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On Tuesday, the University of Cambridge published a research performed on  thousands of online game players. The study shows how an online game can work like a “vaccine” and increase skepticism towards fake news. This was done by giving people a weak dose of the methods behind disinformation campaigns.

Last year in February, University of Cambridge researchers helped in launching the browser game Bad News. In this game, you take on the role of fake news-monger. Drop all pretense of ethics and choose a path that builds your persona as an unscrupulous media magnate. But while playing the game you have to keep an eye on your ‘followers’ and ‘credibility’ meters. The task is to get as many followers as you can while slowly building up fake credibility as a news site. And you lose if you tell obvious lies or disappoint your supporters!

Jon Roozenbeek, study co-author from Cambridge University, and Dr Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab worked with Dutch media collective DROG and design agency Gusmanson to develop Bad News. DROG develops programs and courses and also conducts research aimed at recognizing disinformation online.

The game is primarily available in English, and many other languages like Czech, Dutch, German, Greek, Esperanto, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian and Swedish. They have also developed a special Junior version for children in the age group between 8 – 11.

Jon Roozenbee, said: “We are shifting the target from ideas to tactics. By doing this, we are hoping to create what you might call a general ‘vaccine’ against fake news, rather than trying to counter each specific conspiracy or falsehood.”

Hu further added, “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”.

The study says that the game increased psychological resistance to fake news

After the game was available to play, thousands of people spent fifteen minutes completing it, and many allowed the data to be used for the research. According to a study of 15000 participants, this game has shown to increase “psychological resistance” to fake news.

Players stoke anger and fear by manipulating news and social media within the simulation: they deployed twitter bots, photo-shopped evidence, and incited conspiracy theories to attract followers. All of this was done while maintaining a “credibility score” for persuasiveness.

“Research suggests that fake news spreads faster and deeper than the truth, so combating disinformation after-the-fact can be like fighting a losing battle,” said Dr Sander van der Linden.

“We wanted to see if we could preemptively 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.”

The study was performed by asking players to rate the reliability of content before and after gameplay

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 and fake news.

There were six “badges” to earn in the game, each reflecting a common strategy used by creators of fake news: impersonation; conspiracy; polarisation; discrediting sources; trolling; emotionally provocative content.

There were in-game questions too that measured the effects of Bad News deployed for four of its featured fake news badges.

As a result for the disinformation tactic of “impersonation”, which involves mimicking of trusted personalities on social media, the game reduced perceived reliability of the fake headlines and tweets by 24% from pre to post gameplay.

Further it reduced perceived reliability of deliberately polarising headlines by about 10%, and “discrediting sources” that is attacking a legitimate source with accusations of bias – by 19%.

For “conspiracy”, the spreading of false narratives blaming secretive groups for world events, perceived reliability was reduced by 20%.

The researchers also found that those who registered as most susceptible to fake news headlines in the beginning 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 sample for the study was skewed towards younger male

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. Hence, the first set of results from Bad News has its limitations, say researchers.

However, the study found the game to be almost equally effective across age, education, gender, and political persuasion. But researchers did not mention if they plan to do a follow up study keeping in mind the limitations of this research.

“Our platform offers early evidence of a way to start building blanket protection against deception, by training people to be more attuned to the techniques that underpin most fake news,” added Roozenbeek.

Community discussion revolve around various fake news reporting techniques

This news has attracted much attention on Hacker News, and users have commented about various news reporting techniques that journalists use to promote different stories. One of the user comments reads,

“The “best” fake news these days is the stuff that doesn’t register even to people are read-in on the usual anti-patterns.

Subtle framing, selective quotation, anonymous sources, “repeat the lie” techniques, and so on, are the ones that I see happening today that are hard to immunize yourself from. Ironically, the people who fall for these are more likely to self-identify as being aware and clued in on how to avoid fake news.”

Another users says, “Second best. The best is selective reporting. Even if every story is reported 100% accurately and objectively, by choosing which stories are promoted, and which buried, you can set any agenda you want.”

One of them also commented that the discussion diluted the term Fake news in influences and propaganda, it reads, “This discussion is falling into a trap where “Fake News” is diluted to synonym for all influencing news and propaganda.

Fake News is propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes. Nothing mentioned here falls into a category of Fake News. Fake News creates cognitive dissonance and distrust. More subtler methods work differently.

But mainstream media also does Fake News” arguments are whataboutism.” To this another user responds, “I’ve upvoted you because you make a good point, but I disagree. IMO, Fake News, in your restrictive definition, is to modern propaganda what Bootstrap is to modern frontend dev. It’s an easy shortcut, widely known, and even talented operators are going to use it because it’s the easiest way to control a (domestic or foreign) population. But resources are there, funding is there, to build much more subtle/complex systems if needed. Cut away Bootstrap, and you don’t particularly dent the startup ecosystem. Cut away fake news, and you don’t particularly dent the ability of troll farms to get work done. We’re in a new era, fake news or not.”

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Being a Senior Content Marketing Editor at Packt Publishing, I handle vast array of content in the tech space ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development. With prior experience and understanding of Marketing I aspire to grow leaps and bounds in the Content & Digital Marketing field. On the personal front I am an ambivert and love to read inspiring articles and books on life and in general.