If fake news is a disease, this Bad News game wants to be the vaccination

Amelia Heathman
The Bad News game wants to make people misinformation-savvy and revealing the tactics used by those attempting to spread false news online: Social Decision Making Laboratory/Cambridge University

Fake news was the phrase of 2017 and concerns over the spread of disinformation do not appear to be dissipating.

Yet, there are initiatives trying to educate the public against the threat of fake news. For instance, the social network Facebook says it will ban Pages that repeatedly share misinformation. As well, a team of social scientists at Cambridge University has created a fake news game, named Bad News.

A fake news vaccination

The topic of fake news has become pressing since the US presidential election in 2016 when misinformation was spread through social media to influence voters. One of the biggest stories from the election period was that the Pope endorsed then-Republican candidate Donald Trump. According to Buzzfeed, the story picked up nearly one million Facebook-engagements.

However, research has shown that exposing people to the propaganda tactics used by dubious publishers can prevent them from being influenced by fake news. This is how Cambridge’s Social Decision Making Laboratory came up with Bad News.

Dr Sander van der Linden, director of the laboratory, said: “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 the more persuasive claims.

“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.”

The Bad News game works by making people misinformation-savvy and revealing the tactics used by those attempting to spread false news online.

Players can take on the role of a fake news producer. They score points by winning followers for their conspiracy theories and angry tweets on topics such as climate change and genetic engineering. They can deploy Twitter bots, photoshop evidence and challenge the “facts” behind public tragedies.

Jon Roozenbeek, another member of the Cambridge team said: “For sure, fake news is a large problem, especially in the online environment. Propaganda is nothing new, but now it’s easier than ever for someone with malicious intent to set up a website and spread misinformation.

“What we’re doing is attempting to fix this at the individual level by making news consumers more aware of what’s happening.”

Bad News is no match for the truth

Before the launch of Bad News online, the Cambridge team carried out a pilot study with 95 students in the Netherlands. This involved a paper version of the game, focusing on the refugee crisis.

In the study, players had to distort a government fact sheet on asylum seekers to produce fabricated news articles. The students who took part were found to be less easily taken in by fake news reports presented at the end of the experiment, compared to the students who had not played the game.

The study findings will be published in the Journal of Risk Research.

Dr van der Linden added: “We want to help grow ‘mental antibodies’ that can provide some immunity against the rapid spread of misinformation.”

Bad News is available to download at fakenewsgame.org.