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Cambridge University Debuts Simulation Game to Vaccinate Users Against Fake News

Wesam Abo Marq Wesam Abo Marq
6th May 2024
Cambridge University Debuts Simulation Game to Vaccinate Users Against Fake News
Bad News was created to aid students in spotting fake news (Uni of Cambridge)

A recent study unveils how a computer game featuring playing the role of bad guys can enhance students' ability to detect misinformation tactics. In a collaborative effort between University of Cambridge researchers and video game developers, a game called "Bad News" was created to aid students in spotting fake news.

‘Bad News’ Game: A Vaccine for Disinformation

The University of Cambridge with the help of video game developers launched a groundbreaking online experiment designed to combat disinformation by offering a unique perspective from a "fake news tycoon." The aim is to provide individuals with a small but potent dose of insight, akin to an inoculation, against the spread of misinformation

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A screenshot of the University of Cambridge’s article.

Building upon the success of a pilot study that demonstrated early signs of effectively bolstering resistance to fake news among teenagers, researchers at the University of Cambridge are pioneering this initiative.

Previous research conducted by the University of Cambridge highlighted the efficacy of briefly exposing individuals to tactics commonly employed by producers of fake news, likening it to a "psychological vaccine" against deceptive anti-science campaigns, particularly concerning climate science.

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. However, the focus of this new endeavor extends beyond climate science to address the broader spectrum of fake news infiltrating public discourse.

The online game serves as an experimental platform aimed at cultivating "general immunity" against the pervasive threat of misinformation in today's society.

"Bad News" Game Methodology

The game puts players in the role of an aspiring propagandist, offering an interactive experience that sheds light on the techniques and motivations driving the proliferation of disinformation. By delving into the world of so-called fake news, the game aims to provide players with a firsthand understanding of these dynamics, potentially bolstering their immunity against such deceptive influences.

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A screenshot of the official website of the Fake news game “Bad News”

Within the game, players are prompted to manipulate digital news and social media to stoke public anger, mistrust, and fear. Through a series of simulated scenarios, participants engage in activities such as publishing polarizing falsehoods, deploying Twitter bots, doctoring evidence through photo manipulation, and propagating conspiracy theories in the aftermath of public tragedies. Throughout these endeavors, players must carefully manage a "credibility score" to maximize their persuasive impact.

The game elucidates six prevalent practices utilized in misinformation: impersonation, emotion, polarization, conspiracy, discrediting, and trolling, as outlined by the game's developers.

Thomas Nygren, a professor of education at Uppsala University in Sweden and one of the study authors, emphasized the significance of this initiative, stating, "This is an important step towards equipping young people with the tools they need to navigate in a world full of disinformation."

He further highlighted the necessity for individuals to enhance their ability to discern manipulative strategies, particularly in light of the challenges posed by technologies like deep fakes and other AI-generated disinformation. Nygren referred to this approach as "prebunking," underscoring its importance in mitigating the impact of deceptive tactics.

Serious Games Find Application in Public Campaigns

The researchers delved into the factors contributing to students' improved ability to discern misinformation post-game.

Their investigation revealed that incorporating competitive elements into the game heightened interest levels among participants.

Thomas Nygren remarked, "Some people believe that gamification can enhance learning in school. However, our results show that more gamification in the form of competitive elements does not necessarily mean that students learn more, though it can be perceived as more fun and interesting."

Aside from its role in "inoculating" users against misleading content, the game also fostered positive attitudes towards reliable news sources.

Furthermore, serious games, which are fully developed games with specific educational or training objectives, are increasingly being utilized in public campaigns.

“Bad News” Game Anticipated Outcomes

Drawing from existing studies on online propaganda and inspired by real conspiracy theories surrounding organizations like the United Nations, the game is set to be translated for countries such as Ukraine, where disinformation casts a heavy shadow.

Moreover, there are intentions to repurpose the game's framework for anti-radicalization efforts, given the overlap in manipulation techniques utilized by recruiters for religious extremist groups—tactics such as exploiting false information to evoke intense emotions.

Jon Roozenbeek, a researcher from Cambridge’s Department of Slavonic Studies and one of the game's designers, emphasizes that effective dissemination of disinformation does not require advanced skills; anyone can launch a site and artificially amplify it through methods like Twitter bots. Conversely, resisting fake news does not necessitate extensive media studies knowledge.

Roozenbeek clarifies, "We aren’t trying to drastically change behavior but instead trigger a simple thought process to help foster critical and informed news consumption.”

It is worth noting that the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab has created two additional serious games: Harmony Square, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, focuses on election misinformation, while Go Viral! addresses COVID-19 misinformation.

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Cambridge games: Bad News, Harmony Square, and Go Viral! (ResearchGate)

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