Science

Go Viral !, disinformation unraveled in an online game


First, play on emotion to attract attention. Then quote fake experts. Finally denounce a conspiracy. It is the process of disinformation as dissected by researchers in the decision-making laboratory at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom). Not in an essay, a research article or any conference, but in an online game, Go Viral! (available in English and French).

Diffusion speed and filter bubble

Indeed, the strength of fake news today lies in the speed of its spread through social networks. A phenomenon combined with the effect of content personalization algorithms, which lock Internet users into a “filter bubble”, that is to say a homogeneous community of people sharing the same ideas and the same interests, the same anger, the same fights and always exchanging the same type of information. For this reason, it is very unproductive to try to counter “fake news” with verified facts that contradict them. They always arrive too late and are not very visible and not shared.

The Go Viral game! therefore takes the party of placing the Internet user on the wrong side of the barrier: in the shoes of a maker and broadcaster of false news, in this case devoted to the Covid-19 pandemic. In just over five minutes, all the “stuff” is on display. Like playing on strong emotions, delivering shocking facts, writing key words in capitals. Or to support his remarks with a reference to a specialist by citing his establishment.

No more toilet paper because of “Big pharma”

The player can test several versions of a message before publishing it (fictitiously) to see the effect. The screen displays a credibility gauge and a number of likes (both are at 0 at the start of the game). The experiment goes as far as the denunciation of a pseudo-conspiracy, involving the proverbial “big pharma” (responsible for a shortage of toilet paper, here) and the censorship of a scientist who would have implicated them. With sharing of a demonstration video in support.

The game is quite basic and is above all educational (we are more in the “serious game” register). But it is still fun enough and sufficient to understand, step by step, the biased logic of disinformation. For the good reason that we contribute to it ourselves. It is even quite confusing to note how quickly one acquires the “good” reflexes.

By carrying out several studies, the last of which in June 2020 in Journal of Experimental psychology applied, on the effect of this type of game (the same laboratory put the Bad News game online in February 2018), the researchers observed, by comparing with control groups, that a single session leads to a net loss of credibility of “fake news”. And this for three months. This is why after two months, it is good to redo a small part. A bit like renewing a drug against a virus. That of lies and false news, so quick to spread and contaminate.

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