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PLAYING THE DISINFORMER: A NEW LEAD FOR REDUCING BELIEF IN FAKE NEWS

11/05/2020

Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of the following research paper:

Roozenbeek, J., & van der Linden, S. (2019). Fake news game confers psychological resistance against online misinformation. Palgrave Communications, 5(1), 1-10.
Roozenbeek, J., & Van Der Linden, S. (2019). The fake news game: actively inoculating against the risk of misinformation. Journal of Risk Research, 22(5), 570-580.

A group of psychologists from the University of Cambridge has developed a method to reduce belief in fake news. This original method consists in having individuals participate in games in which they must themselves contribute to misinforming others. By actively participating in misinformation, individuals would develop a form of resistance against the misinformation to which they could in turn be exposed.

The team has published two scientific articles on the issue. A summary of these is available here.

Article 1: Fake news game confers psychological resistance against online misinformation (2019)

Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden

Introduction

The authors recall that the literature on fake news shows that debunking (disproving an erroneous assertion with facts) does not systematically work. Namely, debunking always comes after the information has been memorized by individuals. This is why the authors and other researchers have taken an interest in inoculation theory. Inoculation is a method in communications (introduced by McGuire in 1964) inspired by vaccination, which consists of presenting a poorly argued statement on a subject in order to disqualify any future, stronger argument. It is used, in particular, to preemptively disqualify any counterarguments. In recent years, this method has been used on controversial issues such as conspiracy theories or climate change. It even seems to work to modify deeply entrenched opinions.

Based on this theory, the researchers have developed a game in partnership with the Dutch media outlet DROG on the topic of fake news. The goal is to make individuals immune to fake news by putting them in the shoes of a disinformation agent.

Method

Here's how the game works:

  • The player is encouraged to create fake news to increase his online popularity and reputation.
  • Several scripted challenges are suggested to the player, such as the ability to spread malicious rumors about journalists.
  • The fake news chosen by the player will earn him points that will allow him to validate the 6 steps necessary to finish the game.
  • Each step is dedicated to a specific disinformation technique: discrediting, spreading conspiracy theories, trolling (provoking and mocking an opponent to force him to react), polarization (extreme position that cleaves the debate into two firmly opposed sides), invoking emotions and identity theft (creating false information by impersonating someone). 
  • To encourage the player to produce convincing fake news, the game issues a punishment whenever he or she fails by diminishing their reputation and popularity. If the player loses too much, the game ends.

To measure the effectiveness of the game against fake news, researchers ask each player to rate the reliability of 6 pieces of information presented in a "social media" format (title, image, short text) at the beginning and at the end of the game. 2 pieces of information are true and 4 are false. If the game is effective, the participants will be better able to rate the reliability of the false information after having played the game.

Of all the players who participated, the authors were able to retrieve 14,000 complete answers. 75% of the players are men, rather young (47% are under 30 years old), highly educated and rather liberal (in American political sense, i.e. center-left). The results are thus not representative of the population as a whole, but are interesting nonetheless due to the large number of participants.

Results

  • Overall, the results are encouraging. The game indeed has an impact on the way participants perceive information: fake news seem less reliable to the participants after they have acted as a disinformation agent.
  • The researchers also note that the game did not make participants more distrustful of reliable information. This is an important fact to note, as there is a debate in the scientific literature about a counter-productive consequence of inoculation: the generalization and reinforcement of skepticism.
  • The effect of inoculation is also particularly positive among participants who were initially quite gullible in the face of fake news.
  • While small differences exist according to the socio-demographic profile of the participants, the results as a whole converge towards this positive effect of inoculation.
  • This positive effect is not very significant in absolute terms, but it is robust enough for inoculation to be considered a relevant solution against fake news. 

Conclusion

Inoculation is an interesting solution to combat fake news, as it seems to show positive effects for a wide set of individuals (regardless of the age, political orientation, etc., of the participants) and does not contribute to increased mistrust of reliable information.

The format of the experiment is also interesting: such a game can be easily utilized, even by younger people.

However, the authors note that their results should be interpreted with caution, since they are based on a set of individuals that is not representative of the general population. Another important limitation of the study is that the authors did not set up a control group to assess the impact of the game itself. 1

The authors therefore call upon other researchers to confirm the role of inoculation on psychological resistance to fake news.

Article 2: The fake news game: actively inoculating against the risk of misinformation (2018)

Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden

Introduction

In this article, the authors present a second game that is also based on the inoculation method. They recall that McGuire, in 1961, believed that inoculation produces better results when individuals actively participate in the inoculation. From this point of view, the play-based approach has an undeniable advantage in that the players, far from remaining passive, are invited to actively participate in the creation of disinformation.

With this game, the authors seek to increase the resistance of individuals to many different types of disinformation. Consequently, the game is centered more on the form of disinformation than on its content (which varies from case to case).

Method

Here's how the game works:

Unlike the previous game, this one requires several players. The game assigns a character to 4 groups of 2 to 4 players.

Each group will have to write an article.

Each character has a well-defined persona to which the group must comply in writing their article.

For example, the “alarmist” group will have to write their article by exaggerating its importance as much as possible.

To write their article, the group must follow a compulsory topic. In writing each section of the article, the group must choose between different interpretations of the facts. The goal is to choose the alternative that best corresponds to their character's persona (each alternative being linked to a specific character that the players must guess).

The group that was best able to represent their character's persona wins the game.

To test the effectiveness of this game, the researchers tested it with a class of Dutch students in their final year of secondary school (i.e. 12th grade, or the year of the baccalaureatein France): 57 students, with an average age of 16 years.  

The authors set up an exercise to evaluate the impact of the game on the students. After playing the game, the students are split into two groups. In each group, the students will individually read an article about immigration in the Netherlands. One of the articles is written in a way that defends the position of immigrants and the other is written in a way that is critical of immigrants. However, both articles employ the same methods of disinformation that the students used during the game.

After having read the article, each student must express whether they find the article persuasive, whether they agree with its position, and whether they think that the article is reliable.

This time, the researchers used a control group: 38 students of the same grade level, divided into two groups, were also asked to read one of the articles and to answer the same questions, but without having played the game.

The authors hypothesize that students who have played the game will find the articles less convincing and less reliable than students who have not played the game.

Results

On average, players find the article less reliable than the control group (a difference of 0.50 on a scale of 1 to 7).

Nevertheless, although the players, on average, found the article less convincing than the control group, the observed difference between the two groups is not statistically significant. 2

Similarly, while the results show that players were, on average, less convinced by the article than non-players, this difference is also not statistically significant.

Conclusion

Despite the statistical insignificance of the results obtained, the authors consider them to be promising. They encourage other researchers to continue to explore the effect of inoculation on resistance to fake news. The authors are hopeful that experiments with larger sample sizes will yield results that are statistically significant.

Conclusion of this series

The authors have proposed an original method to combat fake news. Game-based approaches benefit from being rewarding, especially for younger people who can have fun while they are learning. However, the research is still in its early stages and other results will validate or invalidate the effectiveness of inoculation against fake news.

Resources :

Article 1

Article 2

  1. Here, a control group would correspond to a group of individuals who would not participate in the game but who would answer questions about the reliability of the information presented. The comparison between the control group and the experimental group would determine the exact impact of the game on the players’ answers to the questions.[]
  2. In experimental science, researchers use an indicator (the p-value) to ensure that an observed difference between two values is significant. If the p-value is smaller than 0.05 (denoted “p < .05”), then the researchers conclude that there is a significant difference between the results of the control group and the results of the experimental group. Note that the p-value is often misunderstood. It does not in fact measure the degree of validity of a hypothesis ( = there exists a difference in the way that players and non-players consider the article) but the extent to which the observed result deviates from the null hypothesis ( = players and non-players are equally convinced by the article). This means that empirical results should always be interpreted with caution. The higher the p-value, the less the obtained result refutes the null hypothesis. In effect, it would be imprudent to conclude here that the results show that the game is effective: the observed differences are too close to the null hypothesis. For more information, here is an excellent introduction proposed by Thierry Ancelle, lecturer and epidemiologist.[]
Topic :  Media and information literacy   
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Country :  UK and Netherlands 
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Language  :  English 
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