Online gambling teaches players how disinformation works

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A new game helps players become aware of the mechanics of disinformation. Aitor Diago / Getty Images
  • “Prebunking” strengthens a person’s awareness of the manipulative tactics that characterize disinformation.
  • An online game called “Go viral!” Teaches players how misinformation works, as they try to win by making fake news go viral.
  • Researchers find that pre-bunking games and infographics can help people spot manipulative and unreliable information.

“Although fact-checking is vital work, it can come too late,” says Professor Sander van der Linden, director of the Social Decision-Making Lab at the University of Cambridge in the UK. “Trying to debunk disinformation after it has spread is often a difficult, if not impossible, task.”

However, research suggests that individuals can be “vaccinated” against susceptibility to misinformation, preventing it from taking root in the first place.

“By exposing people to the methods that individuals use to produce fake news, we can help create a general ‘inoculation’, rather than trying to counter each specific lie,” says Melisa Basol, Cambridge Gates scholar.

It’s called prebunking, and it’s the subject of a new study from the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge University. Basol is the lead author of the study, while Professor van der Linden is its lead author.

The lab has co-developed a browser game called Go Viral! with the DROG media agency. In the game, players learn how fake news spreads by trying to get their own fake news to go viral.

By learning the ropes of the fake news trade, players develop a skepticism that helps them recognize misinformation.

The study also examines the effectiveness of infographic images designed to demystify COVID-19 disinformation. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) produced the images as part of its #ThinkBeforeSharing program.

The study appears in the journal Big Data and Society.

People have played over 400,000 games of Go Viral !, which is available in multiple languages. This includes sessions associated with the World Health Organization (WHO), which uses the game as a real intervention in their “Stop the spread” campaign.

In-game, players post information about COVID-19 designed to be provocative enough to generate “likes”. They use emotionally charged language, fear and outrage – techniques employed by true conspirators – to get their audiences to click and share. When a player’s baseless misinformation goes viral, they win the game.

“By preemptively exposing people to microdosing the methods people use to spread fake news,” says Professor van der Linden, “we can help them identify and ignore them in the future.”

Basol and his co-author, Dr Jon Roozenbeek, said Medical News Today than serious games, like Go Viral! – and others, like Cranky Uncle, who plays on climate change – “are really promising because we can apply them in educational workshops, school programs, university courses, as well as stand-alone interventions to which any anyone with an Internet connection can access “.

One of the two experiments the researchers undertook for the study was a comparison of the effectiveness of Go Viral! and UNESCO pre-bunking infographics.

The team asked 1,777 volunteers to rate 18 tweets. Nine tweets contained accurate information, while the rest incorporated one of the three types of manipulation that individuals commonly deploy in disinformation campaigns: moral and emotional language, false expert testimony, and conspiratorial reasoning.

The researchers then asked participants to play a game of Go Viral! or consult the UNESCO infographics. The control group played 5 minutes of Tetris.

When participants returned to tweets, only 55% of the control group identified the misinformation, slightly better than chance. Viewers of infographics fared a bit better, with 61% spotting the manipulation.

Of those who played Go Viral !, 74% correctly identified tweets containing misinformation.

When researchers questioned the Go Viral! players on their ability to detect fake news in the future, 67% of them felt more confident in their ability.

The study authors returned to 606 of the participants a week later to see if their heightened skepticism had persisted.

Go viral! gamers continued to spot misinformation well, while infographic viewers reverted to their previous vulnerability.

Basol and Dr Roozenbeek suggested that Go Viral! players have done better because the game is “decision tree based, so people have the flexibility to create their own stories, and people interact with other users and regularly receive feedback on their choices.” In short, our serious games tap into basic psychological needs, which are known to improve motivation and engagement compared to other types of media content.

Anyway, Professor van der Linden said Medical News TodayPeople also lose their natural immunity to COVID over time, and even vaccinations require booster shots. Most of the effects of psychological interventions, like a “precision prime” wear off in seconds, minutes, or days, so a week is actually quite good in context! I can barely remember what I ate for dinner last week, so the psychology is a bit trickier in terms of strengthening the cognitive immune system as we deal with memory processes.


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