The government says there isn’t a whole lot it can do to stop the spread of fake news.
Yet according to new research from the University of Cambridge, federal intervention might not be the only way to stem the flow of misinformation. The answer could lie in getting more people to learn to think like a Russian troll.
In a research paper released Monday, University of Cambridge researchers Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden make the case that mimicking Russian trolls through an interactive online game can make readers better at spotting and avoiding fake news.
“Results provide some preliminary evidence that playing the fake news game reduced the perceived reliability and persuasiveness of fake news articles,” the researchers state in their findings.
“Overall, these findings suggest that educational games may be a promising vehicle to inoculate the public against fake news.”
One way to think of the idea is similar to how vaccines work: an individual gets a shot of a weakened version of a microbe; the body learns to recognize and prevent a full-blown infection when it encounters the real thing.
The question of how to confront the spread of fake news has dominated political discussions ever since national security experts raised the prospect that Russia had actively interfered in the 2016 U.S. election in an attempt to tilt the odds in favour of now-President Donald Trump.
Several wide-reaching investigations into that allegation have already been launched and charges have been laid against former senior members of the Trump campaign team over alleged ties to Russia. As well, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups last week for allegedly interfering with the election.
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European allies like Germany and France held their own elections in the months that followed and also reported attempts to influence the outcomes and skew voter perceptions in favour of far-right nationalist candidates who were less critical of Russia than their opponents.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reportedly told senior leadership at Facebook either to get a handle on fake news being spread through its platform or face much tougher federal regulation.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould has said Canadians should start thinking critically about what attempts to interfere with the 2019 federal election could look like, and to think critically about what information they consume.
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Federal briefing notes published earlier this week by the Canadian Press also flagged major concerns that the federal government will not be able to do much to stop the flow of fake news and pointed instead to the need for social media platforms to partner with media literacy organizations as part of the solution.
In a statement to Global News, Gould said tools like the game created by the University of Cambridge researchers are going to be key in helping people understand the way the threat works — and how they can prevent it.
“I applaud innovative efforts such as this one to improve citizens’ understanding of media literacy and raise awareness of attempts to interfere in our democracy and elections through foreign-led disinformation campaigns,” she said.
“Tabletop exercises, gamification, and scenario-based learning are widely-used education tools in schools, the military, and workplace training, and I encourage social media companies and media literacy organizations to use these tools – and any others they have available – as they work to increase Canadians’ media and civic literacy as a way to inoculate our population against disinformation campaigns.”
MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based digital literacy organization, also praised the use of such games as an educational tool but cautioned that it could be a challenge to get people who are inclined to believe the viewpoints being propagated by hostile actors like Russian trolls to take the games seriously.
“Obviously we at MediaSmarts think that games are a terrific way of teaching important digital and media literacy topics,” said Matthew Johnson, director of education, noting that the games offered by the organization are some of their most popular resources.
While he praised the wide base of research used to develop the game and its easy use in classrooms for students, he also warned that if some users feel it does not treat their opinions fairly, it could alienate them from taking part.
“I do wonder a bit about the politicized nature of some of the topics in the game: by seeming to take sides politically, it could have the effect of alienating players who hold opposite views rather than making them more generally skeptical.”
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