Ever felt like taking up a job as a “Chief Disinformation Officer” to troll people on social media and sabotage elections? Thanks to the hard work of psychologists at the University of Cambridge and the US government, you now can — virtually.
The free-to-play game Harmony Square has been released for people around the world to enjoy (here). The game is meant to help ‘inoculate’ players against willful misinformation. It puts players in the shoes of a disinformation officer whose job it is to lie and manipulate public opinion in order to foment political rifts in an otherwise peaceful town.
Its creators, members from the University of Cambridge, the US’ Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, and the Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), hope that showing people the tactics used to spread fake news and conspiracy theories can help them better recognize (and resist) such attempts in their daily lives.
“Trying to debunk misinformation after it has spread is like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. By pre-bunking, we aim to stop the spread of fake news in the first place,” said Dr. Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab and senior author of the new study.
The gameplay is largely based on “inoculation theory”, the belief that exposure to a weaker dose of a particular stimulus (in this case, fake news and the techniques behind them) can help people become more resistant to them in the future. By showcasing how mal-intended actors can work to incite political division using everything from bots and conspiracies to fake experts, Harmony Square aims to “pre-bunk” such attempts before they happen.
Reaching a “general inoculation” of the public can have a significant effect on the efficiency of dis- and misinformation campaigns in the future, the team believes.
The 10-minute game centers around a small-town neighborhood that’s “obsessed with democracy”, which is about to be rocked. Players are tasked with various not-so-nice things to do such as baiting the square’s “living statute,” spreading falsehoods about the local candidate for “bear controller,” and setting up disreputable online news sites to smear a local TV anchor. It includes four different levels that showcase five common manipulation techniques: trolling for outrage, the exploitation of emotional language to nurture fear and anger, the use of bots and fake social media accounts to artificially increase your following and ‘credibility’, the polarization of audiences, and the creation and dissemination of conspiracy theories.
“The game itself is quick, easy and tongue-in-cheek, but the experiential learning that underpins it means that people are more likely to spot misinformation, and less likely to share it, next time they log on to Facebook or YouTube,” said Dr Jon Roozenbeek, a Cambridge psychologist and lead author of a study describing the game.
In a randomized, controlled trial, the game’s developers asked 681 participants to rate the reliability of a series of news and social media posts. Some were real, some was misinformation, and some was misinformation created particularly for the study (just to make sure it wasn’t something people came across before). Roughly half of the participants were also given Harmony Square to play, while the other half played Tetris.
All in all, those who played the game showed a drop in ‘perceived reliability of misinformation’ by around 16% compared to those who played Tetris. They were also 11% less likely to share fake news than the control group. These results were consistent among all participants, no matter what their political leanings were. The presence of the control group allowed the scientists to determine an “effect size” of 0.54 for the study, said Van der Linden.
“The effect size suggests that if the population was split equally like the study sample, 63% of the half that played the game would go on to find misinformation significantly less reliable, compared to just 37% of the half left to navigate online information without the inoculation of Harmony Square,” he explains.
This isn’t the first game to try and tackle fake news by showing the public how it works behind the scenes. It’s also one of a number of attempts by CISA to playfully illustrate how “foreign influencers” use disinformation to target “hot button” issues. However, Harmony Square is based on a number of studies from the Cambridge team which showcase how gamified methods of increasing public digital literacy can help nip disinformation in the bud. It is aimed specifically at politically-charged content.
The team behind the game includes the Dutch media agency DROG and web designers Gusmanson.
“The aftermath of this week’s election day is likely to see an explosion of dangerous online falsehoods as tensions reach fever pitch,” said Van der Linden. “Fake news and online conspiracies will continue to chip away at the democratic process until we take seriously the need to improve digital media literacy across populations. The effectiveness of interventions such as Harmony Square are a promising start”.
The paper “Breaking Harmony Square: A game that “inoculates” against political misinformation” has been published in the journal Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.