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Game ‘pre-bunks’ COVID-19 conspiracies as part of UK’s fight against fake news

Game 'pre-bunks' COVID-19 conspiracies as part of UK's fight against fake news
Go Viral! visuals Credit: Cambridge/UK Cabinet Office

A new online game that puts players in the shoes of a purveyor of fake pandemic news is the latest tactic in efforts to tackle the deluge of coronavirus misinformation costing lives across the world.


The Go Viral! game has been developed by the University of Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Lab in collaboration with the UK Cabinet Office and media collective DROG.

It builds on research from Cambridge psychologists that found by giving people a taste of the techniques used to spread fake news on social media, it increases their ability to identify and disregard misinformation in the future.

Go Viral! is launched on the heels of a new study from the team behind it, just published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. The latest findings show that a single play of a similar game can reduce susceptibility to false information for at least three months.

“Fake news can travel faster and lodge itself deeper than the truth,” said Dr. Sander van der Linden, who leads the project and the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge.

“Fact-checking is vital, but it comes too late and lies have already spread like the virus. We are aiming to pre-emptively debunk, or pre-bunk, misinformation by exposing people to a mild dose of the methods used to disseminate fake news. It’s what social psychologists call ‘inoculation theory’.”

The new 5-7 minute game introduces players to the basics of online manipulation in the era of coronavirus. It acts as a simple guide to common techniques: using emotionally charged language to stoke outrage and fear, deploying fake experts to sow doubt, and mining conspiracies for social media Likes.

“By using a simulated environment to show people how misinformation is produced, we can demystify it,” said Dr. Jon Roozenbeek, co-developer of Go Viral! and researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Psychology. “The game empowers people with the tools they need to discern fact from fiction.”

Go Viral! is based on a pre-COVID iteration, Bad News, which has been played over a million times since its 2018 launch. Cambridge researchers developed and tested Bad News, and found that just one play reduced perceived reliability of fake news by an average of 21% compared to a control group.

The research team, including DROG and designers Gusmanson (who also worked on Go Viral!), argue that this neutralising effect can contribute to a societal resistance to fake news when played by many thousands of people.

These initial results were confirmed in an even more rigorous replication study published in January this year. “Our pre-bunk game not only improved people’s ability to spot fake news but also their confidence in judging what is true or false,” said Melisa Basol, a Cambridge Gates Scholar who led the study.

“This confidence boost only occurred for those who got better at accurately identifying misinformation. By exposing people to the tactics behind fake news we can help create a general ‘inoculation’, rather than trying to counter each specific falsehood.”

Intervention