The best medicine against online disinformation is an informed society that’s thinking critically. The problem is there are no shortcuts to universal education.
Enter Finnish Public Broadcasting Company, Yle, which is hoping to harness the engagement power of gamification to accelerate awareness and understanding of troll tactics and help more people spot malicious internet fakes. It has put together an online game, called Troll Factory, that lets you play at being, well, a hateful troll. Literally.
The game begins with a trigger warning that it uses “authentic social media content” that viewers may find disturbing. If you continue to play you’ll see examples of Islamophobic slogans and memes that have actually been spread on social media. So the trigger warning is definitely merited.
The game itself takes the form of a messaging app style conversation on a virtual smartphone in which you are tasked by the troll factory boss to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment. You do this by making choices about which messages to post online and the methods used to amplify distribution.
Online disinformation tactics intended to polarize public discourse which are depicted in the game include the seeding of conspiracy theory memes on social media; the exploitation of real news events to spread fake claims; microtargeting of hateful content at different demographics and platforms; and the use of paid bots to amplify propaganda so that hateful views appear more widely held than they really are.
After completing an inaugural week’s work in the troll factory, the game displays a rating and shows how many shares and follows your dis-ops garnered. This is followed by contextual information on the influencing methods demonstrated — putting the activity you’ve just participated in into wider context.
Yle, which is a not-for-profit public service broadcaster with a remit to educate and inform, released a Finnish version of the troll factory game back in May but decided to follow up with this international version (in English) after the game got such a strong local reception, including being picked up by people in natsec and education to use as an educational resource, according to Jarno Koponen, head of AI & personalization, at Yle Uutiset News Lab.
“The initial response in Finland was so encouraging: Something like this is needed,” he told us. “Something that makes information operations tangible and visible. We believe that it’s our duty as a public broadcasting company to promote methods, in Finland and abroad, that help citizen’s to better understand our everyday digital environments from their own standing point.
“We want simultaneously to collect more feedback on what’s working in the game-like storytelling, in order to use those findings to develop better products in the future, and to share those finding with for example with other public broadcasting companies in the world.”
Koponen said the team also wanted to test a specific hypotheses about the power of games to debunk junk — after a recent Cambridge University study showed gamified methods work in fighting fake news.
“Based on our data, news articles or more traditional social media analysis doesn’t reach and thus have effect on people en masse,” he said, when asked why Yle chose a game wrapper for its anti-disinformation message, rather than a more traditional educational format such as a documentary film.
“Social media is in your pocket and goes wherever you go. The means to educate you about social media need to be in your pocket too. Especially young people are a hard audience to reach. Thus we need to actively develop new storytelling methods to provide for them nonpartisan information and insight about the world around us. We experimented with different forms from data visualisations to interactive simulations and found game-like experience being the most effectual and engaging.”
“We’ve so far collected direct feedback from our users in social media (from Twitter to Reddit) and on our website,” he added. “Some of the descriptive comments were: ‘This is horrible, but thanks for making us aware of this’ or ‘Scary but illuminating’. It was picked up in social media especially by people and organisations working with younger people from teachers to public libraries, as well as information security and national security professionals.”
Asked whether he thinks social media platforms should be doing more to clear bots and inauthentic content off their platforms, Koponen called for increased transparency from platforms but added that media literacy remains key to influencing how tech giants behave too.
“We believe that more transparency is needed on behalf of the social media platforms. However, the more aware the citizen is, the better equipped she’s to decide on her own behalf what works and what doesn’t. We believe that promoting media literacy is key in having meaningful impact on the practices and policies of social media platforms.”