The vaccine for fake news? More fake news.
In the aftermath of the staggering revelations of how Cambridge Analytica has used millions of Facebook profiles to undermine democracies around the world, finding a cure against fake news feels more than ever necessary. The solution, however, does not include creating certificates that validate reliable news sources. It requires understanding the mechanics behind fake news, how and why they work so well. What if the best antidote was to become a news troll oneself?
In the run-up to the Grand Barouf du Numérique, we talked to Ruurd Oosterwoud, Founder of DROG, an organisation that created a game where participants compete to create the most viral fake stories. He explains how by teaching the mechanisms and tricks that make some false stories spread around the world, people can become more critical regarding the information they consume and share.
Finding a ‘cure’ for fake news feels ever more urgent. even the BBC has recently announced their own initiative. how is your game where children experiment with producing and distributing fake news different from other initiatives?
The BBC, like many journalistic organisations, often try to educate people on what journalism should be, what are the ethics codes and how one should do it. I think a major difference is that we actually don’t tell anything regarding how journalism should be done, just show you how you shouldn’t do it.
We let people play the “bad guy”, which makes them engage so much more with the topic and to personally test their ethical rules and boundaries. They feel they are doing something that is not ok, but by doing it, they actually realise how can people be manipulated. Instead of only looking for the right information, people start recognising when they are reading the wrong information.
What has been your strategy to share the game so far?
Our first focus has been through schools. We created an educational portal that can be used and accessed by any teacher around the world. We also run some fake news factory workshops at schools where we teach children all the techniques and let them create their fake news and spread them. They can put in all the creativity they want, and then we check how many people they have managed to fool. It has been really popular so far, and all the educators and teachers love the approach and always want to join the game.
What has been your most successful fake news so far?
I think it was an article on Bitcoin that worked really well, it had around 90% of the traffic of the fake news site of that day. The headline was something like “China will ban all cryptocurrencies today”. There was another one from a group of students in a small town in The Netherlands, they claimed that due to a fire, six bars were closing permanently in the city centre.
I think the best disinformation is based on some real information.
However, we don’t just let the fake stories circulate uncontrolled. Every reader that clicks on the article will get a pop-up after 5 seconds telling them they have been fooled and that the article is fake. We tell them that it is all part of an experiment, and if they want to play the game, they can share the article to keep raising awareness.
We think the game is also helping people who click on those stories and then realise they have been fooled. We hope they’ll start questioning things eventually too.
Thinking of the recent school shooting in florida and reports that it occurred due to “lack of sufficient armed personnel, including teachers and security guards”, and considering it as an example of semi-fake news, how would you define the essential difference between fake and real news in these less evident cases?
I think the best disinformation is based on some real information. We also see false amplification as an even better way to mislead people. If you take a real message from someone –and nowadays you can find almost any type of message on social media– and you amplify it in such way that the voice seems to be part of a majority, people are much more likely to be convinced by the message.
(…)negativity always has a bigger impact than a positive message
When we spread fake news in class, students are a perfect army of trolls that intentionally mislead their audience. But in the case you mention, you have another type of group having much more impact, yet not intentionally misleading everyone. It is because they are ideologically convinced that what they read is true, that they will amplify the message.
The hard part here is that you can’t really get angry at those people because they are actually the biggest victims in this situation, because they believe in this information and share it ever more enthusiastically.
What do you think makes people believe in fake news?
I think in many ways negativity always has a bigger impact than a positive message. Playing into people’s emotions makes the content matter much less. If you can create negative emotional responses in audiences, people will react to the content much faster and more easily.
(…) you can slowly make people believe in your messages if you’re always negative, emotional and help them reinforce their existing prejudices and beliefs.
If you spread multiple emotionally charged messages in a flow, people don’t have to believe one message in particular, but they will get influenced by the constant pervasiveness of the messages around them. Take “Migrants are killing our children” as an example. People don’t have to believe every article that they read, but they will get this feeling that there is something completely wrong in their country, and that it has to do with migrants. So you can slowly make people believe in your messages if you’re always negative, emotional and help them reinforce their existing prejudices and beliefs.
Have you created positive fake news?
Some students try but I always tell them is not a good idea because the messages won’t work unless they include some anger, fear or the idea that something is broken and there is someone to blame. And they need to realise that this is how the system works, between a positive and a negative news the difference is between 30 vs 300 clicks.
When you analyse major positive social events happening on social media, like the Arab Spring or the recent #Metoo movement, you can observe that one year later approximately there is going to be a counter-reaction that is negative, it uses the same techniques and is way more effective.
Have you done some impact studies?
Yes, we are working on this together with Cambridge University. In June 2016 I had the idea and created the practical product, and at the same time the researcher I’m working with had the same idea and created the theoretical background behind it, and we found each other halfway. Now the researchers use our game as a complete data production set to test their inoculation theory.
We have done a sample analysis, and we can already see significant results in the recognition of conspiracy theories and other techniques that are used in the game. There is going to be a scientific paper within the next six months to present our results and there is also one available with the results of our pilot study. There have been 115,000 players of the game so far, and if we have vaccinated all those people, even in a small way, I think that is already a fantastic result.
What is really amazing, and ultimately powerful is that by ridiculing those ideas, whether these are conspiracy theories or fake news, they lose their power.
What is the political position and ethos of organisations like yours? have you received any backlash from extremist groups?
We have had one negative email so far, and I believe we haven’t had any backlash because we chose to avoid any political stands. We can do this because we are not pointing at real examples in the real world. Because in our game you play the bad guy, we don’t mind what side you chose, you just need to apply the techniques. In the game, you can choose either a right-wing or left-wing path; in the end is all about polarising, so you really only have to be ‘anti-middle’.
Of course, we do have our personal beliefs and ideas, but ultimately, I don’t think sides really matter, because polarisation is a technique used in disinformation. We have some fake accounts that we use to penetrate the echo chambers of conspiracy sites. What you see there are right-wing and left-wing people living in harmony together with just one central core shared belief, which is the complete distrust in all institutions and governments. So even there the right-left wing divide is fake.
What are the plans for your organisation in the coming future?
We want to keep expanding our educational portal and make it available for more students, but we don’t want to focus on school programs alone. I think educating people by creating all these “vaccines” is what we are really good at, and we want to keep growing through international partnerships. We would also like to do more activities with civil society, for example, one of my colleagues in Cambridge organises a debate club. In the last session, the idea was to defend conspiracy theories, which lead to a fantastic evening where people tried to defend that the Earth is flat and that Finland doesn’t exist. What is really amazing, and ultimately powerful is that by ridiculing those ideas, whether these are conspiracy theories or fake news, they lose their power. I think the important part is also to bring a bit of fun into the discussion instead of only fear.
We are currently working on translating all our content into English and share all the activities that we do. We are very ambitious in what we are trying to achieve and how far we want to go. So if there is anyone interested in our ideas, we are also looking for more international partnerships to cooperate and keep expanding.
We need to think outside the box. What governments keep doing is trying to find solutions within the old structures, which will never work because we are not dealing with an old structure. Disinformation is very innovative, so we can’t simply solve it by fact-checking. Even in countries with great journalism, fake news keep circulating, so even if it’s important to have good journalism, it is not the solution to the problem.
Want to hear more on fake news or talk directly to Ruurd Oosterwoud? Check out the Grand Barouf du Numérique this March 22nd-23rd at Lille.