Fake news ‘vaccine’ works: ‘pre-bunk’ game reduces susceptibility to disinformation


26-06-2019
Screenshot from the fake news 'vaccine' game Bad News.  Credit: DROG

A study of thousands of players shows a simple online game works like a “vaccine”, increasing skepticism of fake news by giving people a “weak dose” of the methods behind disinformation. 

An online game in which people play the role of propaganda producers to help them identify real world disinformation has been shown to increase “psychological resistance” to fake news, according to a study of 15,000 participants. 

In February 2018, University of Cambridge researchers helped launch the browser game Bad News. Thousands of people spent 15 minutes completing it, with many allowing the data to be used for a study.

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 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 15 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.

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Image: Screenshot from the fake news 'vaccine' game Bad News.

Credit: DROG

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

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The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)