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A new game helps players become aware of misinformation mechanisms. Aitor Diago/Getty Images
  • “Prebunking” strengthens a person’s awareness of the manipulative tactics that characterize misinformation.
  • 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 prebunking games and infographics can help people spot manipulative, untrustworthy information.

“While fact-checking is vital work, it can come too late,” says Professor Sander van der Linden, Director of the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. “Trying to debunk misinformation after it spreads is often a difficult if not impossible task.”

However, research suggests that individuals can be “vaccinated” against the 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 falsehood,” says Cambridge Gates Scholar Melisa Basol.

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

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

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

The study also investigates the effectiveness of infographic images designed to debunk COVID-19 misinformation. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) produced the images as part of their #ThinkBeforeSharing program.

The study appears in the journal Big Data and Society.

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

In the game, players post information on COVID-19 designed to be provocative enough to generate “likes.” They use emotionally charged language, fear, and outrage — techniques employed by real-life conspiracists — to keep their audience clicking and sharing. When a player’s baseless misinformation goes viral, they win the game.

“By preemptively exposing people to a microdose of the methods individuals use to disseminate fake news,” says Professor van der Linden, “we can help them identify and ignore it in the future.”

Basol and co-author Dr. Jon Roozenbeek told Medical News Today that serious games, such as Go Viral! — and others, such as Cranky Uncle, which gamifies climate change — “are really promising because we can apply them as part of educational workshops, school curricula, university courses, as well as standalone interventions that anyone with an internet connection can access.”

One of two experiments that researchers undertook for the study was a comparison of the effectiveness of Go Viral! and UNESCO’s prebunking infographics.

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

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

When participants returned to the tweets, just 55% of the control group identified misinformation, slightly better than chance. The infographics viewers fared slightly better, with 61% spotting the manipulation.

Of the people who had played Go Viral!, 74% correctly identified tweets containing misinformation.

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

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

Go Viral! players continued to be good at spotting misinformation, while infographic viewers had reverted to their prior vulnerability.

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

In any event, Professor van der Linden told Medical News Today, “People lose natural immunity to COVID as well over time, and even vaccinations require booster shots. Most effects of psychological interventions, such as an ‘accuracy prime,’ dissipate over a matter of seconds, minutes or days, so a week is actually pretty good in context! I can barely remember what I had for dinner last week, so psychology is a bit trickier in terms of fortifying the cognitive immune system as we’re dealing with memory processes.”