Sander van der Linden will speak at this year's Hay Festival about how a game developed by University of Cambridge researchers can help to 'inoculate' players against fake news.

The game involves boiling down content to the main techniques used to persuade people so they can recognise the different stages of indoctrination, from targeting to grooming to activation, if they come up against them.

Sander van der Linden

A game which aims to ‘vaccinate’ people against fake news by teaching them how information can be manipulated for certain ends can be used in a range of different contexts, from countering conspiracy theories and radicalisation to teaching students about bad science.

The Bad News game was developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the Dutch media collective DROG and is based on inoculation theory which views fake news as similar to a virus to which herd immunity needs to be developed.

Many hundreds of thousands of people have played it since it was launched online last year. “People love playing and learning through games,” says lead researcher Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab in the Department of Psychology.

Since the launch of the game, which has won several design awards, its potential uses have been multiplying. There is, for instance, an application for funding to do a version on bad science to inoculate students against questionable research practices.

Moreover, through a collaboration with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, coordinated by doctoral researcher Jon Roozenbeek, the game has been translated into 15 languages which makes it possible to do large scale cross-cultural comparisons.

The game will feature in van der Linden's talk, Vaccinating fake news, at this year’s Hay Festival on 25th May where it forms part of the Cambridge Series.

One of the game's big advantages has been its reach. To get the game out to a wide section of the public, the researchers have worked with different social media platforms. There is a Twitter version of the game and a WhatsApp version is being worked on. The researchers have been working with Whatsapp to counter fake news in the Indian elections, partnering with India’s Digital Empowerment Foundation.

They have also brought out a children’s version (Bad News Junior) with more child-friendly content and have created a board game version for schools.

“It’s a new way to do social science research and, in addition to countering fake news, it has the potential to help inoculate people against radicalism and extremism,” says van der Linden. “It involves boiling down content to the main techniques used to persuade people so they can recognise the different stages of indoctrination, from targeting to grooming to activation, if they come up against them.”

In addition, van der Linden and Roozenbeek are working with partners in the Middle East, for instance, to think about how to inoculate young people who might be targets for extremists.

The game is also a good way of engaging with the public and explaining scientific research in an accessible way.

Feedback shows a positive effect for all who play it, but a slightly more marked one in younger people who tend to get the highest scores. “There are small differences with regard to age, ideology and educational background, but everyone seems to be learning,” says van der Linden. “However, the inoculation is more effective the less you have been exposed to the virus.”

A booster shot?

Questions that the researchers are grappling with as they develop the game further include whether there needs to be a ‘booster’ to the original vaccine; whether the game works better in an interactive environment such as social media; whether it needs to draw on people’s real life experiences to be more effective; whether the lessons learned can be applied in a variety of different situations; and whether it can be adapted as technology advances, for instance, so that people can detect deep fake images or video.

Asked about how it can counter specific conspiracy theories or types of fake news, van der Linden says: “We are focusing on the underlying techniques rather than specific contexts. Policymakers’ approaches to fake news, such as fact checking, tend to be more reactive. We want to be proactive and pre-bunk fake news.”

He adds that it is important that the game is ideologically neutral with players able to pick a side. “It’s not about liberal academics attempting to manipulate people about specific issues. It’s about helping people gain resistance against the techniques of manipulation,” he states. For instance, there is a Brexit version of the game in the London Design Museum where players can choose to be pro-Leave or pro-Remain.

Risk and uncertainty

The dangers of the move towards a ‘post-truth’ world also figure in van der Linden’s new book, Risk and Uncertainty in a Post-Truth Society, out in June. The book is co-edited with Ragnar E. Löfstedt, Professor of Risk Management at King’s College London, and aims to rethink the concepts of risk and uncertainty in areas where truth is contested.

For the book van der Linden has worked with David Spiegelhalter, Cambridge’s Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, and the two academics will talk about the issues it raises at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas in the autumn.

A key finding is that people can handle uncertainty if it is at least measurable. “If you are very vague about the uncertainty of something that is where you see the big psychological impact,” says van der Linden.

That applies to everything from the risks and side effects of taking medications to immigration statistics.  “People do not like it if you say “there will be much more or much less” immigration because it is a very vague statement, but if you give them some relatively precise parameters within which it will increase or decrease they are more thoughtful and trusting about what that could mean.  Making figures more concrete and transparent adds value,” says van der Linden.

The book is aimed at academics and policymakers and should provide food for thought on how to present findings to the press in a responsible way. Van der Linden describes it as optimistic in that it sets out to find ways of presenting uncertainty that don’t lead to the kind of mass panic and conspiracy theories that have become prevalent in recent years. 

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