Spot Fake News By Making It

Mar 18, 2018
Originally published on March 18, 2018 8:26 pm
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Here's a novel way to fight the spread of fake news. Try spreading it yourself - not in real life, though - but an online game called "Bad News" where you play the role of a fake news creator trying to get as many followers as you can by disseminating misinformation. Sander van der Linden is the director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab. He's one of the brains behind the game. And thank you for joining us.

SANDER VAN DER LINDEN: Pleasure to be on the show.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I want to try the game out. But first, why make players put on the hat of a fake-news creator?

VAN DER LINDEN: Well, one of the ways in which we imagine that we could help inoculate people against the spread of fake news and disinformation really is by letting people walk a mile in the shoes of someone who's actively trying to deceive and manipulate you. So we thought, what better way is there for people to familiarize themselves with the techniques that they can then help identify when they're actually confronted with them?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what if you like it too much?


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What if you're training fake-news creators? I'm kidding, obviously. So I've now gone on to the website - And it asks me if I want to post a frustrated tweet. And the answer is always yes. I get this tweet - the Mainstream Media is one massive conspiracy. #FakeNews. I think I'll definitely tweet that.

VAN DER LINDEN: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then it tells me your edifying critique of the mainstream media got you a few followers. And more followers means more influence. OK. I'm not going to play the whole game here right now. But what is it showing me how to do?

VAN DER LINDEN: Well, the first step is to sort of introduce you to the platform. And if you continue to game, you'll sort of start with the first badge, which we call impersonation. And that is impersonating someone else - could be someone famous, someone important - to spread fake news. There's five other badges, six in total. And they're specifically geared towards the - sort of the key techniques that are used in the production of fake news.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. So those six badges are emotion, impersonation, conspiracy, polarization, discredit and trolling.

VAN DER LINDEN: That's right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you come up with those?

VAN DER LINDEN: Well, they're partly inspired by a review of the academic literature. So we've looked at, you know, what's the research shown so far? These are sort of very common techniques that are used that we thought would be important for people to know about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the game is designed to make players more discerning news consumers. How?

VAN DER LINDEN: For example, when you get the polarization badge, you might come across a headline that says, oh, new study shows that, you know, liberals, on average, are more intelligent than conservatives. Or conservatives, on average, are more intelligent than liberals. And rather than getting taken by the content of that message, we hope that users realize that that is a tactic that is being used to drive people further apart, regardless of the accuracy of the actual research.

And similarly, we hope to demystify some of the more subtle techniques that are used, such as impersonation. For example, one of the more lighthearted ones we have in the game is that HBO is cancelling "Game Of Thrones." But, you know, the account of HBO is tweaked in just a little way that signifies that it's not actually HBO. And many people miss that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the game, though, rewards you for despicable behavior. You gain followers. You gain credibility. You get badges for each way that you master the misinformation campaign. And it all seems so easy. It sort of, as we mentioned, makes you want to become a fake news tycoon. Do you think you are creating monsters?

VAN DER LINDEN: I don't think so. You know, the game's not teaching people something new, right? These tactics are out there. They're being used by Russian troll farms. And we're trying to demystify and illuminate. And I like to use a magic show analogy that, you know, when you go see a magic show the first time, you're often amazed. And you don't know how it works. But when the magician explains the trick to you, you won't be fooled by it the next time around. And that's really the idea behind the game.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sander van der Linden is director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab and one of the creators of the game "Bad News." Thanks so much.

VAN DER LINDEN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.