Collision Detection

Countering COVID-19 Disinformation in Five Minutes or Less with Go Viral!

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #134. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Where videogames meet real life…

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I get a lot of weird email forwards from older right-wing relatives who are shocked by everything they see on the Internet because they didn’t grow up with computers. As a case in point, an aunt sent me a YouTube video from someone claiming to have bought a voting machine in order to hack it, implying that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. It turned out to be a clip from the 2006 HBO documentary Hacking Democracy, and while the content of the video itself was factual, the context around it in the email was meant to be misleading. I doubt my aunt understood the video wasn’t new.

For better or worse, viral disinformation – which often targets those less tech and media savvy than, say, an Unwinnable reader – is so common that it’s hardly noteworthy. Since the start of the pandemic though, I’ve seen more people in their 20s and 30s fooled by false propaganda too, and it’s no longer just the usual suspects filling my feeds with cursed content. I’m speaking anecdotally, but I have a feeling I’m not alone.

It’s not necessarily their fault that separating fact from fiction on the Internet has gotten harder, either. Social media is more overloaded with bad actors than ever and people don’t feel like they know what they can trust. So, when a friend of mine claimed antifa bussed rioters into our town this past summer to disrupt a peaceful protest based on a doctored video (like many similar videos and stories that cropped up in cities across the United States after George Floyd’s murder), I almost couldn’t blame them. The clip looked legit enough at first and, before local news media could debunk it that night, the damage had been done. Facebook and YouTube had beaten our local NBC affiliate.

Trust in media is dead. And in the middle of a global pandemic, that’s bad news.

Trust in media is dead. And in the middle of a global pandemic, that’s bad news.

The core problem is a lack of media literacy combined with increasingly aggressive efforts from all manner of organizations – governments, activists, who even knows anymore – to pollute the information ecosystem we rely on to maintain public trust and social order. The problem is everywhere too, thanks to the decline of the news industry and the rise of social networks creating a perfect environment for propaganda to drown out actual news. And in a time when a lethal pandemic is tearing through the planet, the consequences have been fatal.

Solutions to this problem won’t come easily nor in time; back in September, 49% of Americans said they wouldn’t get a COVID-19 vaccine, due in no small part to persistent scaremongering and deception on behalf of extreme right-wing propaganda.

Combating disinformation like this in the future will not be easy. But the Social Decision Making Lab at the University of Cambridge may have built a videogame that could play a small part in pointing us in the right direction. The basic browser-based game titled Go Viral! (created in collaboration with counter-disinformation organization DROG, development studio Gusmanson, and the UK Cabinet Office), helps players understand how disinformation works by asking them to help spread it. As the follow-up to 2018’s Bad News, which similarly aimed to educate players on how to spot fake news, it’s an accessible yet effective social impact game that takes about five minutes to complete.

The basic mechanics underpinning Go Viral! seem simple enough beneath the surface of its illustrated “indie” aesthetic. It starts by presenting the player with an optional series of hypothetical social media posts that need to be scored on a seven-point scale for how manipulative they appear. While this step can be skipped, the anonymized results are aggregated for research purposes, and you’ll be asked the same questions again after completing the game so you can see if your attitudes toward anything you’ve seen has changed. They’re worth answering to help the cause and to get the full experience.

Next, players are put in the shoes of a manipulator (essentially an amateur amplifier of disinformation), tasked with creating and sharing emotionally charged and deliberately deceptive social media posts with the goal of becoming a notorious negative influencer. After choosing from one of four avatars, you’re then given several successive social media posts to either post or skip, with the goal of identifying messages that are A) false and B) written to scare people. The more incendiary your posts, the more likes you’ll get and the more credibility you earn.

As the game continues, you’re presented with different scenarios as you climb the ladder of insidious social influence, advancing from a relative nobody to a full-fledged fake expert. In order to achieve that dubious distinction, you’ll need to choose the worst and most self-serving actions possible. See something from an obvious huckster calling COVID-19 fatalities a myth? Share it. Someone posted a level-headed claim that a new COVID-19 vaccine is safe? Discredit it. The more outrage you can incite, the better.

At the end, you’re asked to share the game with other people, turning its title from an accurate descriptor to a clever promotional directive. And while the game’s intents and aspirations may not be world-changing, its execution both as a means of gathering research data and as an inviting educational tool is intriguing. The idea to meet people where they are with something more inviting than a dry article about fake news, in a format that’s more interesting than a condescending lecture, is smart. It shows as much as it tells in a way that may not feel groundbreaking to anyone familiar with games or technology, but could be genuinely helpful, especially for those who aren’t news nerds.

Go Viral! understands not everyone knows what a filter bubble is, even if all of us know how to build one. The game does not counterproductively shame ignorance the way online discourse sometimes can either. Sure, it’s a small project, and one that I didn’t expect much from after stumbling upon it, yet the ideas underpinning its design and approach to educational entertainment deserve further exploration. If nothing else, it shows how entertainment can offer an effective counterpunch to disinformation – about COVID-19 and in general – and games may have a small place among other solutions.

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Ben Sailer is a writer based out of Fargo, ND, where he survives the cold with his wife and dog. His writing also regularly appears in New Noise Magazine.

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