A new game claims to ‘vaccinate’ users against disinformation. We tried it out
Players can become conspiracy theorists and run their own fake news empire
- Text by Kira Taylor Karol Bohacova
Ever wondered what it’s like to run a fake news empire, discrediting fact-checkers while causing national scandals and creating conspiracies out of half-truths?
Well, now you can — but remember, it’s just a computer game. The web browser game called “Bad News” takes you through the bizarre experience of becoming a conspiracy theorist. From impersonating public figures to trolling, it opens a window into the world of online disinformation. It’s supposed to act like an information “vaccine,” inoculating players against fake news by giving them a weak dose of disinformation methods.
The game was created by researchers at Cambridge University and DROG, a Dutch anti-disinformation platform. DROG founder Ruurd Oosterwoud has made disinformation his specialist subject since 2014, when he realized our “instinctive responses” to fact-check and regulate fake news were simply not doing enough to combat the crisis.
“Those measures are all reactive and take up all your time,” said Oosterwoud. “They don’t stop the problem. I wanted people to understand at an individual level how easy it is to create realistic disinformation by building a disinformation generator.”
“Bad News” recently went viral over Reddit, with 61,000 people upvoting the game, and its scientists answering questions to enthusiastic Redditors. Working with the UK Foreign Office, Oosterwoud and his team have also released different language versions of the game, including in German, Polish and Greek.
In the name of rigorous journalism, we decided we needed to try out the game for themselves. So two interns at Coda, one from the UK and one from the Czech Republic, took to the keyboard.
We start off with zero followers and a neutral credibility rating. A friendly guide takes us through the process, asking: “You’re probably frustrated about something, right? Aren’t we all. You can get started by using Twitter to vent.”
From one angry tweet to another, we start to build up a followership, attacking everything from the government to big business. This is easy.
We decide to impersonate a well known public figure. In the English version, we get to be Donald Trump, announcing war with North Korea. The Czech version allowed us to be prime minister, Andrej Babiš, perfectly mimicking his tone.
After that, we get the reactions from Twitter: “Oh my god! Is he serious? Has Trump gone completely mad? #NoMoreWars!”
Then, we pretend to be the editor-in-chief of a news site. We choose our name — imaginatively, we go for “HONEST TRUTH ONLINE.” We’re now ready to bombard the world with climate change skepticism.
We learn that when it comes to running your own conspiracy site, content doesn’t matter, since it’s the emotion that counts. “Exploiting people’s basic emotions can be hugely effective,” the game tells us. But you don’t have to make everything up: “It’s often better to blow an existing story way out of proportion.”
We have a problem, though. We only have 539 followers, so it is time to bring in the bots. Our account quickly explodes, gaining 4,500 followers. These bots can look human and can easily start a Twitter trend.
Bots can be very hard to spot, although there are some telltale signs, including more retweets than is humanly possible.
“Disinformation has a high entertainment factor, it gets you hooked,” said Oosterwoud, explaining what he’s learned while trawling through fake news sites to research the game, “There simply is a great demand for it. And spending your energy getting frustrated about the things you read there – either because you agree or because you totally disagree – also means losing and contributing to the effects of disinformation.”
Back to the game and our ethics are now seriously in question as we sow doubt about the circumstances surrounding a plane crash. It’s surprising how easy it is to start claiming things are “false flag” attacks – especially with a couple of tricks in Photoshop.
“By playing the bad guy, with the choice to choose both extremes from the political spectrum, the game does not impose a moral high ground. I think that because of that, the game is so effective,” Oosterwoud said.
By now, we have over 6,000 followers and we’re creating a Twitter storm using our bots, stealing credibility and trust. We’ve started impersonating a victim’s grieving family. And we’ve got next to no ethics left.
Most solutions for fake news focus on teaching people how to check whether the information is true. Oosterwoud takes a different approach: “We believe that the problem is not that people don’t know how to spot a fake, but that they are unaware of the more complex sociological and psychological ways in which disinformation can manipulate them.”
By analyzing the responses of 15,000 players, the creators have discovered that participants significantly become better at recognizing the techniques of disinformation. In other words – the game appears to work.
“We do not want to teach you what is true and what is false, we want to teach you in what ways you can be manipulated,” said Oosterwoud.
Over the course of the game, we’ve mastered the art of impersonating public figures, turning emotions into frenzies, polarizing society, creating conspiracies out of half-truths, discrediting those who fact-check us and trolling anyone who dares stand in our way.
By the time we finish, we have over 12,000 followers and a sky-high credibility rating. Our guide is clearly impressed: “Wow. You’ve fabricated a national scandal with nothing but a few well-placed clicks.”
Try out the game for yourself here.
The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.