Online Game Heralded As ‘Vaccine’ For Fake News

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An online game has been shown to increase ‘psychological resistance’ to fake news, a study has found.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge helped launch the game, called Bad News, in which people play the role of ‘propaganda producers’.

The browser game, which was made available to 15,000 participants, was found to help players identify real-world disinformation after its release in February 2018.

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Thousands of people spent 15 minutes completing the game, with many allowing their data to be used for the study, published in the journal Palgrave Communications yesterday (June 25).

The game has been heralded as a ‘vaccine’ for fake news; it worked by allowing players to manipulate news and social media, thus stoking anger and fear within the simulation.

They could do this by deploying Twitter bots, photo-shopping ‘evidence,’ and inciting conspiracy theories to attract followers – all while maintaining a ‘credibility score’ for persuasiveness.

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Dr Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, said:

Research suggests that fake news spreads faster and deeper than the truth, so combatting disinformation after-the-fact can be like fighting a losing battle.

We wanted to see if we could pre-emptively debunk, or ‘pre-bunk’, fake news by exposing people to a weak dose of the methods used to create and spread disinformation, so they have a better understanding of how they might be deceived.

This is a version of what psychologists call ‘inoculation theory’, with our game working like a psychological vaccination.

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Players were asked to rate the reliability of a number of different headlines and tweets both before and after gameplay, to gauge the effects of the game. Each player was randomly allocated a mixture of real (control) and fake (treatment) news.

The study found the perceived reliability of fake news before playing the game had reduced by an average of 21 per cent after completing it. However, the game made zero difference to how users ranked real news.

Researchers also found that those who registered as ‘most susceptible’ to fake news headlines at the beginning of the game benefited most from this.

Van der Linden added:

We find that just fifteen minutes of gameplay has a moderate effect, but a practically meaningful one when scaled across thousands of people worldwide, if we think in terms of building societal resistance to fake news.


There are six ‘badges’ to earn in the game, each reflecting a common strategy used by purveyors of fake news: impersonation; conspiracy; polarisation; discrediting sources; trolling; and emotionally provocative content.

Jon Roozenbeek, study co-author also from Cambridge University, said:

We are shifting the target from ideas to tactics. By doing this, we are hoping to create what you might call a general ‘vaccine’ against fake news, rather than trying to counter each specific conspiracy or falsehood.

The game has now attracted much attention, with the team now working with the UK Foreign Office to translate the game into nine different languages.

WhatsApp have also commissioned the researchers to create a new game for the messaging platform, while a ‘junior version’ of the game – for children aged 8-10 – has also been created.

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