The University of Cambridge has studied 15,000 people and determined that playing a quick browser game is effective in getting folks to resist the seductive effects of fake news:
Players stoke anger and fear by manipulating news and social media within the simulation: deploying twitter bots, photo-shopping evidence, and inciting conspiracy theories to attract followers – all while maintaining a “credibility score” for persuasiveness.
“Research suggests that fake news spreads faster and deeper than the truth, so combatting disinformation after-the-fact can be like fighting a losing battle,” said Dr Sander 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.”
To gauge the effects of the game, players were asked to rate the reliability of a series of different headlines and tweets before and after gameplay. They were randomly allocated a mixture of real (“control”) and fake news (“treatment”).
The study, published today in the journal Palgrave Communications, showed the perceived reliability of fake news before playing the game had reduced by an average of 21% after completing it. Yet the game made no difference to how users ranked real news.
The researchers also found that those who registered as most susceptible to fake news headlines at the outset benefited most from the “inoculation”.
“We find that just fifteen minutes of gameplay has a moderate effect, but a practically meaningful one when scaled across thousands of people worldwide, if we think in terms of building societal resistance to fake news,” said van der Linden.
The team have also created a “junior version” for children aged 8-10, available in ten different languages so far. “We want to develop a simple and engaging way to establish media literacy at a relatively early age, then look at how long the effects last,” said Roozenbeek.
This first set of results from Bad News has its limitations, say researchers. The sample was self-selecting (those who came across the game online and opted to play), and as such was skewed toward younger, male, liberal, and more educated demographics.
With this in mind, however, the study found the game to be almost equally effective across age, education, gender, and political persuasion. Bad News has ideological balance built in: players can choose to create fake news from the left and right of the political spectrum.
There are six “badges” to earn in the game, each reflecting a common strategy used by purveyors of fake news: impersonation; conspiracy; polarisation; discrediting sources; trolling; emotionally provocative content.
You can play Bad News here: https://getbadnews.com/#intro
Research published here.