Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news
University of Cambridge
  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
  • The study sample included 15,000 players.
  • The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.


A large new University of Cambridge study proves that it's possible to teach regular people to spot fake news. By analyzing the responses of 15,000 participants, the researchers found that "psychological resistance" to fake news could be increased by having the subjects play an online game.

In the browser game, called Bad News, launched in February 2018, players become propaganda producers. They are allowed to manipulate the news and social media, invoking anger and fear. Tactics at their disposal include twitter bots, conspiracy theories, impersonation and photoshopped evidence. Still, while they use such Machiavellian approaches to attract followers, the players must maintain a "credibility score" to continue to be persuasive.

Dr. Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, explained that the task before the researchers was not easy, since fake news spreads very fast and can go "deeper than the truth." That makes it harder and harder to stand up to misinformation.

"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," shared the scientist.

He called their game "a psychological vaccination." This work builds on the so-called "inoculation theory," which maintains that beliefs can be guarded against influence the same way you can protect a body against diseases – by being exposed to smaller doses of them over time to build up immunity.

To see how well the participants were inoculated against fake news, they were told to rate how trustworthy various tweets and headlines were. They had to do this before and after playing the game for at least 15 minutes.

The researchers discovered that the subjects were eventually able to pick out fake news better, finding them 21% less reliable after the game. Playing made no difference in how they ranked real news.

Not only that, the scientists saw that those who were most vulnerable to fake news prior to the game were inoculated the strongest.

While they perceive that those who actually played the game were generally younger, male, liberal and educated, the scientists built in a nonpartisan mechanism into the game to avoid bias. The subjects were able to choose fake news either from the left or the right.

Dr. Linden expressed excitement at using such methods across whole populations to build "societal resistance to fake news".

His colleague and the study's co-author Jon Roozenbeek, also of Cambridge University, saw the benefits of their investigation in uncovering pro-active measures that could be taken to fight against bad information. He hoped to use such tactics to create "a general 'vaccine' against fake news."

The game, created by the scientists, in conjunction with the Dutch media collective DROG as well as the design agency Gusmanson, has been translated into nine different languages. It is also being developed for WhatsApp and has a "junior version" for children aged 8-10. The researchers hope to use that version to develop early media literacy.

Check out the study published in the journal Palgrave Communications.

Play the game Bad News here.

Preserving truth: How to confront and correct fake news

None

What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Keep reading Show less

Science confirms: Earth has more than one 'moon'

Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.

J. Sliz-Balogh, A. Barta and G. Horvath
Surprising Science
  • Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
  • These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
  • The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
Keep reading Show less

Millennials reconsidering finances and future under COVID-19

A new survey found that 27 percent of millennials are saving more money due to the pandemic, but most can't stay within their budgets.

Personal Growth
  • Millennials have been labeled the "unluckiest generation in U.S. history" after the one-two financial punch of the Great Recession and the pandemic shutdowns.
  • A recent survey found that about a third of millennials felt financially unprepared for the pandemic and have begun saving.
  • To achieve financial freedom, millennials will need to take control of their finances and reinterpret their relationship with the economy.
  • Keep reading Show less

    6 easy ways to transition to a plant-based diet

    Your health and the health of the planet are not indistinguishable.

    Credit: sonyakamoz / Adobe Stock
    Personal Growth
    • Transitioning to a plant-based diet could help reduce obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
    • Humans are destroying entire ecosystems to perpetuate destructive food habits.
    • Understanding how to properly transition to a plant-based diet is important for success.
    Keep reading Show less
    Culture & Religion

    Karma doesn't work how most people think it does

    Eastern traditions have complex views on how karma affects your life.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast