There isn’t a cure for fake news. But as with any disease, prevention is often the best medicine.
Researchers at Cambridge University claim they have created a “vaccine” for fake news and misinformation that takes the form of a video game.
The project has already drawn the attention of Google, which has been criticized for allowing conspiratorial content to spread on its YouTube platform, and WhatsApp, where fake news is sometimes forwarded in group chats.
The online game puts users in the place of a fake news creator, allowing them to make misleading or fake Tweets, websites and memes as they gain virtual followers and credibility.
The game’s creators, Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden, said their new study shows that when people learn how to create fake news in the game, they are better able to resist it in real life.
“Just as misinformation spreads like a virus we thought the potential vaccine could be … a vehicle that people could share and learn something from,” van der Linden told CNN Business in an interview.
Van der Linden has been studying fake news and misinformation for years. He and Roozenbeek started by testing individual participants in a lab, educating them about common myths or stereotypes.
But they realized the approach was time consuming and topic specific, so they started thinking of ways to teach people the skills they would need to be able to spot misinformation in social media, no matter the topic.
Using psychological approaches to how people best learn, they created the “Bad News” game, which is available at www.getbadnews.com.
It takes about 15 minutes to play, with players earning six badges that reflect misinformation strategies: impersonation, provocative emotional content, polarization, conspiracy theories, discrediting opponents and trolling.
“When you go to a magic show you may be duped by the trick because you don’t know how it works,” van der Linden said. “But once you know how it works you won’t be fooled again.”
Working with a sample of 15,000 game participants, van der Linden and Roozenbeek said they found evidence that people’s ability to spot and resist misinformation improves after playing.
The researchers are open about the limitations of their results, saying that their sample group skewed toward males with some higher education.
The study was published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Palgrave Communications.
Van der Linden said that Google, WhatsApp, the British Foreign Office and the European Commission are all working with them on how to use the game.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, helped fund research into the game. A company spokesperson said the goal is to understand “what steps can be taken both within WhatsApp and through our support to civil society to help address this problem.” Van der Linden said a special version of the game is being developed for WhatsApp, which has been linked to the spread misinformation in countries like India that contributed to violence.
Google’s research arm Jigsaw has also approached the researchers about creating a game that appeals to the elderly, van der Linden said. While there’s not yet a formal partnership, a Google spokesperson said the discussions are part of their overall approach to help “us share knowledge and test the usability of technology.”
The game has also been modified for different languages and aims. In the Middle East, van der Linden said they’re testing using the game to combat radicalization.
Van der Linden said he’s not concerned that a game that teaches people how to create fake news could be misused. Interested parties would learn how to create misinformation regardless, he argued.
“Our hope is that enough people get vaccinated in this way that it offers enough herd immunity that even if some people go rogue, the people are protected by the larger community,” he said.