Separating fact from fiction is a very different challenge in the fake news age, and there’s no end of people ready to opine on how to do it. Now boffins from famed Brit university Cambridge have decided to get in on the action by launching a game to "vaccinate" the public against it.
The Bad News game puts players in the shoes of someone who wants to spread mischief and lies, with the aim being to show people how the bad guys do it in a controlled environment so they are wise to it in the wild.
But the game's simplistic approach risks rendering it nothing more than a nice idea with little clout.
The aim is laudable: we don’t need polls to tell us people struggle to spot fake news because the rapid spread of bullshit on the internet is testament enough to people’s gullibility, obstinance and opportunism – or all three.
And, although the social media firms are coming under increasing pressure to fix the spread of misinformation, now the tap is open, it’s going to be impossible for one organisation alone to close it.
The representatives hauled up in front of politicians do their best to look concerned, while the PR machine cranks out programme, after initiative, after global fund.
But even their best attempts are falling short, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the onus for spotting fake news has begun to fall on the public. That’s not an unreasonable idea - most people in the 90s knew if they were watching The Day Today rather than the News at Ten.
But identifying fake news is more complex than sniffing out satire from traditional news, because of the malicious intent of the actors and the fact their aim is to ape real news so people believe their lies. That's before the additional confusion added by genuine news sites and world leaders labelling things they don't agree with as "fake news".
'Vaccination against fake news'
This is where the game comes in - it is positioned as a way of helping people to understand how fake news is generated and spread. It shows them the tricks used to create a social media frenzy and perpetuate lies or half-truths, whether it’s for political gain or a desire for mayhem.
However, the academics behind it - who worked with, and were funded by, a Dutch media group, DROG, that runs workshops and gives talks about fake news - claim that the game is a way of “vaccinating” people against misinformation.
The idea, according to Jon Roozenbeek, the PhD student who is running the work, is based on a principle known as inoculation theory, first put forward in the 1960s.
“It says that if you’re exposed to a weaker version of an argument you have resistance against the real deal,” he said.
The game - which already exists in Dutch - is based on a small-scale pilot Roozenbeek and his Cambridge colleague social psychologist Sander van der Linden carried out with 95 Dutch high school students.
This work has been accepted for publication (PDF) in the Journal of Risk Research, and showed that the perceived reliability of fake news dropped in the group that played, compared with a control group that didn't.
However, there are a lot of differences between that study and the experiment attached to the game: in the school, teams of three were asked to rank the reliability of certain facts before and after writing a fake news article about the politicised topic of European refugees, using pen and paper.
Players of Bad News are asked similar questions at the start and end of play, but it’s obviously hard to define who is participating, and there isn’t a clear control group identified. Moreover, given the game’s length, it’s possible there will be a few drop-outs.
Roozenbeek acknowledged the differences between the two set-ups, and was quick to say that playing the game on its own was not enough. The aim “isn’t to drastically change behaviour, but instead trigger a simple thought process to help foster critical and informed news consumption”, he said.
But it isn’t clear how long the effects of playing will last, and the PR around the game means it’s likely to appeal to people who are already aware of fake news or who are interested in learning how to combat it. It’s hard to imagine people with ingrained opinions on politicised issues - who fake news appeals to - trying it out.
Bernie Hogan of the Oxford Internet Institute said that because players are primed about what to expect, it’s also possible they will be “inoculated against the game” and its desired effects.
He added that the gamification of fake news was “putting a nice face” on the idea that individuals - not experts or respected institutions - are now in charge of defining truth and fiction.
"It's creating the impression that it's the consumer’s job to arbitrate the facts - and all facts are fair game for the consumer to arbitrate," Hogan said.
"What it doesn't have is a sense of what to look for in a trusted news source.”
Choose Your Own Adventure?
The game also takes a fairly simplistic approach to the production of fake news. For instance, one of the early takeaways (which might be a main one if you quit the game after a couple of minutes) is to look for misplaced umlauts in well-known names like HBO or NASA. (El Reg can’t help thinking that if spotting fake news were that easy, we might not be in this situation.)
As you progress, you’re told to watch how certain actions affect your followers and credibility levels, as you’re walked through the stages to becoming a fake news kingpin.
Starting out on a fake Twitter, you’re encouraged to impersonate a famous person, send out incendiary tweets, set up a blog peddling misinformation on topics that will garner an emotional reaction, buy followers, discredit critics and sow the seeds of conspiracies.
But the text-based play is of the Goosebumps Choose-Your-Own-Adventure ilk: you see a statement and are then faced with two - possibly three, but sometimes only one - options. And if you choose the more reasonable one, you’re told to think again, until you’re forced down the path the creators have laid.
You gather badges for things like trolling or impersonation (“a minute ago you were just an angry citizen, now you’re a big shot editor-in-chief running a real news site”), but because you progress without really trying, it’s easy to lose interest and just press the right button without processing the choices.
As well as potentially undermining the overall aim of the game, it also leaves the player feeling like they’ve been testing an educational tool.
Pete Etchells, a psychologist and video games researcher at Bath Spa University, said that this is a common issue with academic research that aims to gather data through games.
“They’re missing a trick if they haven’t spoken to games developers,” he said. Without doing so, games can be reduced to a “tedious” system that’s just a “glorified lab experiment”.
Etchells acknowledged that such collaborations are expensive and time-consuming, but ultimately create a better experience and are likely to be more successful. He pointed to dementia research project Sea Hero Quest as an example of good game design that brought in masses of players, to the benefit of the research.
But beyond the game design, Etchells said he had other concerns about the robustness of the data the the game will gather. For instance, he said, the experiment inside the game “has been set up in a way it can’t fail” - because people who have been through the game will certainly be more cynical by the end.
"Their heart's in the right place," he said. "Fake news is a big problem, but there’s no evidence this game will help."
Ultimately, the game is a good gimmick that lets people while away a bit of time playing at being the bad guy, and we can live in hope that something like this will have a positive long-term effect on their ability to spot fake news. But it's more likely to simply amp up their scepticism about all news.
As Etchells put it, "the issues behind fake news are a lot more complicated" - and there isn't a simple fix.®