The hope is that players will then share it to help create a large anonymous dataset of journeys through the game.

The researchers can then use this data to refine techniques for increasing media literacy and resilience in a 'post-truth' world. "We try to let players experience what it is like to create a filter bubble so they are more likely to realize they may be living in one," adds van der Linden.

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14 comments

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rderkis
1 / 5 (7) Feb 19, 2018
Some historical examples of fake news this technique could have prevented.

1, The world is round.
2, The sun is the center of the solar system.
3. The sun is not the center of the universe.
4. Life can't spring into existence. Example a fly or bacteria comes from other flys or bacteria.
The list goes on and on.
rderkis
2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 19, 2018
Only idiot would believe, that vaccines stuffed by mercury, aluminum and allergens could be harmless for health...

I am not even slightly saying your wrong but if you, like most people are reading subject/studies that are over 5 years old they are obsolete.
rderkis
3 / 5 (4) Feb 19, 2018
A http://www.ecowat...430.html than their non-autistic siblings and the other healthy children in the study.


Just out of curiosity did they say how many deaths and cases of disease were prevented by vaccines. That information is really important for an intelligent person to decide whether vaccines are worth the risk.
Thorium Boy
1 / 5 (6) Feb 20, 2018
80% of the media is run by liberals. We've been subjected to 80 years of their opinions shaping news. Now, a few right-wingers start posting and all of a sudden, it's urgently important we stamp it out. Telling.
ThomasQuinn
4 / 5 (4) Feb 20, 2018
The vast majority of the media was in right-wing hands (remember Hearst?) until the '70s. The biggest 24H cable news network is FOX. Print media are fairly evenly divided.

Too bad reality doesn't match your ideological fantasy, huh?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2018
When you want to know if someone is trying to push fake news: Look for adjectives and fuzzy qualifiers (basically anything that can be interpreted but cannot be held to any kind of standard) . "great", "sad", etc. are red flags that someone is lying.
Instead focus on (checkable!) facts. Fake news will try to avoid these wherever possible.
rderkis
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 20, 2018
Fake news from the opponents against vaccines are like religious zealots and who can't be proven wrong. Statics by the world health organization.

During the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300–500 million deaths.
In the early 1950s an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year.
One city's smallpox rate --
The last major smallpox epidemic in the United States occurred in Boston, .throughout a three-year period, between 1901-1903. During this three-year period, 1596 cases of the disease occurred throughout the city.

Before the vaccine, polio paralyzed and killed up to half a million people every year at its peak, according to calculations.

These are only two examples. Can you imagine the number of deaths and suffering prevented by vaccines?

I just wish with my whole heart that a vaccine to stop conspiracy theorist syndrome existed.
And guys the world is not flat as some believe.
thingumbobesquire
not rated yet Feb 21, 2018
Here's non-fake news: The Anglo-Dutch royalty still today controls a large percentage of the world's resources and prevents escape from poverty for its former colonies. http://thingumbob...ligarchy
leetennant
4 / 5 (4) Feb 21, 2018
A team of nine scientists from top Egyptian medical schools and universities found that one in every 50 American children has metabolic brain disease and its primary cause could be mercury in vaccines. To put the nails in the coffin for any doubters or skeptics, of the 100 children studied, the 40 with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had significantly higher mercury levels than their non-autistic siblings and the other healthy children in the study.


This would be the mercury that's not actually in vaccines? You do know the difference between mercury, ethylmercury and methylmercury, right? One should inform oneself about all the things that aren't in vaccines to have an opinion on them after all.

Oh God,why do I even bother?

Reading the first few comments on this, I'd be forgiven for thinking your accounts were satirical - especially in the context of the article topic
leetennant
4.2 / 5 (5) Feb 21, 2018
Only idiot would believe, that vaccines stuffed by mercury, aluminum and allergens could be harmless for health...


I feel the same way about air and water. That's why I don't breathe anymore and I'm on a Coke-only diet.

It's all the fault of the unicorns and those deadly rainbow farts.
TechnoCreed
not rated yet Feb 21, 2018
You people are killing me. When somebody try to redirect a conversation would you please call the foul instead of taking the bait? Here is your collection of one's you idiots.
rderkis
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2018
Here's non-fake news: The Anglo-Dutch royalty still today controls a large percentage of the world's resources and prevents escape from poverty for its former colonies. http://thingumbob...ligarchy

So what?
J-n
not rated yet Feb 26, 2018
I wonder if this same technique would prove true for computer security. Show folks how simple it is to compromise an unpatched system and we'd have more people applying updates. Show how simple a brute-force dictionary attack is against their password.. and maybe we'd see more passphrases and 2FA?

Very interesting IMO.
rderkis
1 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2018
mackita, The only reason you against GMAs is because your rich compared to the rest of the world, If your children were starving or hungry and somone was trying to increase crop yields you would be all for it.

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