Sander van der Linden Ph.D.

Social Dilemmas

Fake It 'til You Make It: A Game to Help You Spot Fake News

A new study offers a needle-free vaccine to the post-truth virus.

Posted Jan 10, 2020

My colleagues and I released a new study today that provides evidence that a game can help people spot fake news. Though spreading misinformation is incredibly easy, spotting and resisting it is much more difficult.

I know what you’re thinking: “Not me—I won’t be duped by fake news!" But how confident are you in your ability to differentiate between true and false information? Chances are—like the rest of us—you are worse at it than you’d like to think.

Consider the following headline from World News Daily Report: “Elderly woman accused of training her 65 cats to steal from neighbors.” Real or fake? Perhaps it sounds too ridiculous to be true, but so do many things these days.

The headline is completely fake, of course, and although it may seem obvious, this wasn’t the case for the more than 700,000 individuals who shared this rather bizarre story of a crazy cat lady on Facebook! Though this example may be humorous and mostly harmless, we are just as easily (or even more easily) deceived when fake news articles touch on hot-button issues we care about.  

In fact, the spread of misinformation has led to serious consequences, ranging from societal misconceptions around climate change and vaccinations to physical danger and death. Fake news spreads much like a virus through a population and can infect its host through a single exposure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, models from epidemiology are well-suited to understand how information pathogens spread in social networks.

For example, a recent study in Science shows that misinformation seems to travel faster and further than any other kind of information. Unfortunately, the solution is much more complicated than just issuing corrections and retractions. The continued influence of misinformation effect suggests that people continue to rely on falsehoods, even when debunked.  

The Quest for an Antidote: "Prebunking" Instead of Debunking

But, where there’s a virus, there’s the promise of an antidote. Befittingly, we spent years in the lab working out a potential antidote. Our approach is rooted in “inoculation theory.” The theory of inoculation relies on a biomedical analogy: Just like injecting a weakened dose of a virus (the vaccine), we find that exposure to a weakened dose of fake news deception can build cognitive resistance or “mental antibodies” to future misinformation attacks. We hypothesised that you can get “vaccinated” against fake news (but without the use of scary needles).

Good News About Bad News

To administer the “vaccine,” we teamed up with the media platform DROG and built a free social impact game called Bad News. Here, instead of going to the doctor (which is no fun anyway), players enter a simulated social media environment (Twitter) and step into the shoes of a fake news tycoon.

DROG/Bad News, used with permission.
Screenshot of gameplay (www.getbadnews.com)
Source: DROG/Bad News, used with permission.

In the game, players are encouraged to create their own fake content whilst gradually learning about six common fake news tactics (impersonating people online, using emotional language, group polarisation, spread­ing conspiracy theories, discrediting opponents, and trolling). In other words, the game isn’t about telling people what's true and what's not: individuals are being “inoculated” against online manipulation strategies rather than specific arguments. As such, the game aims to function as a "broad-spectrum vaccine" against fake news. The results of a prior study showed that it's possible to build resistance against misinformation through exposure to weakened doses of the virus. But we weren’t going to leave it at that.

All About Confidence

Our recent study confirms that Bad News significantly improves people’s ability to spot misinformation techniques regardless of their prior beliefs in a randomized trial. Importantly, our findings also suggest that whilst players enhance their ability to differentiate between fake and credible information, their confidence in their own judgement is also enhanced.

Think of it like this: If you’re not very confident in what you believe, you’re easily persuaded and misled!

Accordingly, it’s important for real-world games to not only help people spot fake news better, but also to boost players’ confidence in correctly identifying misinformation. This is a promising step towards a society where our confidence is accurately reflected in our knowledge. In other words, we don’t want to be overconfident about our ability to spot fake news when our actual skills are lacking but we don’t want to be under-confident when we’re right either. Additionally, how confident we are in our attitudes impacts our future behavior, so perhaps being confident about what we know and don’t know will lead to less sharing of fake news.  

Herd Immunity

Though these findings are promising, the battle against fake news continues. Whilst the cat lady may or may not have fooled you, it is likely that you have unwittingly encountered misleading or manipulated content before. To some extent, it is our civic duty to prevent the spread of misinformation. Just like with real vaccinations, societal immunity against fake news would stand tall against the occasional outbreak or retweet by someone “inflicted.” After all, if enough individuals build psychological immunity, fake news will never travel as fast and as far and it could protect even those who did not receive the vaccine.

In short, when we achieve "societal immunity," perhaps "fake news" could be remembered as nothing but another eradicated infectious disease.

By Melisa Basol, Jon Roozenbeek, and Sander van der Linden

References

Basol, M., Roozenbeek, J., & van der Linden, S. (2019).  Good News about Bad News: Gamified Inoculation Boosts Confidence and Cognitive Immunity Against Fake News. Journal of Cognition. doi: https://doi.org/10.5334/joc.91

Roozenbeek, J., & van der Linden, S. (2018). The fake news game: actively inoculating against the risk of misinformation. Journal of Risk Research, 22(5), 570–580. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2018.1443491

Roozenbeek, J., & van der Linden, S. (2019). Fake news game confers psychological resistance against online misinformation. Nature Palgrave Communications, 5(65). doi: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599- 019-0279-9

van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., Rosenthal, S., & Maibach, E. (2017). Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change. Global Challenges, 1(2), 1600008. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/ gch2.201600008

van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., Cook, J., Leiserowitz, A., & Lewandowsky, S. (2017). Inoculating against misinformation. Science, 358(6367), 1141–1142. doi: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar4533