When the ‘Leader of the Free World’ (still, just) can dismiss any information, which does not suit his agenda, as ‘fake news’, we could perhaps be forgiven for feeling wearied, disillusioned and even impotent in the face of such an onslaught against evidence-based thinking and all that education supposedly strives for. This feeling of being dispirited and confused about reality is exacerbated by the attitudes of the current UK government. In a valiant attempt to appear in control, their statements about the necessity of adhering to overarching rules and high principles are sadly at odds with their actions, which allow those who break the rules and undermine the principles to escape any consequences and be cited as models of integrity.
At the same time as many people are hoping for the roll-out of an effective vaccine against Covid-19 and a resumption of at least some of our freedoms, there is fear on the part of the health authorities not that demand will overwhelm supply, but that uptake may be insufficient to protect the population. What fears (other than genuine individual health concerns) might hold them back? How can it be that a significant minority will campaign for the ‘freedom’ not to protect others by mask wearing and social distancing, yet deny themselves the freedom of protection against disease?
And so we come back to our old false friend: fake news. Is it possible to get protection from the ravages of this particular plague which came into existence before coronavirus and may keep us in thrall for longer? Research by the Social Decision-Making Lab in the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge may hold a fascinating answer. If people are enabled to see for themselves how fake news gets traction on social media, they can increase their ability to identify and disregard misinformation. The results of experiments based on a game called ‘Bad News’ developed by the Cambridge team are described in a recently published paper. They indicate that playing the game could inoculate players against the effects of misinformation in comparison to control groups, and that under some circumstances the effect remained stable for three months.
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Now, using the principles of ‘Bad News’, the team has developed ‘Go Viral!’, a game that puts you in the shoes of a purveyor of false information. It only takes about five minutes to play, so before reading further, try it yourself! See? Or as your Game Guide might have said: “Awesome!”
Getting inoculated can be painless and easy, and unlike the wait for a Covid-19 vaccine, you can do it now. “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.”
Like the virus, fake news can kill, so while the game may be fun, the ‘cure’ for misinformation is actually a pretty serious safety measure.