Navigating the world of social media often feels like a game, where likes and retweets are currency. The more points you have, the more influence you gain. But while some play the game honestly, others use tactics like misinformation, emotional manipulation, and impersonation to game the system. In the last few years, one of the ways nefarious actors have gamed the social media system is through fake news–conspiracy theories, hyperbole, and plain old lies designed to get people angry, and crucially, to get them to click.
A new online game puts you in the shoes of these sowers of false information, all with the goal of teaching you how to recognize their tactics so you can spot fake news when you see it on the internet.
The game, called Bad News, was created by social psychology professor Sander van der Linden, the director of Cambridge University’s Social Decision-Making Lab, his colleague Jon Roozenbeek, and the Dutch organization Drog, composed of journalists and designers who are committed to fighting misinformation online.
Van der Linden’s previous research focused on how to create what he calls a “truth vaccine”–a small dose of facts that reduce the chances that people will fall for fake news. But Van der Linden says that the research, which entailed experiments with people reading different types of factual “vaccines” before reading a fake news article, relied on a passive way of absorbing information. That’s why he turned to a game where the player takes on the role of creating fake news themselves.
“If you actively have to generate things like stories or reasons or arguments, that triggers a process of rehearsal that allows your memories to encode information in a more efficient way,” van der Linden says. In other words, you learn faster to distinguish between reality and conspiracy.
The game goes like this: your goal is to gain as many Twitter followers as possible while retaining your credibility, a combination Van der Linden is using as a proxy for influence. Once you “send” one tweet through a simple, conversational interface that guides you through the game, it asks you to complete a survey about fake news. Van der Linden plans to use this information to see how much your understanding of fake news changes after playing the game.
Then, you’re prompted to either start a news site or a blog and pick a name. Mine is called Honest Truth Online, and the game tells me this will be the “basis of [my] fake news empire.” I created climate change denial memes and wrote articles that turn one person’s isolated tweet into a national scandal. I started one conspiracy theory that alien dinosaurs built the pyramids (that didn’t work so well) and another about the U.N. using vaccines to make people sick and control them. I bought a few thousand Twitter bots to boost my influence. These actions unlocked “badges” for emotional manipulation, polarization, and conspiracy–there are more for discrediting, trolling, and impersonating, all based on a NATO cyber intelligence report on common fake news tactics. At the end of the game, there’s another survey to take about recognizing fake news.
While it’s too early for Van der Linden to know if the game will help inoculate people against fake news, one of his previous studies used a version of the game, in board-game form, with a group of 100 Dutch high school students. He found that the students who played the game found a fake news article they read afterward to be less reliable than those who hadn’t played the game. But this study had a small sample size, and acts more as a proof of concept than any definitive result. Van der Linden has created this new online version of the game in the hopes of getting hundreds of thousands of responses on which to test his hypothesis: that actively thinking like people who manufacture fake news can increase your ability to recognize it.
The game’s simple design feels similar to a chatbot, where instead of typing answers you choose between two or three options and watch how the storyline unfolds from there. It seems like most paths through the game end up at the same place–unless you simply can’t put yourself in the shoes of a fake news conspiracy theorist and claim moral objections at the beginning–making the experience feel more educational than anything else. That’s certainly Van der Linden’s goal as well, even if the game is supposed to further his research.
“Even though we’re up in the ivory tower, I think we generally appreciate seeing the fruits of our research implemented in a practical way. I hope it will be useful for people and that we actually help people spot fake news faster and hopefully make people less susceptible to accepting false information,” Van der Linden says. “If enough people attain those skills we’ll all be better off.”