Harmony Square, a new online game, has been released to teach people how to spot techniques used by fake news and to resist misinformation.
The player controls a ‘Chief Disinformation Officer’ as they create inflammatory content and stoke divisions in a small democratic community.
The game’s aim is to expose the tactics and techniques “used to mislead people, build up a following, or exploit societal tensions for political purposes,” according to an in-game statement. In doing so, its creators hope the player will build cognitive resistance against common forms of misinformation.
Created by psychologists from the University of Cambridge, the game was developed with support from the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Center and Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
“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.
Spoilers for Harmony Square Below
Over the course of the game, users learn about five manipulation techniques: trolling to provoke outrage; exploiting emotional language to create anger and fear; artificially amplifying reach through bots and fake followers; creating and spreading conspiracy theories; and polarising audiences.
“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 the study.
The player can politicise the Harmony Square swan and living statue by creating inflammatory statements. This creates the illusion of a broad ‘anti-swan’ lobby, in turn provoking those with ‘pro-swan’ leanings.
“By acting like you’re taking a side in a debate and expressing extreme or polarising opinions, it’s easy to evoke a highly emotional response,” the game warns.
The player goes on to create a fake news website, which they use to defame a candidate for Community Bear Patroller, delegitimise mainstream news sources, create conspiracy theories, and incite violence over a pineapple pizza festival.
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To demonstrate the effectiveness of the game, researchers asked a group to rate the reliability of a series of news and social media posts, containing a variety of real and fake content.
Half of the participants were then given Harmony Square to play, while a control group played Tetris. Both groups were then asked to rate another series of news posts.
The study found that the Harmony Square players considered the misinformation 16% less reliable on average compared to their assessment before playing the game. They were also 11% less willing to share fake news with others.
“The aftermath of this week’s election day is likely to see an explosion of dangerous online falsehoods as tensions reach fever pitch,” said Dr 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,” he said.