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How to Immunize Yourself Against Fake News

A new website lets people play the role of propagandist, giving them a more sophisticated idea of how and why fictitious news is created.
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Seeing Google.

As last week's federal indictment showed, Russian operatives encouraged discord among Americans during the 2016 election by planting fictitious posts on your Facebook news feed. Given that they will likely do so again this year, it's imperative that citizens become more media savvy, and learn to distinguish between authentic information and dubious material designed to sow discord.

A new online game designed by Cambridge University researchers——offers a potentially effective way to do just that. It allows people to assume the role of someone who creates and/or spreads fake news. This gives users insight into both the mindset of such propagandists, and the techniques they use.

"Recognizing and resisting fake news doesn't require a Ph.D. in media studies," said Jon Roozenbeek, one of the game's designers. Their hope, he added, is to "trigger a simple thought process to help foster critical and informed news consumption."

In the Journal of Risk Research, Roozenbeck and co-author Sander van der Linden describe a pilot study in which a version of the game was played by 95 high school students in the Netherlands, with promising results.

Fifty-seven of the students spent about a half-hour playing the game, in which they were to create and disseminate fake news. They were divided into groups of two to four people, and then randomly assigned to assume one of four roles:

  • The denier, who strives to make a topic look small and insignificant.
  • The alarmist, whose goal is to make the topic look "as large and problematic as possible."
  • The clickbait manager, "whose goal is to get as many clicks as possible."
  • The conspiracy theorist, "who distrusts any kind of official, mainstream narrative, and wants their audience to follow suit."

Each group was then given a fact sheet in which the issue they were to address—in this case, immigration and the European refugee crisis. It included official statistics on crimes that have been linked to the increased number of refugees, as well as "a number of possible reasons behind the rise in incidents."

"Players were then instructed to use the information from the fact sheet to create a fake news article," the researches write. Using sets containing four options, they created headlines and texts, and chose images and graphs that would shape the message in the way their assigned persona preferred.

All participants—those who played the game, and another group that did not—then read one of two fictitious news articles about that same hot-button issue. Both articles—one with an overt anti-immigrant message, and another that was more sympathetic to their plight—utilized techniques often seen in fake news posts, including hyperbole, conspiratorial thinking, demonization of outsiders, and an appeal to "common sense."

THE TRICK TO DEBUNKING FAKE NEWS: Misinformation is hard to dislodge, but certain techniques can help.

After reading the article, the students indicated how persuasive they found it, the degree to which they agreed with it, and how reliable they considered its information.

Those who had played the game, and thus had a better idea of how propaganda is created, "rated the fake news article's reliability significantly lower than the control group," the researchers report. "Playing the fake news game did have a significant indirect effect on perceived persuasiveness through reduced reliability judgments."

The researchers stress this was a preliminary, exploratory test. Now that the game is online, more data can be collected regarding its effectiveness with adults. But they consider high schools a uniquely valuable forum for this sort of education.

"Young students are still developing their beliefs about the world, and have less crystallized attitudes and opinions," they write. "Early media education may therefore be the ultimate inoculation to help empower people against the risk of disinformation."