Making and Faking News

27 February 2018

Interview with

Sander Van Der Linden & Jon Roozenbeek, University of Cambridge

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Mobile phone

Something that’s increasingly cropping up in the news now is “Fake News” - where social media accounts and websites are used to disseminate false information with the intention of deceiving people. But these fake sources are often well disguised and they can appear - at least to the uninitiated - to be quite plausible. Now researchers from Cambridge University, Sander Van Der Linden and Jon Roozenbeek, are trying to fight back by developing an online game - GetBadNews.com - that teaches people some of the tricks that the fake news fraudsters use, making them easier to spot. Izzie Clarke has been taking a look. 

Izzie - Who doesn’t love video games? You go through intense challenges, defeat the baddie, and then reap the rewards. But, how about a game that’s the complete opposite to that, spreading mistrust, anger, and fear? It’s all about 

NEWS HEADLINES

Fake news

Fake news

The issue of fake news.

It’s all fake news

Izzie - That’s exactly what researchers at the University of Cambridge have created. The game Bad News puts the player as the Editor in Chief of a fake news website. But the study behind all of this is to make the public more aware of the spread of disinformation. I met up with the University's Digital Video Game Society to give it a go and find out what they think about fake news…

Student 1 - I decided to personally attack the scientists... I’m Jiri Guth and I study theoretical physics here at Cambridge. It’s kind of hard to say how much I am personally affected by fake news because when you see fake news you don’t know if it’s fake or it’s real news.

Student 2 - I’m picking a name for my website to post some fake news. We have here Honest Truth online. I’m not that credible yet, but I think I have to really work on that.

Izzie - The aim is to build a Twitter empire, gain credibility, and collect a series of scheming badges to become the ultimate manipulating mastermind. Dr Sander Van der Linden, the Director of the Social Decision Making Lab in the Department of Psychology, explained how this is actually helping the player to become less susceptible to fake news…

Sander - It’s really building off of earlier research where we try to implement the idea of a vaccine against fake news. The game is really about helping people spot, remember, and rehearse these tactics so that when people are exposed to these in future, they’re hopefully more resistant to them. In very short, once you know the magic behind the trick you won’t be fooled by it again. I always tell people to imagine walking a mile in the shoes of someone who’s trying to decieve you is probably the best way to learn about how they actually work and how to immunise yourself against these sort of tactics.

Izzie - Now let’s get gaming. Jon Roozenbeek designed the game and took me through how it works…

Jon - The gamer is the bad guy, and we’ve deliberately tried to make the player a little bit uncomfortable with these things. Sometimes the game give you an option of hey, well I’m not comfortable with this thing and then the narrator basically tell you well, too bad. If you want to be a disinformation tycoon you’re going to have to skirt a few ethical guidelines here and there.

The game is basically choice based. It’s a very simple design; you start playing the game immediately, you get to choose between options - usually two. It leads you through a number of techniques that are commonly used in the production of disinformation. These techniques are, for example, impersonation; that is impersonating a news website; impersonating an important person or organisation. The misleading use of emotion. Polarisation, that means driving the political left and the political right further apart and exploiting that. Conspiracy theories make their way into the game as well. Discrediting your opponents in various ways, and trolling.

Izzie - You have to create Twitter bots that overthrow reliable sources, impersonate the likes of NATO, and trick the public, and stir up conspiracy theories to start a frenzie. But, by doing so, when you come across those tactics online, you’re more immune to them. This game is like a psychological vaccine…

Sander - What we found, essentially, is that after playing the game - this was done in a High School in the Netherlands. Students thought fake news articles that we show them after the game were less reliable than students in the control group who didn’t play the game. That signaled some early evidence that the game could be effective and we decided to scale that at a much larger level.

Izzie - Sander and his team have asked participants to also take a survey allowing them to evaluate how effective this game is to help determine questionable from real news. This can open a whole new realm to educational gaming…

Jon - What’s next? The organisation that we work with in the Netherlands, DROG, they are also developing educational programs that are much more explicitly aimed at teaching how disinformation actually works and how it spreads in a much more comprehensive way. We’re hoping to implement these in schools but also in other places where this might be useful.

We’ve requested funding to translate the game into different languages as well for countries where disinformation is a larger problem than it is here, for example Ukraine. We’re thinking that Ukraine and Ukrainian students, for example, might benefit a lot from having these programmes available.

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